The Buddha was unequivocal in his opposition to anger, hatred, and violence. When a soldier asked him if he would go to heaven if he died fighting for a noble cause, the Buddha reluctantly told him the opposite: he would be reborn in a realm of suffering as a result of dying with a murderous mind. Let your lovingkindness for all creatures be without exception, he taught; if you conceive a thought of hatred—even for bandits sawing off your limbs—you would not be doing my bidding.
Yet international observers have been horrified to see what appears to be silence or even support from Myanmar’s sangha as the Buddhist-majority nation commits what the UN has identified as genocide against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority. Around one million Rohingya now live in Bangladesh after fleeing a series of brutal state-coordinated attacks in 2016 and 2017, which included murder, gang-rape, and the burning down of hundreds of villages. Meanwhile, Buddhist monks in Myanmar have attended nationalist rallies and called for aggressive action against Muslims and other minorities, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Buddhist State Counsellor and a recipient of the Nobel Prize for her pro-democracy work, has stated that she will defend the government against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Recent events suggest, however, that the support of violent ethno-nationalism in the sangha is not the whole picture: Winds of hope continue to blow as Buddhists, both inside and outside the monastic community, have been leading acts of resistance in the country.
Demonstrators, led by lay peace activist Thet Swe Win and Burmese monk Sayadaw Seindita, have begun handing out white roses to Muslims in Myanmar as an act of solidarity. Swe Win and U Seindita were inspired to begin the campaign after hearing reports of nationalists surrounding mosques in the country to threaten worshippers during Ramadan. The symbol of the rose is an homage to the clandestine German White Rose movement, which resisted the Third Reich (and many of whose members were executed).
Speaking of the movement’s roots in Buddhist teaching, Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a young activist, told Tricycle, “The Buddha clearly taught non-attachment to one’s ethnic or religious identity . . . All of my activism comes from there—from my Buddhism.”
“We have to stand up for vulnerable communities as a basic Buddhist principle,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “As the majority, we need to use our freedom and power to defend the marginalized . . . The younger generation is changing. I myself have changed; I am proof to the world. We need to have our own narrative, our own way.”
Between 2013 and 2016 Maung Zarni, the Burmese Buddhist founder of the Free Burma Coalition and a co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, began quietly organizing anti-racist and anti-genocide education sessions in Cambodia and Thailand. Hundreds of monks and nuns from Myanmar attended, as well as lay Buddhist and Christian activists. Many of the attendees have since returned to Myanmar to work under the radar on anti-racist initiatives around the country.
Resistance within the sangha is being met with predictable strategies of suppression by the government. Zarni told Tricycle that Sayadaw Seindita was recently sued for defamation for comments he made that were critical of the military. Another monk, Sayadaw Arya, whom Zarni described as “a very famous, principled and learned monk from Mandalay,” is likewise being sued for claiming that the military had been making large donations to a monastery that spread pro-racist, nationalist propaganda. Sayadaw Arya has been defiant so far, saying he will not be silenced “when it comes to matters such as the democratization of the country and the misuses of the faith,” according to Zarni.
Another Burmese monk who has worked with Zarni, Ashin Issariya, also known as King Zero for his stance that Burma has no king or dictator, has been outspoken against what he sees as false claims that the violence in Myanmar aims to protect Buddhism or is an expression of Buddhist concerns. “This is not Buddhism,” he told the Shambhala Times from his monastery in Myanmar. “Buddhists have to obey the precepts. It means no killing. We say loving kindness. Rule according to law.”
Ashin Issariya minces no words about the inter-ethnic conflict in Myanmar and how the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military, has used it to distract people from their continuing efforts to disempower the nation’s electorate. “We should all be friends. But if we are fighting each other we cannot unite against the army,” he said.
Meanwhile, a new avenue for international observers to take action for the Rohingya will open on December 9, International Genocide Day, with the launch of the Boycott Myanmar Campaign. The campaign is not limited to the Rohingya and aims to address the systemic violence against various minorities of Myanmar such as the Shan, Kachin, Ta’ang, Karen, Chin, Mon and Kayar (Kayah) communities.
The group said in an email that their aim is “to bear economic, cultural and popular pressure on Myanmar so that the coalition government of Aung San Suu Kyi and the military may end the country’s persecution, discrimination, and violence against the country’s ethnic and religious minorities.”
Although there are many international corporations doing big business in Myanmar, the campaign will begin with a focus on Coca-Cola, which returned to do business in Myanmar in 2013 and has since invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the country. “[Coca-Cola] is an easily recognizable brand,” Zarni explained, “and no one will be losing anything of any benefit if they stop drinking it.”
Zarni pointed out that Western Buddhists should not underestimate the value of any gesture of solidarity with the Rohingya that they can make. “It’s like spending ten dollars in Penang,” he said. “Ten dollars might normally buy you a nice drink at Starbucks, but in Penang it will go a lot further. In the same way, any small thing you can do for the Rohingya will mean more to them than you can imagine.”
So far attempts to call Myanmar’s Buddhist monastics to account have had limited results. One journalist, Swe Win (no relation to Thet Swe Win), pointed out that the incendiary leader of ethno-nationalist Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha, U Wirathu, committed a parajjika, or “defeat offense,” which results in automatic expulsion from the sangha, when he publicly celebrated the assassination of a prominent Muslim lawyer. The monastic rule in question prohibits advocating killing a living being. Although leaders in the Burmese sangha censured U Wirathu, they did not expel the popular demagogue, and he is still a monk. Swe Win, on the other hand, was charged with criminal defamation and faced jail time until the case was finally dropped after a two year court battle.
But there is reason to believe that things are changing. Swe Win went on to win the most prestigious award given to Asian journalists this year for his integrity. And activists like Zarni, Yi, Thet Swe Win, Sayadaw Seindita and Sayadaw Arya show that courageous Burmese who have not forgotten the Buddha’s teachings of nonviolence and non-racism exist and are active in Myanmar, if largely below the radar. Maybe they are the beginning of fostering a remembering in Myanmar of the Buddha’s words:
Hostilities aren’t stilled
Hostilities are stilled
this, an unending truth.
Unlike those who don’t realize
that we’re here on the verge
those who do:
Their quarrels are stilled.
— Dhammapada (Dhp.) 5–6