8 Jun 2013

Monks Gone Bad

Five years ago, when Myanmar was still under military rule, some Western and Chinese friends asked me how there could be such oppression in a country where Buddhism, which preaches nonviolence, is the predominant religion.

I was in self-imposed exile at the time, studying journalism at the University of Hong Kong, and I would answer that the country’s military leaders were immoral, Buddhists in name only. I would also point out that Myanmar’s pre-colonial monarchical rulers — they, too, nominally Buddhist — also had committed great crimes. In other words, nothing was wrong with the religion itself; the problem was with the politicians who were flouting it.

Buddhists in Burma

I can’t give such answers any more — not since the recent deadly attacks by Buddhists against Muslims in Meikhtila, a city in central Myanmar with no history of sectarian violence. Reports that monks instigated some of those burnings, beatings and killings suggest a much deeper problem than unprincipled state officials.

The general public in Myanmar, which is largely Buddhist (about 90 percent) and ethnic Bamar (over 65 percent), would like to believe that the Buddhist monks who allegedly participated in these brutal incidents aren’t real monks. That’s easier than contemplating the painful reality that the venerated Buddhist order, the Sangha, has become largely corrupt.

no halal birma

There was a time when most of the young men and women who joined the order were driven by a spiritual quest. But during the half-century of the junta’s rule, it was the wars along the border areas and crushing poverty that brought novices to monasteries. Many were orphans with no other options; others were children entrusted to the monks by destitute parents trying to secure shelter and some schooling for them. In the profile of its recruits, the Sangha wasn’t so different from the Burmese Army — and sometimes the abbots were as brutal as officers.

By Swe Win on the International Herald Tribune