The riots started after some disparaging remarks about a religious figure, originally written seven years earlier, were republished and promoted by the national media. In the wake of the public outcry at the remarks, religious leaders arranged protests that escalated into riots in which the co-religionists of the offender were attacked and their businesses looted. Given recent instances of violence over religious offence, such as the Jyllands-Posten cartoons or the Innocence of Muslims film, it’d be unsurprising if you guessed this was yet another instance of Muslim outrage. But you’d be wrong.
The year was 1938 and the offended were Burma’s Buddhist community who attacked the Burmese Muslim community for comments made about the Buddha by a Muslim author. The Yahan Pyo Apwe or Young Monks Association, a Buddhist organisation that had been at the forefront of a campaign that propagated anti-foreign sentiments, held a protest at the Shwedagon Pagoda. They warned the British colonial government that if the author of the remarks was not punished
steps will be taken to treat the Muslims as enemy No. 1 who insult the Buddhist community and their religion, and to bring about the extermination of the Muslims and the extinction of their religion and language.
The protest turned to rioting as Buddhists clashed with police and attacked Muslims. Some of the monks who were struck with police batons died and their photos, like the one below, were published in the press, setting off yet more rioting.
According to Donald Eugene Smith in his book Religion and Politics in Burma (1965):
Monks everywhere played a leading role in instigating and directing the rioters; monasteries became armed strongholds and sanctuaries for those sought by the police.
Despite this, the 1938 riots became less about the perceived insult to Buddhism and more about the economic grievances that had emerged as a result of the Indian migration to Burma under British rule. Muslims, Hindus, and Indians more generally became the victims of anti-colonial, Buddhist nationalism. This was because, as Smith argues, the Burmese were not in a position to attack the British government directly so instead attacked those who were close to the British, such as the Indians who migrated with the colonisers and the Muslims who worked with the colonial government. In addition, according to Julianne Schober in her book Modern Buddhist Conjunctures In Myanmar (2011), the economic influence of Muslims and other Indians in across all sectors of society from banking to low-wage portering and labouring jobs had been a cause of earlier violent confrontations.
The virulent anti-foreign sentiments were present in the media too. Chie Ikeya’s dissertation on the representation of women in colonial Burma found that the Burmese press criticised Burmese women for adopting Western fashions and lifestyles, which, one writer argued, rendered them incapable of engaging with nationalist matters. Illustrations, such as the one below, were intended to criticise women who were too ‘Western’.
Monks from the Young Monks Association would prowl Rangoon’s streets in the 1930s, confronting men and women who were dressed in Western-style clothing. However, it was not only Western fashions that received the ire of the media but marriages between Indian men and Burmese women, which one editorial suggested would lead to the “ruination of the race”. In another article, a writer claimed a Burmese woman’s intercourse with an Indian would lead to the destruction of Burmese society.
Fast forward seventy-five years later and U Wirathu, the Burmese Buddhist monk at the centre of anti-Muslim violence in contemporary Burma, speaks in similar tones. In an interview with journalist Francis Wade earlier this year he claimed:
According to my research, 100 percent of rape cases in Burma are by Muslims. None are by Buddhists. They forcibly take young Buddhist girls as their wives. If the wives continue to practice Buddhism then they torture them every day.
U Wirathu has also likened Muslims to the invasive African catfish:
“The African catfish have a very great population and they eat each other and destroy nature. These catfish are not allowed into the country to breed.”
Seventy-five years apart the role of Buddhist monks is another striking similarity. But why have the monastics taken a central position in the movements?
The prominent role of monks in the 1938 protests was not altogether unexpected considering that the British government, through colonial rule, removed the prestige of monks by usurping the Burmese monarchy and thus destroying their monastic community’s link to political power. Smith, again, writing of monks in Burma under the British:
There was no place for him in the new western-oriented social hierarchy, his educational functions were assumed by other agencies, an unknown foreign language prevented him from understanding what was going on, and westernized Burmese laymen increasingly regarded him as irrelevant to modern life. Of all sections of Burmese society, the pongyis [monks] had the strongest reasons for hating the British and became of the most uncompromising nationalists.
The British actively sought to prevent the sangha from uniting under one Buddhist patriarch or thathanabaing, fearing that they would emerge as an independent political power. The ramifications of this policy was that influential members of the monastic community at lower-levels began participating in nationalist movements because the authority of the Buddhist hierarchy had lessened. The British subsequently attempted to discourage monks from participating in nationalist movements but the genie was effectively out of the bottle. As Bruce Matthews observes in his article on the relationship between the monastic community and the military regimes of Burma, the British decision to effectively ignore the patriarch, and later abolish the office of thathanabaing, meant that the sangha was fractured and unable to speak with one voice.
During Ne Win’s tenure as ruler of Burma there was an effort to unite the Burmese sangha under a supreme Buddhist council organised by the state which oversaw local level Buddhist councils. Matthews argues that this effort to bring Buddhism under state control was largely unsuccessful if judged by the participation of monks in the pro-democracy movements of 1988. That monks yet again played a prominent role in the 2007 anti-government protests suggests this effort ultimately failed.
Set against this backdrop, it’s possible to understand how U Wirathu manages to advocate violence against Muslims. The weakness of the Buddhist clerical hierarchy makes it difficult to pull him into line, especially as he taps into the Burmans sense of chauvinism over other ethnic minorities. The transition from authoritarian rule to something ostensibly more democratic but with weak players, and I would include Aung San Suu Kyi as one of the weak for her silence over anti-Muslim violence, reinforces what Smith noted as one of the main consequences of the 1938:
The committee [into the causes of the riots] pointed out that the traditional reverence accorded monks in the past had now in the changed circumstances made them “the greatest political force in Burma,” and that every politician was careful to maintain the support of his own local [monks] or the [monks] association.
It appears that the politicians of the new Burma are throwing Muslims under the bus in order to avoid becoming the target of U Wirathu and his supporters’ ire.
- Poison in the Sangha (therevealer.org)
- Burma ethnic tensions rise after mosque and orphanage torched (telegraph.co.uk)
- Burma’s Rohingya people: a story of segregation and desperation