Ashin Wirathu, a popular and influential Buddhist leader in Burma, has spearheaded a campaign of violence targeting Muslims in the region that have long been the targets of persecution. He calls himself the “a radical Buddhist” – an appropriate moniker considering the violence has left 250 Burmese Muslims dead and another 15,000 displaced to date.
There are two frightening aspects to this recent radicalization. First, it appears that the violence is now being carried out without a call to action by any authority figure; it’s just mob rule, showing how much it’s spread through the population. Second, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a response by the secular government. Even Aung San Suu Kyi has been fairly muted, so as to avoid the risk of angering her electoral base. As a result, the violence and deaths go effectively unchecked.
By far the worst attack so far was in late March in the central Burmese city of Meiktila. Tellingly, the attack was not let by a single leader or religious figure but carried out by mobs of Buddhists, a worrying sign that Wirathu’s violent ideas may have taken hold in the city. A minor dispute at an outdoor jewelry stall between a Buddhist customer and a Muslim vendor escalated rapidly out of control. Buddhist rioters razed entire Muslim neighborhoods, burned several civilians alive and killed up to 200 more Muslims until, after three long days in which the army was conspicuously absent, troops intervened to stop the killing.
I know we here in the West like thinking that Buddhists are above this kind of crap, with images in our heads of monks peacefully meditating and avoiding all forms of violence. And, to be fair, the Dalai Lama has condemned the recent violence and pleaded for those responsible to stop. But one only needs to look back to World War II to see how it also helped enable Japanese nationalism and the horrors it inflicted on the world. In other words, no religion can be considered safe from being used as a political tool if the circumstances are right.
It’s situations like these that keep me from specifically singling out one religion in particular and claim that it alone is the root of a problem like extremist violence and terrorism. I know Islam is a common target for things like this – and I’ve written a lot about it before – but phenomena like what we’re seeing in Burma only goes to show that the name and the details of the religion are not nearly as important as its malleability at the hands of those who want to use it to further their own political agendas. Anything that claims divine inspiration is good enough to get the job done … and if you identify closely enough with it, then anyone who doesn’t believe deserves to die anyway, so it’s all good.