The general perception of Buddhism in the West is one of peace, tranquility and modesty. Buddhist monks, and their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, have been a source of inspiration for celebrities and children’s cartoons alike. So it might come as a surprise to know that in the past two weeks, the Buddhist majority in Myanmar has been extremely hostile toward the Muslim minority of the country.
Prompted by a row in a gold shop in the city of Meiktila, mobs of Buddhist citizens and monks raided Muslim properties and killed more than 30 people on March 20, injuring some 70 bystanders in the process. From Meiktila, violence spread rapidly in the surrounding regions and has been continuing in full force for weeks. Tensions have always been lurking on the surface of Burmese culture, as radical nationalists have long perceived Muslims as foreigners coming from India to steal their wealth and property, even though a considerable fraction of the Muslim population is indeed native. Since the attacks started, the mobs have destroyed Muslim shops, homes, and mosques. According to the latest numbers, at least 12,000 Muslims have had to flee their homes and are seeking refuge elsewhere.
The government has declared a state of emergency in the affected regions; in Meiktila proper, a curfew has been imposed, with the national army trying to assuage the situation. Though daytime is relatively safe for the 100,000 Muslim inhabitants of Meiktila, nighttime is anything but. Despite the one thousand police officers stationed in the city, and additional help sent by the United Nations, the situation does not seem to be improving.
This violence in Myanmar seems to have spread to Sri Lanka and Indonesia as well. Nevertheless, the Dalai Lama, who condemned past violence of this kind in the region, has been silent on the current state of affairs in these two countries. These displays of violence — though scarcely covered by Western media — still threaten the images of Southeast Asia and Buddhism itself. And, what’s more, they hamper the economic growth and stability of a region that desperately needs it.
In the past year, Myanmar has been described as the new Asian tiger. As political turmoil started to dissipate and as the military government, with its President Thein Sein, decided to implement substantive reforms, 2012 seemed like a great year for the nation. Political prisoners were released, elections were relatively fair and a ceasefire had been negotiated with several ethnic groups within the country. This marked a first step towards a much needed peace. Yet, the recent outburst of violence, especially coming, as it does, from the side that represents the majority of the population in Myanmar, threatens to overshadow all other signs of political progress (not least the reinstatement of Aung San Suu Kyi as a member of parliament). If the government does not want its efforts of political opening-up to have been in vain, and if it wants to retain the support it has recently garnered from the West, it must act quickly.
Photo credit: www.bbc.co.uk