The native majority of a country feels threatened by a small immigrant minority group, even though the natives hold power. They blame the British for allowing immigration of this minority during colonial times.

They now use religion to demonise and spread fear of this minority.

No, I’m not talking of Malaysia. This is about Myanmar and how suspicion, prejudice and even violence against Muslims is being spread there in the name of “protecting Buddhism”.

As a Buddhist, I am ashamed that my religion is being used – or rather misused – for such ignoble purposes. After all, the core of Buddhism is not just nonviolence, it’s also about cultivating a feeling of loving kindness towards all human beings, and even animals.

Yet some Burmese Buddhist monks seem to have strayed far from the true path.

The most infamous one is Ashin Wirathu, who has been dubbed a racist neo-Nazi and “the Buddhist (Osama) bin Laden”. For years, he has been preaching fear, saying that Buddhism in Myanmar is “under siege” by Muslims who are buying up Buddhist-owned land and also marrying and converting “our” Buddhist women.

This may seem ridiculous when Muslims only form 4% to 12% (depending on whether you believe government or Muslims’ statistics) of Myanmar’s population.

Yet that has not stopped Wirathu. The theme song for his 969 movement has lyrics about people who “live in our land, drink our water, and are ungrateful to us”. Such talk from has encouraged violent attacks on Muslims in Myanmar.

Wirathu and his monks later formed Ma Ba Tha, or the Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion (does that remind you of the aims of any Malaysian groups?).

But how could the inherently peaceful religion of Buddhism have been perverted so much? As Myanmar’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Nyunt Maung Shein, has said, “It’s more about politics” rather than religion.

Like Malaysia, Myanmar is a multiracial and multireligious country. During its British colonisation period, there was a mass immigration of Indians, about half of whom were Muslims. The Indians became rich merchants in towns and took up many civil service jobs. By 1927, Rangoon (now Yangon) had an Indian majority. The native Buddhist Bamar (Burmese) people felt ever more marginalised and regarded the Muslims as secondary colonial exploiters, after the British.

After independence in 1948, civil war broke out and many ethnic minority groups, such as the Karens and Kachins (many of whom are Christian), the Shans and Mons (Buddhists) and even the Muslim Rohingyas, began to fight for their own independence.

Then came the military takeover of 1962, leading to decades of corruption and sheer economic incompetence. However, the army men were careful to make great outward shows of building Buddhist temples and patronising monks.

After major revolts in 1988 and 2007, the military allowed some political liberalisation in 2011. But that came with new tactics to maintain power. For example, the Al Jazeera documentary Genocide Agenda revealed that government ministers offered monks money and jobs if they would preach fear against Islam (bit.ly/1H4sgVx).

An independent report by the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) concluded that riots between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in 2012 were planned beforehand. ISCA director Prof Penny Green told Al Jazeera that Buddhists were bused in to the riot. “Refreshments, meals were provided. It had to be paid for by somebody. All of this suggests that it was very carefully planned.”

By the crucial November 2015 elections, when the future of Myanmar was being decided, it was clear there was an alliance between the military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party and the Ma Ba Tha hardline monks who preached that a victory for Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) would lead to Islam “dominating” the country. (Aung is currently Myanmar’s de facto leader.)

Just before the elections, the government and Ma Ba Tha pushed through controversial “national race protection laws”, under which a Muslim (or Christian) man who marries a Buddhist woman must convert to Buddhism. When the NLD opposed such laws, hardline monks called them “traitors”. It was in such a poisonous atmosphere that speaking out against the abuse of the Rohingya was seen, as The New York Times put it, “as a form of political kryptonite (ie, suicide) for any Buddhist politician like Aung San Suu Kyi”.

But, as lecturer Kenan Malik wrote in The New York Times, it is not the teachings of Buddhism that are responsible for the anti-Muslim riots; instead, “those bent on confrontation have donned the garb of religion to justify their actions. What is true of Myanmar applies to many other religious conflicts – from Pakistan to Nigeria, from Indonesia to the Central African Republic.”

When the political mood in a country is so strong, it takes real courage to swim against the currents of prejudice and hatred – coming from your “own people”. Fortunately, some Buddhist monks have done just that. In May 2015, the Parliament of the World’s Religions gave the World Harmony Award to three Myanmar Buddhist monks in recognition of their efforts to save Muslim lives.

One of them was abbot U Withudda. On March 21, 2013, some 800 Muslims arrived at his monastery seeking shelter from rioters. An angry Buddhist mob gathered outside and asked the abbot to send out the Muslims. Withudda refused and told the crowd, “If you want, kill me first so I can save them”.

Then there is the renowned monk Sitagu Sayadaw, who runs several Buddhist schools and hospitals; he has asked the country’s 500,000 monks to be “like soldiers” deploying the “weapon of loving kindness” to stop religious conflicts.

I shall leave it to readers to see what parallels there are, if any, between Malaysia and Myanmar. All I can say is: may we learn the right lessons from the turmoil there.


Andrew Sia prefers the full flavour of teh tarik over insipid English tea anytime, any day.