by Matthew J. Walton
Since late August, more than 600,000 Rohingya have left Myanmar, fleeing a state-led campaign of violence against them. The Rohingya are a Muslim minority and predominantly live in Rakhine State, in Myanmar’s west. They have experienced persistent, institutionalized discrimination for years. (The members of the state’s Rakhine Buddhist majority believe that they, too, have been discriminated against, mostly by the central government.)
The most common explanation given for the persecution of the Rohingya revolves around their nationality. Government officials, media commentators, and religious leaders have claimed that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Ethnicity plays a role, as well. The government officially recognizes 135 indigenous ethnic groups, and Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution grants those groups certain rights. The Rohingya are not among them. More broadly, people in Myanmar insist that the Rohingya are not a real ethnic group because they worry about the unlikely possibility that the Rohingya will seek to secede, threatening the country’s territorial sovereignty.
National identity in Myanmar has long been intertwined with Buddhist religious identity. But religion has had a particular effect in the case of the Rohingya. The so-called War on Terror—waged primarily against Muslims around the world—has made it easier for Myanmar’s elites to label the Rohingya as terrorists and for government officials to defend the violence against them as a legitimate response to extremism. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s attacks on government targets in October 2016 and August 2017, meanwhile, have validated many citizens’ belief that Islam is inherently violent and poses an existential threat to Buddhism, Myanmar’s majority religion. It has also allowed political and religious elites to unfairly and inaccurately associate all Rohingya with terrorism. Thanks to anti-Muslim ideas spread through social media sites, the popular press, and the writings and sermons of influential laypeople and monks, Myanmar’s citizens have come to see the Rohingya as doubly unwanted—as both national and religious “others.”
Sitagu Sayadaw is one such monk. Highly regarded for his philanthropic work, he is probably the most popular and well-known religious figure in Myanmar. Many in the country consider his interpretations of Buddhist teachings authoritative. He has a global profile, running meditation centers in several countries and making frequent international appearances.
After the first round of violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State in 2012, Sitagu sought to portray himself as a peace builder, participating in interfaith discussions as a patron of a nongovernmental organization called Religions for Peace–Myanmar. Commentators abroad lauded him as a force for reconciliation. Yet Sitagu’s usually moderate remarks in English stood in stark contrast to his Burmese-language sermons, in which he has tended to portray Islam as a religion of violence and Myanmar’s Muslims as foreigners in their own country.
That remains the case today. On October 30, Sitagu delivered a sermon to members of the military at a training school in Karen State. His remarks had a chilling purpose: to provide a religious justification for the mass killing of non-Buddhists.
IN BUDDHISM’S NAME
Sitagu’s sermon focused on the story of Dutthagamani, a Sinhalese Buddhist king whose victory over a Tamil ruler in the first century BCE, in what is now Sri Lanka, is recounted in a fifth-century text called the Mahavamsa. Sitagu framed his account with a call for unity between the military and the monkhood: the two, he said, “are inseparable.” This might seem an unusual comment from a monk who fled his country in 1988 after criticizing its then-military government. Today, however, Sitagu counts high-ranking military officials among his donors.
As Dutthagamani agonized over the bloodshed he had caused in battle, Sitagu told the soldiers, he was visited by eight arahants, or fully enlightened beings. They assured the king that there was no need to grieve. Of the many Tamils whom Dutthagamani’s forces had killed, the arahants said, only one had committed himself to the basic ethical code of Buddhism. Another had taken a lesser vow. And so only one and a half human beings had died: all the other Tamils who had been had killed were non-Buddhists, and their deaths could not generate bad karma.
Dutthagamani’s goal in battle, Sitagu noted several times, was not to defend his throne but to protect his religion. Myamnmar’s Buddhists have justified violence against Muslims in similar terms since at least 2012. But Sitagu’s sermon raised the stakes: he is a revered monk, and he preached a religious justification for violence to a gathering of soldiers in the midst of a campaign of mass brutality. Blurring the lines between a fifth-century legend and the present, Sitagu told the soldiers that no matter how much they have to fight, they should remember that those they kill are not fully human.
Dutthagamani’s story has been used to justify mass murder in other contexts, even as Buddhists have sought to frame it as a defense of religion. In Sri Lanka, for instance, Sinhalese monks invoked the story during the government’s brutal, decades-long war against the Tamil Tigers, an insurgency made up of Christians and Hindus. “The destruction of human beings” in defense of Buddhism, the Sinhalese monk Walpola Rahula wrote in 1972, “was not a very grave crime.”
A DEEPER TRAGEDY
By denying the humanity of non-Buddhists, Sitagu also imperiled the humanity of the soldiers to whom he preached—and of all who have taken part in the violence against the Rohingya. Seeking to absolve soldiers of their guilt, he justified future abuses, encouraging a militarized mind set and cruelties that could shatter the prospects for broader peace and reconciliation.
Some might argue that Sitagu‘s sermon will have no meaningful effect. For years, after all, some monks in Myanmar have sought to dehumanize Muslims, comparing them to animals and undercutting whatever compassion lay Buddhists might otherwise offer them. But Sitagu is not just any monk. He is so influential and revered that his words could provide the final cover for Myanmar’s Buddhists to ignore international criticism and cloak themselves in the righteousness of holy war.
That is a frightening prospect not only for the Rohingya but also for Myanmar’s other minorities. Religious, political, and military leaders could eventually turn similar logic against groups such as the Kachin Independence Army, a group made up primarily of Christians—particularly if Myanmar’s conflict-ridden regions remain restive. In Karen State, where Sitagu delivered his sermon, ethnic and religious minorities have faced violence at the hands of the military for years.
Yet there is also a chance that Sitagu’s rhetoric will backfire, horrifying at least some in Myanmar and leading them to reject violence committed in Buddhism’s name. Most of the country’s civil-society and human-rights groups have stayed quiet over the last few weeks, but the Karen Women’s Organization, a community advocacy group, recently issued a brave statement denouncing the military’s actions against Rohingyas in Rakhine State, especially its involvement in sexual violence. In an encouraging sign, the Karen National Union, an armed group in a tenuous ceasefire with the military, followed up with a similar statement. This might create an opening for ethnic groups that have experienced brutality at the hands of the military to recognize some shared solidarity of suffering with the Rohingya and to reject religious justifications for violence.
These are hopeful signs, but their paucity reflects the distance that most people in Myanmar feel from the Rohingya’s suffering and their fear of speaking out against it. Ordinary citizens have mostly supported Sitagu’s remarks on social media. With popular opinion set so vehemently against the Rohingya, it is hard to know how many people agree with Sitagu and how many disagree and are afraid to say so, either because of his status as a revered monk or because they are scared of violent reprisals at a moment of high tension.
The government, for its part, has yet to comment on Sitagu’s sermon. Given Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s claim that she is committed to peacefully ending the conflict and the intense scrutiny the violence has attracted overseas, she should not let his sermon pass without a remark. As for the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, the country’s highest Buddhist authority, it has done almost nothing to limit monks’ incitements to violence over the last five years, and it is unlikely to take action now. That is bad news, because monks are often the only people with the moral and cultural authority to challenge the words of their peers. Myanmar desperately needs Buddhists to speak out and pull their country from the brink of a deeper tragedy.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.