When Pope Francis avoided addressing the Rohingya genocide directly during his recent Myanmar visit, questioning his silence is missing the crux of the problem.
Instead of questioning the visiting leader of the global Catholic community, we should ask instead what has gone awry with Myanmar Buddhism and why the seemingly gentle and devout Buddhists there have embraced racist violence instead of the Buddha’s teachings of indiscriminate compassion.
This is not only a question for Myanmar. Thailand, also a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country, is also mired in the same trap of racism — albeit not as deeply. At least for now.
Until very recently, the global image of Myanmar is one of a devout Buddhist country struggling against atrocious military dictatorship. Despite hostility perpetuated by ultra-nationalistic history textbooks, meditation masters and practices from Myanmar have become popular in Thailand. When the country finally opened to the outside world, Myanmar temple tours became extremely popular among Thais and significantly fostered appreciation of Myanmar’s ancient culture, grandeur and religious piousness.
Then came the Rohingya ethnic cleansing.
It’s one thing for the Myanmar military to defend their atrocities amid global condemnation. But it’s another story when the Buddhist populace — including ex-freedom fighters — back up their oppressor in wiping out the ethnic Muslim Rohingya on their soil. It’s clear. At work is a creed more powerful and dangerous than Buddhism.
They call it patriotism. In fact, it’s racist nationalism.
Myanmar is extremely sensitive about the term Rohingya because it implies the ethnic Muslims in Rakhine State are long-term residents, even natives of the region from long ago. The term is a no-no because it undermines the country’s legitimacy to “protect the motherland” from “dark-skinned, ugly Bengali invaders, terrorists and separatists” through whatever means deemed necessary in the name of patriotism.
Genocide apologists often argue that Rohingya is a newly invented term. That the ethnic Muslims there were actually brought in by Britain during colonial days. That they were taking locals’ lands and were intent on taking over the state, or even the country, by breeding indiscriminately and taking up arms.
The Rohingya have a different version of history, which apologists immediately debunk as fake. The horrific treatment of the Rohingya in camps, systematic measures to rid them of citizenship and basic rights, and ensuing massive arson, murder and rape — if not dismissed as fake news or sheer exaggeration — are viewed as necessary to push the “outsiders” where they belong.
Cruelty is an understatement.
How can anyone who calls themself Buddhist support such atrocities?
The successful dehumanisation of the Rohingya Muslims, fuelled by the hate campaigns of racist Buddhist monks, demonstrates the danger of patriotism rooted in race, ethnicity and beliefs.
It’s both maddening and heartbreaking to see the normally kind, temple-going people brush the Buddha aside to become cheerleaders for a bloodthirsty military and militia.
Myanmar is not the only country guilty of such racist patriotism, though. What keeps it relatively under control elsewhere is probably the notion of statehood, who is allowed to be part of it — and how. Equally important, if not more, is the level of respect for human rights which is pretty much determined by how open and equal that society is.
Here, southern Malay Muslims have long been treated as “outsiders”, thanks to the constructed notion of “Thainess” which requires one to be ethnic Thai and Buddhist in order to be an “owner” of the country. It does not matter that racial purity is a myth and most Buddhist Thais are far from being Buddhist, you just have to play the game. That is how Thais of Chinese descent — through intermarriage and wealth — have come to feel fully Thai with the right to discriminate against other ethnic minorities.
The southern Muslims are never called invaders for a simple reason; it was Siam which invaded and annexed the Malay Muslim principalities over two centuries ago. Despite this discrimination and injustice, the southern Muslims are citizens with equal opportunities and rights. On the books, at least.
Despite lax legal enforcement, citizenship becomes their best protection. For the state may legitimise violence against separatists, but never the civilians, thus pre-empting an all-out crackdown.
True, deep prejudice against Muslims exists in the Thai clergy, bureaucracy and the general population, but it comes in whispers and side glances. A hate monk who followed Myanmar’s toxic Virathu was not tolerated, and was recently disrobed to nip the problem in the bud. The move, interestingly, was made by the government for security reasons, and not by the clergy.
While citizenship provides some level of protection to the southern Muslims, this cannot be said of millions of stateless, displaced persons and migrant workers in the country. As a result, they are subjected to labour exploitation and human trafficking. Many of them are children, robbed of their childhood, education and life opportunities.
Thailand may not violently persecute Muslims like Myanmar does, but the world is also asking how on earth a country which takes pride in being the centre of Buddhism has become a hub of slave labour and the sex industry. What’s more, the clergy is totally indifferent to such oppression.
The answer is simple. Thailand ignores slave labour because the slaves are not Thais, so they do not deserve to be treated as equal human beings. As for prostitution, why should we be bothered about “bad girls” when men need to satisfy their sexual urges?
In short, racist nationalism and sexism are the country’s real creeds, not Buddhism.
As for silence to social injustice, I have long harboured questions over whether the clergy’s indifference has anything to do with Theravada Buddhism’s inward-looking ideology which concentrates on an individual’s sole pursuit of spiritual liberation.
Of course, such commitment to spiritual pursuit — if real — can certainly legitimise monks’ aloofness because their practices can save many souls. The simplicity and compassion true to Buddhism can also strengthen public confidence in the spiritual path.
But when non-attachment has become only an excuse for monks not to challenge the system so they can enjoy the privileges and the perks that come with the monkhood, then they become mere freeloaders.
In Myanmar, the pontiff stressed the need to “respect the rights of all who call this land their home” without using the word Rohingya to protect minority Christians, setting off a barrage of criticism from rights groups.
But once in Bangladesh, the pontiff followed his heart when he declared: “The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.” He also honoured them by asking them to forgive the sinners.
That won’t change minds in Myanmar. But at least the leader of the Catholic world has shown what leaders of all religions should do — speaking up for the oppressed and inspiring compassion to end suffering.
It pains me deeply to see our clergy, blinded to violence and oppression, adopting racist nationalism. It also confirms my belief that any religious garb, any number of hours in meditation, or any amount of donations do not indicate the quality of one’s heart. How you treat the less fortunate regardless of their race and creed does.
It is so sad many religious leaders and self-proclaimed devout Buddhists fail this simple test.
Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.
This article first appeared in the Bangkok Post on 9 December 2017