Violent Intolerance in Buddhist Burma (Myanmar)


The prevalent image of Buddhists as passive, nonviolent people is very largely true. However, there are a few vivid counterexamples. Burma (Myanmar) is at least 90 percent Buddhist, and yet it has had a very long, bloody past of conflict with its neighbors as well as internally. Warfare and internal strife have characterized Burmese history since around A.D. 1300. That's over 700 years! Since 1962, when a military junta seized power, Burma has been ruled by one of the most oppressive, violent governments in the world.[1] Under its present government, it was ranked as the fourteenth worst country[2] in terms of human rights violations.[3]

When a majority of people in a country share a common belief, followers of contrasting minority religions may be treated poorly or harshly. Antagonisms can escalate into mob violence. Such is the case in Burma.

Reuters recently reported that following a dispute between a Buddhist woman selling gasoline and a Muslim man, the man poured it over her and set her on fire. The police detained the man, and a Buddhist mob demanded that he be handed over to them. When the police refused, two days of widespread violence broke out resulting in a mosque, a school, and Muslim homes and shops being torched. Groups of young men and boys roamed through the city on motorcycles singing nationalist songs. One person was killed and four were injured in the mob violence, and the Muslim populace has vacated the area. "In other regions, such as Rakhine State where hundreds were killed last year, and in the central city of Meikhtila where at least 44 people died in March, there have been signs of ethnic cleansing, and of impunity for those inciting it."[4]

When a Christian pastor or leader becomes embroiled in a scandal, their hypocrisy is often highlighted by anti-Christian media.[5] When a Buddhist fails to live righteously, however, it usually takes place with little notice and little or no media coverage. When Buddhist scandals are exposed, it is assumed that the individual is at fault, and not that Buddhism is somehow inadequate. One exception to this is Patrick French, author of Tibet, Tibet, who summarized his disillusionment with Buddhism this way:
    As I studied Buddhism more closely, some of the failings began to show, and I noticed the schisms, bigots, frauds, hypocrites and predators that you will find in any ecclesiastical system. I was put off too by the tone of many of the foreign converts, who thought they could strip the tradition of its tough ethical underpinnings. They were implausible, with their showy accoutrements of conversion, their beads and bracelets, their devotion to instant spiritual empowerment, their reliance on airport-hopping teachers who were not always taken seriously by Tibetans. Then there were the prominent blunders: the teacher and promoter Sogyal Rinpoche, served with a lawsuit for seducing a student; and the Nyingmapa monk Penor Rinpocke who, in the most dubious circumstances, identified the high-kicking Hollywood action hero Steven Seagal (Marked for Death, Hard to Kill) as a reincarnation of the seventeenth-century master Chungdrag Dorje. [6]

Perhaps out of sympathy for oppressed Tibet, or out of distaste for Christianity and a desire to promote alternatives to it, or all of the above, with few exceptions the media have only projected attractive images of Buddhists. However, a February 2011 article in the Los Angeles Times noted that:
    Tibetan Buddhism's image of placid chanting and sublime meditation belies a more edgy history, analysts say, replete with religious figures attacking each other and alliances between monasteries and brutal warlords. . . .

    "We in the West tend to project all our fantasies about mystical spiritualism onto Tibetan Buddhism," said Erik Curren, author of "Buddha's Not Smiling: Uncovering Corruption at the Heart of Tibetan Buddhism Today." It's really like a civil war. There's lots of acrimony." . . .

    Some analysts said some Westerners have a rosy-eyed view of Tibetan Buddhism, perhaps a reflection of their disillusionment with Western religions. . . .

    "Inter-sect conflicts involving physical violence is nothing new," Curren said. "It's just like any religion. It has its share of bad apples, but that doesn't spoil the whole barrel. The sooner Westerners realize that, the better."[7]

In spite of the widespread Buddhist emphasis on tolerance of those with other beliefs, there are a number of countries with a Buddhist majority where Christians claim they are being actively and harshly persecuted by Buddhists.[8] Among them are Burma,[9] Tibet,[10] Bhutan,[11] Sri Lanka,[12] and Vietnam[13].

In Burma, religious unrest and ethnic hatred are not new, and Buddhists are not immune to committing acts of retaliation or mob violence.


[1] "History of Burma," Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Burma, retrieved November 4, 2010.

[2] "The Observer Human Rights Index," Guardian.co.uk, www.guardian.co.uk/rightsindex/0,,201749,00.html, retrieved November 4, 2010.

[3] "Myanmar (Burma) Human Rights," Amnesty International, www.amnestyusa.org/all-countries/myanmar-burma/page.do?id=1011205, retrieved November 4, 2010.

[4] "Buddhist mobs attack Muslim homes in Myanmar, One Dead," Reuters, news.yahoo.com/buddhist-mobs-attack-muslim-homes-second-day-myanmar-120043947.html, retrieved May 30, 2013.

[5] "Christian Evangelist Scandals," Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_evangelist_scandals, retrieved February 14, 2011.

[6] Patrick French, Tibet, Tibet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 26–27.

[7] Mark Magnier, "A Tempest in Tibetan Temples," Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2011, www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-tibet-buddhist-tension-20110208,0,735876.story, retrieved February 9, 2011.

[8] See clickable map at "Restricted Nations," Voice of the Martyrs, www.persecution.com/public/restrictednations.aspx?clickfrom=bWFpbl9tZW51, retrieved July 28, 2010.

[9] Burma is 83 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. According to Voice of the Martyrs (VOM),
    The government of Burma continues to discourage, harass and use other, more severe, forms of persecution on any group it considers harmful to the state. Christianity is high on the list, even though the government claims freedom of religion in Burma. A secret memo titled "Program to destroy the Christian religion in Burma," details instructions on how to drive out Christians. It calls for anyone caught evangelizing to be imprisoned. VOM has received widespread reports of churches being burned, forcible conversion of Christians to Buddhism and Christian children being barred from schools. Ethnic Christians, in particular, are singled out for repression because of the government’s goal to create a uniform society of one language, one ethnicity and one religion.
Source: "Restricted Nations," Voice of the Martyrs, www.persecution.com/public/restrictednations.aspx?clickfrom=bWFpbl9tZW51, (emphasis added).

[10] Tibet is 80 percent Buddhist and 0.2 percent Christian. Voice of the Martyrs reported that
    Most of the persecution against Christians comes from militant Tibetan Buddhists. There may be about 1,000 evangelical and 2,000 Catholic Christians among the five million Tibetans in the world, and there are at least two groups of secret believers in Tibet. . . . Pastor Zhang Zhongxin was given two years of re-education through labor in 2008 for his crimes, one of which was preaching the gospel in Tibet.
Source: "Restricted Nations," Voice of the Martyrs, www.persecution.com/public/restrictednations.aspx?clickfrom=bWFpbl9tZW51, (emphasis added).

[11] Bhutan is 72 percent Buddhist, 23 percent Hindu, and 0.5 percent Christian. According to Voice of the Martyrs:
    Bhutan is one of the most restricted nations in the world for Christians. All public worship and evangelism by non-Buddhists is illegal. Churches are never permitted to evangelize. Christian family members can meet together, but they cannot meet with other Christian families. Importing printed religious material is banned, and only Buddhist religious texts are allowed in the country. Bhutanese Christians face subtle forms of discrimination from their families as well as pressure to reconvert to Buddhism.
Source: "Restricted Nations," Voice of the Martyrs, www.persecution.com/public/restrictednations.aspx?clickfrom=bWFpbl9tZW51, (emphasis added).

[12] Sri Lanka is 72 percent Buddhist, 12 percent Hindu, 8 percent Muslim, and 8 percent Christian. Voice of the Martyrs reports:
    Although the constitution guarantees religious freedom, minority Protestant religions have experienced violent persecution as well as discrimination in employment and education. . . . Much of the persecution comes from local Buddhist groups. . . . Threats to close down churches have prevented some church members from meeting for worship.
Source: "Restricted Nations," Voice of the Martyrs, www.persecution.com/public/restrictednations.aspx?clickfrom=bWFpbl9tZW51, (emphasis added).

[13] Vietnam is 54 percent Buddhist and 8 percent Christian. Voice of the Martyrs says:
    Persecution of Christians is harsh, particularly for unregistered and ethnic minority churches. Many churches have chosen to remain unregistered because of the unreasonable restrictions the government imposes on registered churches and believers. Arbitrary arrests, harassment and fines are common. Many Christians are in prison. Only a few have been released, and many have been forced to renounce their faith. Several ethnic Christians reportedly died after being released from prison or while in police custody because of injuries caused by torture.
Source: "Restricted Nations," Voice of the Martyrs, www.persecution.com/public/restrictednations.aspx?clickfrom=bWFpbl9tZW51.
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