A number of years ago, I had an interesting conversation with a Myanmar monk who serves as a good example of the young and savvy face of Buddhism in the country today. As zealous about politics and technology as he is the tenets of his religion, he is a prolific blogger on political, religious and social issues.
Having corresponded with him for many months, I finally had a chance to meet with him at his monastery, and we discussed Myanmar’s ethnic politics during a tea-fuelled session lasting the better part of a day.
The conversation was going well until I made the mistake of mentioning the word “Rohingya” in the context of giving all of Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities a stake in building the country’s future.
Attempting to correct me, the monk insisted that Islam was a cancer eating away at the fabric of Myanmar’s Buddhist society, as he characterised it, and claimed that the Rohingya were outsiders bent on conquering Myanmar for themselves. As he seemed otherwise rational and knowledgeable, I found his remarks a sad reflection on the state of ethnic relations in Myanmar and how acceptable outright hatred of Muslims had become.
What might be most surprising about this exchange was that it did not occur in Myanmar, but in Sri Lanka in early 2009 at the time of the Sri Lankan government’s vicious final assault on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). While the political and demographic realities of Myanmar and Sri Lanka are very different, there are striking similarities between the ultra-nationalist political culture fostered under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government in Sri Lanka and the xenophobia of virulently anti-Muslim monks in Myanmar.
Cultural diffusion between Sri Lanka and Myanmar has taken place for centuries. At least in part, the recent emergence of ultra-nationalist, anti-Muslim monks on the political scene in Myanmar is the result of this exchange of ideas.
Roughly 300 monks from Myanmar reside in Sri Lanka, the largest such population outside of Myanmar itself, and their presence on the island is far from new. Buddhist practice in Sri Lanka has carried on uninterrupted for longer than anywhere else in the world, but periods of Mahayana influence and repression during the colonial period led to Buddhism’s gradual decline by the early 1800s. In the 19th century, Sri Lankan abbots sought to revive the “pure” Theravada schools of the past, and called on Buddhist schools in Myanmar to provide the requisite ordination.
As in Myanmar, Buddhism in Sri Lanka took on a special significance in the struggle against colonial rule. Institutions such as the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA), founded in 1898, were established to counteract the dominance of Christian and colonial power structures, and Buddhists in Myanmar emulated their Sri Lankan counterparts by establishing a branch of the YMBA in Yangon in 1906.
Radical Sri Lankan monks with close ties to the state have been extremely vocal in recent years. Their calls for ethnic and religious purity in Sri Lanka bolster the government’s militaristic national-security agenda, and divert attention away from Rajapaksa’s systematic dismantling of Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions andconstriction of civil liberties since the end of the civil war in 2009.
While the Sangha in Myanmar have always played a role in politics as antagonists or advisors, its activities have always occurred outside of formal political structures. In Sri Lanka, however, members of the clergy formed the National Heritage Party, or JHU, in 2004; its representatives in Parliament – all monks themselves – became part of the ruling coalition in 2007.
Employing rhetoric that should be familiar to anyone paying attention to Rakhine State nowadays, the monks of the JHU were extremely supportive of Rajapaksa’s efforts to eradicate the LTTE militarily, and have scuttled propositions for limited autonomy in the predominantly Tamil North and East of the country.
While most Myanmar monks would probably vehemently oppose the notion of forming a political party like the JHU to contest elections, a number of blogger monks influenced by their Sri Lankan counterparts have suggested doing precisely that in recent months.
Sri Lanka’s relatively small Muslim population, comprising roughly 10 percent of the population and often caught between both sides during the 25-year-long civil war, has also been singled out for ostracization by nationalist monks and their supporters. Last September, monks and their supporters destroyed a Muslim shrine in the ancient royal capital of Anuradhapura; in April of this year, monks led a 2000-strong mob to chase away worshippers partaking in Friday prayers at a mosque in the central city of Dambulla.
The mainstream media in Sri Lanka routinely repeats the myth that Sri Lanka is a “Buddhist Nation” under threat of Islamisation, and, as the tragedy in Rakhine has unfolded, has come out with pieces expressing solidary with anti-Muslim elements in Myanmar while characterising Myanmar in the same questionable terms.
Sri Lanka’s political culture was changed profoundly by the civil war, and notions of religious and ethnic identity – highly politicised and polarised even before the war – took on a distinctly militant character as the war progressed. It is unfortunate that this vitriol has migrated to Myanmar at such a fragile juncture in history.
President U Thein Sein is walking on a tightrope when it comes to the Rohingya issue. While his most recent statement just before Obama’s visit on November 19th suggested that the government would be willing to properly address the problem of Rohingya statelessness, it was only four short months ago that he suggested the Rohingya be deported en masse as a viable solution to ethnic strife in Rakhine. The Rohingya might be thankful, then, that President U Thein Sein is keen to maintain good relations with the West, whereas Rajapaksa was all too happy to cosy up to China and burn diplomatic bridges as the offensive against the LTTE got underway.
As cultural interaction between Sri Lanka and Myanmarhas long been a two-way street, President U Thein Sein has, perhaps, been presented with a historic opportunity to influence the state of ethnic relations in both countries. As Obama noted in his address in Yangon, diversity has only served to strengthen American society; if Myanmar’s government is serious about political stability, the bête noire of successive military governments, it too must adopt this ethos as its own.
Yet both President U Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi are all too aware that adopting a publically conciliatory tone towards the Rohingya – and Myanmar’s Muslim population in general – would not play well at the monastery or in the court of public opinion.
While it may not be politically expedient in the short term, Myanmar’s leaders need to take decisive action on the Rohingya issue now in order to ensure long term stability, prosperity, and peace – a lesson that their Sri Lankan counterparts would also be wise to learn.
(Alex Bookbinder is a researcher and political analyst based in Southeast Asia.)