YANGON, Myanmar — 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.
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.
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.
I grew up in 1990s in a conservative Buddhist family and spent every summer after the fifth grade studying at monasteries. Rather than focus on meditation, the monks practiced astrology to attract donations and were busy collecting household objects as alms. Today, many Burmese monks own digital phones, luxury cars and LCD televisions. Some also gamble. “Only when you grow old do you seek the path of spirituality,” an abbot in Yangon told me last week. “Otherwise, most of the monks lead a normal life not different from that of laymen.”
Worse, the monks I met during those summers viewed the Sangha as a sect, displaying little regard for other faiths and much indifference for the universal nature of Buddha’s teachings. As long as Myanmar is unstable politically and economically, the order will remain a refuge for people in trouble but also, in some cases, a breeding ground for sectarianism.
In 2001, anti-Muslim attacks broke out in Taungoo, Pyinmana, Kyaukse and other cities in central Myanmar, and several of the young monks involved were jailed. I met some of them in Myingyan Prison near Mandalay, where I was serving time as a student dissident. One proudly told me that he had defended Buddhism by torching Muslims’ properties. Another, known as Wirathu, who was jailed at a different prison for the same crimes now runs a campaign called the 969 movement, giving hate speeches against Muslims.
Last year, after clashes against the Rohingyas, a stateless Muslim minority in Rakhine State, some friends of mine who are monks told me that human rights and Western values didn’t apply to that group. When I asked why not, and argued that as fellow human beings Rohingyas should also be treated according to Buddhist principles, my friends shook their heads and told me I was not a Burmese.
I’m glad they didn’t say I was not a Buddhist.
Swe Win is a freelance journalist based in Yangon.