Of all religions, Buddhism is most closely identified with non-violence. The first of the five basic principles of Buddhist morality its monks and laity must follow is to abstain from killing living creatures. Dhammapada, which is a collection of the teachings of the Buddha, says: “Hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love, this is an eternal rule.” However, Buddhist extremist groups in Myanmar present a completely contradictory picture. These groups have been killing, assaulting and driving away Muslims who form 10 per cent of the country’s population. Buddhists make 80 per cent of the population and face no threat from the Muslims as they are extremely poor and peaceful. Yet the leader of the most organized Buddhist group, curiously named “969”, Ashin Wirathu – known as the ‘Burmese bin Laden’ – is able to mobilize mobs by stoking fears that the “Muslims want to take over Myanmar.” Most of the Muslims of Myanmar – who are known by their community name as Rohingyas – live in the mountainous state of Rakhine. The Rohingyas are not given full citizenship but only second-class citizenship by Myanmar. They are treated as “stateless” people, and many of them live in penury in refugee camps. The UN Human Rights Council has described Rohingyas as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
Wirathu is a Buddhist monk. He and his fellow monks, who run the 969 Movement, hold that anyone who is not a Buddhist cannot be a true Myanmar nationalist. Their Buddhist supremacist movement today has a large influence among Buddhist masses. The hate and anger spread by them against Muslims has led to mob attacks causing death and injury to Muslims. There have been several riots against Muslims across the country, including Meiktila and Mandalay, where Wirathu’s monastery is situated. Wirathu was accused of fanning the flames through an incendiary Facebook post warning of Muslims “armed to teeth with swords and spears” preparing a jihad against Buddhists. The communal disharmony has reached such a pitch that even a rumour sparks off a riot. Instances are not rare in which Buddhist mobs attacked Muslims on hearing of a rape of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim, when actually no such thing happened. Constant propaganda goes on by Buddhist groups about Muslims “breeding faster” with polygamy, fuelling the phobia among Buddhists that one day Muslims will “occupy our country” and make Myanmar an Islamic state and turn Buddhists into second class citizens. Population growth figures do not suggest any explosion in Muslim numbers, but the phobia receives regular feeding, triggering more and more violence.
Of course, the violent campaigns by Muslim groups in different parts of the world are also contributing to the Islamophobia the Buddhist groups are able to generate using the local situation in which the Buddhists are competing for scarce resources with Muslims and Christians. When a German journalist asked Ashin Wirathu why he was so much against Muslims, he said, “The Muslims are in the minority here, but they are also a threat to us: Charlie Hebdo, 9/11, the cafe in Australia, Syria, Nigeria, Kenya, Boko Haram, IS – just think about it. They want to turn the state of Rakhine into a Bengali republic.” (The Rohingya Muslims are believed to have come from what is now Bangladesh, and hence they are interchangeably called Bengalis.)
The Muslim minority lives totally marginalized and deprived of all human rights and in abject poverty. The state power and political parties in Myanmar lean on the side of the Buddhist extremists for the fear of losing popular support. The end of half a century of military dictatorship in 2011 aroused hope of Myanmar turning into a truly Buddhist country – a land of peace, non-violence, tolerance and inter-religious harmony. However, Thein Sein who took over as president stopped at freeing political prisoners and granting Aung Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy official recognition as an opposition party. For a time, Myanmar looked on track for reform and transition to democracy. However, when waves of violence erupted against Rohingyas beginning the middle of 2012, the ruling establishment played on the majority Buddhist side, extinguishing hopes of a multi-religious polity and identity emerging. Even Suu Kyi, who is likely to contest the next presidency, has not spoken out against the extreme Buddhist groups. She has not intervened to protect the human rights of the Muslims. Much like the extremist groups, her party holds that the Muslims cannot be citizens of Myanmar as they are “immigrants, Bengalis”.
Ironically, the circumstances the Muslims of Myanmar find themselves in might drive them to embrace extremism, thus making the imaginary threat fuelling Buddhist extremism real. Rohingyas are not welcomed in any other country, so they cannot migrate to free themselves from Buddhist persecution. They have no option but to live in Myanmar and a day might come soon when they would organize and arm themselves to resist the majoritarian aggression. That would be the case of the real wolf coming.