QUERY> Burma crisis, Buddhist crisis

Magnus Fiskesjö's picture
Dear colleagues,
I have question: What is the debate within Buddhology about the alleged Buddhist support for ethnic cleansing and genocide in Burma and the recent reports of the expulsion of over half a million people from Myanmar/Burma? As a follow-up, I'd like to ask what debate there has been within Burmese Buddhism, if any?
Over the last month or so, according to reports, over half a million people have been driven out of Burma in a campaign of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, longtime residents of Burma, a campaign organized and led by the country's armed forces, together with local buddhist vigilante squads, burning villages and so on. These actions apparently have widespread support among the country's majority Buddhists and are even encouraged by them, especially by violent extremists among them. The New York Times had an interesting piece this week, claiming that many Buddhists join in an almost genocidal sort of rhetoric [https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/24/world/asia/myanmar-rohingya-ethnic-cleansing.html] -- interestingly propagated through Facebook, the predominant "fake news” platform in the country. It is further reported that the country’s Armed Forces Commander continues to try to justify the campaign by arguing these people do not belong in his country, coinciding with the rhetoric from Buddhists who want to expel or even kill their fellow citizens.
I know there is some literature on violent Buddhists in history, and even on the recent trend of ultranationalist Buddhists turning nasty and violent in several countries, but I am curious, is there any debate among Buddhologists about how Buddhism could be currently and specifically mobilized for horrendous genocidal rhetoric about fellow human beings? To me, the current rhetoric at times sounds a lot like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda. I saw the interview with Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière in Le Monde [http://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2017/10/08/birmanie-voir-les-evenements-comme-un-conflit-religieux-empeche-de-voir-les-choses-telles-qu-elles-sont_5197880_3232.html], but not much else.
And what about the debate that must exist within Burmese Buddhism? For example, I have read that one Buddhist monk in Burma, Wirathu (who reportedly speaks of his fellow countrymen as insects, etc., and who compared himself to Osama Bin Laden), was silenced by the national sangha for a year. Also, I have seen movies such as "Portraits of Diversity" by Kannan Arunasalam (trailer at KannanArunasalam.com) which showed thoughtful, decent Burmese Buddhist abbots respectfully coexisting with imams and priests in their towns and collaborating to quash incoming rumors spread to incite violence. Perhaps these groups, which I see as forces of decency within Buddhism, may now have been overwhelmed by the propaganda, but have they been entirely silenced? Or is there a continuing debate? If so, what do Buddhologists know about it?
Many thanks for any enlightenment.  
Magnus Fiskesjö
Cornell University
PS. There are two upcoming public events at Cornell on the Rohingya crisis: 
October 30, 4:30 pm, Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca NY 14850
—Gayatri Spivak, “The Rohingya conflict in a global context”
November 7, 4:30pm, Rawlings Auditorium, Klarman Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca NY 14850
—Michael Charney, “The Long and Short Term Roots of the Rohingya Crisis: The Eradication of a Myanmar Ethnic Group,” discussion, with Eaint Thiri Thu

Hi Magnus,

Michael Jerryson makes some excellent points over at the Berkley Forum: ‘Buddhist Inspired Genocide: Responding to Religion and the Persecution of Rohingya Muslims.’

Although not on the recent crisis (or the recent part of it), The Journal of Contemporary Asia (2017, 47:3), has several brilliant articles on Buddhist-Muslim tensions in Myanmar.

These might be the best places to start.

Best wishes,


Dr Paul Fuller
Lecturer in Buddhist Studies
School of History, Archaeology and Religion
Cardiff University
John Percival Building
CF10 3EU
Email: paulf@cardiff.ac.uk

Dr Paul Fuller
Darlithydd Astudiaethau Bwdhaidd
Yr Ysgol Hanes, Archaeoleg a Chrefydd
Prifysgol Caerdydd
Adeilad John Percival
CF10 3EU
Ebost: paulf@caerdydd.ac.uk

Dear Magnus,

I am a Burmese Buddhist monk and Buddhologist, at present living abroad. I have a sort of answer to the second part of your question: "what debate there has been within Burmese Buddhism, if any?" about the Rohingya crisis.

Actually, very little. There are several reasons for this complacence (I shall use the term "Burmese" in the following to refer to non-Rohingya natives, including the Burmese majority, of Burma):

1) The Burmese do not really trust the international voice (especially the media) concerning this issue. Why? During the tenure of the previous government, there were several NGOs and INGOs working in the specific area. Many of those organizations chose to support Rohingyas but entirely neglected non-Rohingya natives in the same area, who might be lawful citizens of Burma but whose living conditions are not any better than those of the Rohingyas. That policy (whether right or wrong) has led the local natives to view the international community as biased in favor of the Rohingyas. This view, in turn, has led them to view the present crisis as a sort of international conspiracy, a ploy to blackmail Burma into accepting those stateless people (whom no other country would like to welcome) as citizens.

2) The Burmese do not actually trust the official propaganda either. Whatever information the government gets has come from the military, over which the elected civilian government has no real control. If the military has done terrible things to the Rohingyas, this is not news—because the army has done such terrible things to other ethnic tribes, as well as to the Burmese majority itself, again and again over many years. Yet, why have the Rohingyas alone enjoyed such extensive international attention and compassion? This rather puzzles the Burmese people.

3) The attitude of "non-responsibility." Thanks to the prevailing (2008) constitution, the military is not under the control of the elected civilian government. For the Burmese, the military is not the defender of the people. On the contrary, people believe they must survive or progress despite the military. Given such a circumstance, they cannot take responsibility for whatever mistakes the military has made.

This is even more the case for Buddhist monks. Since the day Burma gained independence from British rule, monks have voluntarily given up the right to vote. The reason? If they exercise the right to vote like lay persons, they must also take moral responsibility for the mistakes of a government they have voted for, and they do not want that responsibility. Therefore, in this case, even if the military was under the full control of the elected government, Buddhist monks would still refuse to take responsibility for whatever mistakes the military has made.

Just food for thought.

Ven. Pandita (Burma)
Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies
University of Kelaniya
Sri Lanka

Readers may find these links of interest:

In a powerful statement, world Buddhist leaders have directly appealed the to the Myanmar Buddhist leaders to take a strong stand against hate speech and ethnic cleansing in the country. Signed by over 160 Buddhist teachers and community leaders, also call on the government and military of Myanmar, including State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, to apply their full resources in support of peace and for the protection of vulnerable communities of all religions and ethnicities. According to the statement: "We are greatly disturbed by what many in the world see as slander and distortion of the Buddha’s teachings. In the Dhamma there is no justification for hatred and violence.” The full statement, together with signatories, can be found here:

Lions’ Roar magazine, Sept. 26 2107: Buddhist Churches of America shares statement on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar

Lions’ Roar magazine, Oct 25 2107: Buddhist activists appeal to Myanmar’s leaders, bring aid to fleeing victims

Peter Harvey
University of Sunderland, UK

Hello and many thanks to Dr. Paul Fuller for suggestions, and to the Ven. Pandita, for very valuable nuance on the situation of monks in Burma. ... but, to me, what is still missing, it seems, is information on whether there is any debate within buddhism in Burma about what now seems to be a dominant genocide-supporting incitement rhetoric by Burmese Buddhists, actively supporting the dramatic escalation since August, in effect enabling the mass ethnic cleansing campaign by the Burmese army which is the most dramatic in all of this history of discrimination.

May I add that, while there is a long history of oppression of ethnic minorities in Burma, as Ven. Pandita mentions, the differences here are very stark:

1, no other ethnic groups have been systematically deprived of citizenship and related rights -- this is well explained in Cheesman's other writings, more pertinent here, http://www.newmandala.org/myanmars-national-races-trumped-citizenship/; and http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00472336.2017.1297476 ]; and,

2, no other ethnic groups, not even the Rohingya -- large numbers of whom have been driven out or put in concentration camps before -- have been mass expelled on the enormous scale of the current crisis, which stands out in world history as the worst such expulsion since Rwanda 1994. And, I still can find zero, on what the internal Buddhist debate in Burma on the Buddhist's hate-incitement speech is right now, if it exists at all.

It seems it may be fair to conclude, that while there was some debate in recent years in Burmese buddhist circles over whether to endorse killings and ethnic cleansing and so on, today in the new situation, with the mass expulsion of about six hundred thousand fellow countrymen achieved since late August, enabled by the successful extremist-ultranationalist Buddhist’s propaganda now dominating national discourse itself, and embraced and repeated by the armed forces (the main executer of the actual cleansing campaign, in cooperation with local vigilante death squads) as well as by the civilian government and its news and media operations, whatever debate existed has now been silenced, or forced underground, if it continues at all.

In this regard, what's happening looks a lot like the pattern of other historical cases of ethnic cleansing and genocides, like the Nazi, Soviets, etc.: Dissent in favor of human decency becomes impossible, because the price is too high, so potential decent voices go silent, and silence reigns as the propagandists and hardliners take charge. In addition, if one wants to sum up what we are learning, it is also that Buddhism, like Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, etc., is easily mobilized for the support of mass murder and ethnic cleansing.

Is that fair to say? It seems so.

As I said earlier, at the same time, we can indeed recognize glimmers of PAST internal Buddhist debate in the recent past, above all in the temporary silencing of the nationalist monk Wirathu by the "State Sangha Maha Nayaka," in March 2017, see: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/03/wirathu-silenced-myanmar-top-buddhist-body-170311141... and http://www.nationmultimedia.com/news/opinion/today_editorial/30308936. The ban was apparently initiated after one regional government suggested it, so it may have been based on limited open dissent with the propagandists (http://elevenmyanmar.com/local/8252) and not on widespread a rebuttal?

Earlier, under the military regime, this self-described “Buddhist Bin Laden” had actually been sentenced to jail for his incitement and rhetoric, but he was let go early: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/may/12/only-takes-one-terrorist-buddhi...) And, earlier, there have been other signs of disagreement with the extremists. More is mentioned here, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/burma-myanmar/2016-07-29/myanmars-religious-problem And see: https://frontiermyanmar.net/en/abbot-u-uttara-all-suffering-in-myanmar-is-man-made But, such voices seem to be either in exile and/or have now gone silent, especially domestically, since the momentous events after August 25, 2017.

But is there only silence? That's what I was really wondering. Do some decent Buddhists still argue against the now-dominant support for ethnic cleansing? or has everyone been swept up in it (by the help of Facebook dominance, itself a highly interesting subject related to how similar waves of hatred are whipped up in other places around the world)? --Other recent smaller glimmers *indirectly* suggesting there are still people in Burma who do not bow to the genocide-style propaganda was when a beauty queen was demoted: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-41480403

Magnus Fiskesjö

Dear Magnus,

You have seemingly concluded that as regards the Rohingya issue, whatever dissenting voices of the Buddhist public in Burma have been "silenced or forced underground, if it continues at all" by the state machinery. I think this conclusion does not reflect the ground reality. Why?

Now, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (from now on DASSK) has declared that her government would implement the recommendations of Kofi Annan commission as quickly as they can. Those recommendations are freely available on the web, both in original English version and Burmese translation. However, I doubt if even 0.1% of DASSK's supporters has bothered to read those critically important suggestions carefully. For those people, Kofi Annan's suggestions are good enough if they are acceptable to DASSK. They are the people, we should remember, who came out to show support when DASSK gave a live televised address in English on the Rohingya crisis even though the majority of the audience could not understand her English.

How about DASSK's dissenters? They are only ultra-nationalists including the military, who would read those recommendations only for the sake of objecting to any suggested favor for the Rohingyas.

How about other ethnic tribes fighting for their rights against the Burmese military? I should note that over the past years, the Rohingya leadership has attempted again and again to join the armed struggle of other tribes but consistently rejected. The last rejection came from KIA (the Kachin armed group), who are predominantly Christian.

In short, the Rohingyas as an ethnic group have very few sympathizers among the non-Muslim Burmese people. If there are any silenced voices, these are of Muslims, not of others.

Ven. Pandita (Burma)

Postgraduate Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies,

University of Kelaniya,

Sri Lanka

Hello and many thanks.

Here on this list, what I was asking originally was about whether any Buddhists in Burma are opposing and debating the genocidal rhetoric of the ultranationalist fellow Buddhists who have been promoting the expulsion and killing of Muslim minority people in their country. But seems there is no such debate, at least not openly, and I was guessing in conclusion that this must be because most people in Burma now, including Buddhists and Buddhist clergy, if there are anyone opposed, they are afraid to speak against the prevailing atmosphere.

Some Buddhism experts I have spoken to off list are suggesting to me that the idea that Buddhism is for peace and against killing is just a naive Western misunderstanding, Buddhism historically has been closely involved in vicious violence and war, many times, so the current events in Burma are no surprise at all, in view of history.

About the general situation and public opinion, this is how I understand what happened:

There are obviously two governments in Burma, military and civilian. The civilian, Aung San Suu Kyi, was elected recently in elections that were given permission by the military only after they had imposed a constitution that deprives the civilian government of any say over the use of arms. The military is the more powerful of these two governments.

Aung San Suu Kyi after she was elected said she wants ethnic reconciliation, and she held some meetings and made some efforts to that effect, including appointing Kofi Annan, the former UN sec-gen, to a commission that has proposed reconciliation in Rakhine, the province where the Rohingya minority lives (lived).

Those efforts have now been overwhelmed by the military's massive ethnic cleansing campaign since August, which was enabled by the wave of ultranationalist propaganda led by Buddhist monks, inciting hatred and violence with often genocide-style rhetoric.

It was in this public opinion climate that the ethnic cleansing campaign, since August 25, was executed by the military. The wide public support brought about not least by Facebook spreading the propaganda of the repugnant propagandists. Many in the civilian government, including ministers, have also condoned racist, discriminatory views. The military commanders obviously share the opinions of the extremist nationalist monks.

Presented with the fait accompli of the brutal ethnic cleansing campaign that this time has expelled 600,000 of her countrymen, making the number of them expelled from her country rise to around a million total, Aung San Suu Kyi then, on 19 september gave that speech where she tried to defer judgment of responsibility, saying we have to find out "why" these people fled, as if the answer was not readily available from multiple publicly available lines of evidence, not least how the commander in chief of the armed forces had pre-empted her speech by justifying the campaign in terms of how these people he was busy expelling "do not belong"; but also detailed refugee accounts, journalist witnesses, and satellite imagery of the large number of villages burned to the ground. Thus in the eyes of much of the world, the speech makes Aung San Suu Kyi complicit in the crimes against humanity that have been committed, which takes away much, if not most, of her credibility internationally.

Why would she give such a speech then? I can only guess that it may have been because she too cannot oppose the military, or the prevailing general climate of hatred whipped up against the Muslim minorities. Or, she herself shares these opinions to some extent (there are some hints of this). Also, and perhaps most decisively, if she critizised the military it would have been to admit that her government is not in charge of her country, and the military may simply have cancelled her government and re-imposed military rule, the next day,

But, it is true that the speech was also the first time that she expressed any sympathy for the refugees, and it is also true that she said refugees can come back. (The military, which seems to have been working for a "final solution" by killing or expelling everyone in that area, must have been angry about that). And indeed, talks with Bangladesh have been taking place. They are, however, overshadowed by her own minister's pronouncement that only those with the right paperwork will be allowed back. Since the refugees fled burning houses, and since they won't be able to keep any papers in the mud and rain of the camps across the border, this suggests to many that the talk of refugee return is only a sham. And, the outgoing refugee flow has continued right up until now, because the refugees still fear for their life.

I too would be happy to see the refugees returned and have their villages reconstructed and peace returned. But it seems that it would require the Burmese army to turn around to change policy, to organize the return of the refugees that they just expelled. I am doubtful they will do this, since their hateful rhetoric, especially the tactic of conflating the hundreds of thousands civilian refugees with "terrorists," remains the same, and they control the arms and the border.

As for implementing the recommendations for reconciliation from Kofi Annan's Rakhine commission, it seems doubtful too, since the population to be reconciled has been largely expelled now. It seems the return of refugees would have to come first, as a first step, and Burma's government budget would have to be redirected in part to returning the refugees, to feeding them and rebuilding their homes.

It is a very sad chapter in world history, and ominous. At first when this was playing out in August-September I was still hoping that Aung San Suu Kyi would rise to the occasion and speak up for humanity and decency in some dramatic way. I was imagining she would commandeer a helicopter and go to the refugee camps in Bangladesh and tell the refugees I am with you, we are all the same, you will come back, this is not what my country is. Some dramatic action like that, in defense of human rights, would have been a powerful statement in this historical moment, against the current worldwide rising wave of discrimination and selfishness and ethnocentrism and nationalism. But she did not/could not rise to the occasion in such a way. Instead she seems to have felt she was forced to shrink herself into the reduced position she has now. That's ominous.

The most likely prospect now for the future seems to be a Palestinian-like situation of enormous semi-permanent refugee camps, a stain on Burma which may well deteriorate back into some sort of military regime, and for the world, further lowered prospects for a politics of humanity and decency. It certainly strengthens the sense that we're "back in the 1930s."


Dear Magnus,

thank you for raising this highly important issue.

Probably, the discussion on this scholarly list could benefit from quotable, academic sources on the conflict and its historical and geopolitical background. Since I cannot claim any expertise on Burma, let me just draw attention to the work of Jacques P. Leider. Some of his writings are available online, and it is surely worthwhile to access hard copies of others.




Best regards,

Achim Bayer
Associate Professor
Kanazawa Seiryo University
Department of International Culture
Kosaka-machi Minami 559
920 0811 Kanazawa

Hello, -- breaking news: A colleague just sent this link to a report on a minority group of decent Burmese Buddhists who dare to oppose the dominant current trend of hate, violence incitement, and anti-Muslim rhetoric from the Buddhist ultra-nationalist monks who have set the current trend and clearly enjoy support from the armed forces that just implemented the expulsion of 600,000-700,000 people from their country.

The brave group is called the "Anti-False Buddhist Doctrine Committee" (အဓမ္မ ဝါဒ ဆန့်ကျင်ရေး ကော်မတီ)

I was hoping this kind of evidence of upright, decent people would come to light.

The article:
"Fighting the 'cancer' of extreme nationalism in Myanmar: A small but growing group of Buddhists is fighting a determined campaign against the extreme nationalist rhetoric and hate speech that it says is a violation of what the Buddha taught." By Htun Khaing. FRONTIER, Thursday, November 02, 2017.

And, one other older report on this brave group which I had missed:
"Group Targets Rangoon Division for Next Petition Against U Wirathu" By Zue Zue & Htun Htun. The Irrawaddy, 17 May 2017. https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/group-targets-rangoon-division-next...

BTW -- I thought "U" was a honorific in Burmese! which does not seem to fit the propagandist Mr. Wirathu, who, monk robe and all, in his rhetoric reminds us of other similar hate-mongerers in history, ... and who has been spectacularly successful in promoting hatred and inciting violence. Wirathu, while temporarily banned from preaching, seem to have mainly used the American multinational company "Facebook"'s platform for spreading their vitriol.

On the use of Facebook, a company which is apparently happy with Wirathu's genocide rhetoric (which does not violate their company rules in any way?), see:


Facebook, as the main platform of hate speech from the identitarian Buddhists, is very much implicated in the monumental Burmese ethnic cleansing campaign completed since August: The company has even closed off accounts of Rohingya activists, after the genocidaire Buddhists in Burma shout them down ("dislike" them!):


And see not least this astute analysis from a freethinking Burmese scholar:

But now, this minority-Buddhist group is trying to mount a case against the genocidaires, on Buddhist grounds! Yay! So is there hope for Buddhism, for Burma in the long run?

Don't know. The ethnic cleansing campaign is a fait accompli; Bangladesh now has close to one million people expelled from Buddhist Burma and the hatred clearly runs deep. And, after the ethnic cleansing the civilian government is now preparing to annex the burned villages. It looks more and more like a classic, "textbook" case of an ethnic-cleansing campaign, of a million people, a crime that is a fait accompli -- and one that will make the Rohingya the new Palestinians:

ps. Thanks for the pointers to Leider. I have seen his writings, and I would recommend them, but only with the qualifier that he paints an incomplete picture. Also, even his most recent piece has now been superseded by events. He focuses predominantly on the violent crimes of Rohingya insurgents, and has little to say about the atrocities perpetrated on a historic scale by Burma's army, enabled by Buddhist propagandists, and effectively condoned by the civilian government. Anyone can see, that the deprivation of citizenship of Rohingya civilians, and the horrific discrimination against them over several decades, including by putting them in hopeless camps since 2012, was bound to engender violence at some time. Kofi Annan warned of it. Many observers warned of it.

But the Aug 25 outbreak of violence by a few angry young men may also have been exactly what the Burmese army and their friends, the Buddhist monk Wirathu and his comrades-in-arms in monk robes, were hoping for. That day, Rohingya armed elements shot several Burmese policemen and soldiers. But if their effort was to fight back, it is clearly hopeless in the face of the Burmese military machine -- which took their August 25 attack as the pretext of one of the worst ethnic cleansing campaigns in history.

The history of the support and enabling of this campaign by Burmese Buddhists, willingly amplified by Facebook, is yet to be written. The stain and the judgment of history will be permanent, of course, but I would like to hope that, just like Germany and other countries caught up in vicious scapegoating of minorities have been able to do afterwards, Burma can emerge as a decent nation by admitting the wrongs, and work for true return of the refugees, and reconciliation.

The news that there really are Burmese Buddhists coming forward to oppose the vicious rhetoric of the Buddhist genocidal propagandists is one hopeful sign, however fragile.

ps. on the historical background to the crisis in Burma which led to the expulsion of the Rohingya, I recommend Nick Cheesman's writings:

Cheesman, Nick. How Myanmar’s ‘national races’ trumped citizenship. New Mandala, 1 May, 2017. http://www.newmandala.org/myanmars-national-races-trumped-citizenship/

Cheesman, Nick. How in Myanmar “National Races” Came to Surpass Citizenship and Exclude Rohingya. Journal of Contemporary Asia Volume 47, 2017 - Issue 3: Interpreting Communal Violence in Myanmar), Pages 461-483. Published online: 15 Mar 2017. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00472336.2017.1297476

Magnus Fiskesjö

ps. Here at my university, after a successful, very moving event with Gayatri Spivak on Oct 30 addressing the Rohingya crisis in global context, we are having a second event next week:

Michael Charney, The Long and Short Term Roots of the Rohingya Crisis: The Eradication of a Myanmar Ethnic Group. With discussion with Eaint Thiri Thu, and Magnus Fiskesjö
November 7, Tuesday, 4:30pm, Rawlings Auditorium, Klarman Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca NY 14850

The following week after that, student clubs are organising a Rohingya week to draw even more attention to the crisis.