Foreign Policy Blogs

Holy War: A One-Sided Affair


No sooner had my previous post — warning of an imminent massacre of Muslims in Burma — been published two weeks ago, deadly sectarian riots swept through the town of Meiktila in central Myanmar leaving an estimated 32 people dead, according to a government official. Alternative estimates claim that the death toll is quite a bit higher. As many as 9,000 others were left homeless, their modest living quarters leveled by enraged Buddhist lynch mobs who also laid waste to several mosques which were seen burning to the ground.

If you believe the official story, the rioting was instigated by a brawl at a gold shop between two individuals. Whether or not that is true is immaterial.  The instigation is not as important to this tragedy as the fact that this attack was planned well in advance. A common narrative amongst sources on the ground is that the “violence they witnessed seemed systematic and well-planned.” More attacks against Muslims in Burma will also happen sooner rather than later and, as of last week, there were reports of anti-Muslim riots in three other townships.

The most disturbing aspect of Burma’s xenophobia is that it is being spearheaded by Buddhists monks, assumed to be one of the more docile and moderating actors in the face of political turmoil. Buddhists, in general, enjoy a friendly reputation amongst those in the West. Their behavior in Myanmar should shatter that disposition.

Foreign Affairs editor Tim Marshall describes the phenomenon:

Yes, the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi has been mostly peaceful. Yes, we did see thousands of smiling, calm, saffron-robed Buddhist monks taking to the streets, and no, most ordinary Burmese do not set about their neighbours with knifes, and their neighbours’ homes with petrol bombs.

But some do. Some of them even wear saffron robes while they do it.

In addition, Burmese writer Aung Zaw notes at The Irrawaddy:

It is also clear that Burma’s Buddhists—particularly its monks—have suffered an enormous black eye due to the actions of a shadowy group of chauvinists who have used religion as a pretext for terrorizing a segment of Burma’s population.

The sad truth, however, is that this is not the first time that Buddhism has been twisted beyond recognition to serve the interests of a tiny cabal with malicious intentions. After all, for half a century, successive military dictatorships employed a grotesque parody of Buddhism to manipulate the masses.

The rioting is a blow to the country’s aspirations to join the community of nations after decades of isolation. Despite liberalizing it’s political system over the past year and a half, and beginning the process of opening up its economy, Myanmar cannot seem to shake its troubling issues with ethnic minorities. Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been strangely mum on the issue as well. Does she have anything to say about the ethnic cleansing taking place in her country?

As I tell my students anytime I ask an open-ended question: I’ll take your silence as assent.

Photo: BBC



Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.