When Buddhists call for genocide

There's a fascinating story in the American Buddhist magazine Shambala Sun about the Burmese Buddhists who are killing and harassing their Muslim neighbors. Thoughtful and full of context, it is very much worth a read.

Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist teacher from the US, wrote the piece after traveling through Burma and seeing some of the violence firsthand. He does a good job of explaining the background that has lead up to the genocide in a nuanced way that helps explain how a religion of peace turns violent without taking the emphasis off the victims of that violence.

The biggest source of conflict is the unsettled situation of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma's westernmost state. Rakhine is a beautiful land bordering Bangladesh that was for centuries a great seafaring kingdom. But ever since the central Burmese kings conquered Rakhine, the people there have been treated badly. And over the last century, a million Rohingya Muslims, seeking new opportunity or fleeing poverty and mistreatment in present-day Bangladesh, have settled in Rakhine. Today, overpopulated Bangladesh doesn't want them back and the Rakhine natives, already poor and mistreated by the central government, fear they are losing land and livelihood to the Muslims immigrants, even though many Rohingyas have lived there peacefully for decades.

The current economic pressure has made the situation ripe for fear, violence, and political exploitation. Muslim homes and businesses have been torched and 100,000 Rohingya Muslims, many of them women and children, have been forced into impoverished refugee camps. When I spoke to Rohingyas from Rakhine, their eyes got wide with dismay, and there was a palpable helplessness and fear of attacks by the Buddhist majority. Recently, the drumbeat of violence against Muslims and other minorities has spread to other parts of Burma, often with the tacit approval of the local police and military.

I witnessed firsthand the results of the spreading violence in the town of Lashio in northern Shan state, where this past year a mosque, businesses, and a Muslim orphanage were burned not far from the town's most revered pagoda. While the local Buddhists I spoke to were friendly, they were also worried, and from their ranks came mobs who torched their Muslim neighbors.

Of the nearly half a million monks and nuns in Burma, those espousing hatred and supporting violence are a handful, less than one percent. But their message of fear and prejudice resonates because of several factors.