Burmese monks promoting peaceful initiatives to quell tensions (Updated)

Among the many unsavory details of the occasionally violent, decade-long conflict between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya, now beginning to spread beyond Burma’s western Rakhine state, is the involvement of so-called “nationalist monks” in fomenting anti-Muslim bigotry and even directly inciting the violence. Some of these monks have organized around the “969 campaign” (the name derives from a particular way to categorize the qualities of the Three Jewels — Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha — and is supposed to indicate the “pure following” of these). Originally pushing an initiative to encourage Buddhists to boycott Muslim businesses, the “969 monks” made the news again last week, after a conference at which they issued a call for the Burmese government to implement a law to restrict Buddhist women from marrying Muslim men

But welcome news emerged from Burma, over the past week, that the greater majority of the country’s revered ordained sangha are vigorously promoting peaceful initiatives to quell the ethnic tensions and engaging in hands-on actions of compassionate charity. After a deadly riot erupted in the town of Lashio last Wednesday, more than 1,000 fleeing Muslims were offered life-saving sanctuary in the compound of a nearby Buddhist monastery, with the monks personally organizing meals to feed them. And, according to Burmese monks such as Ashin Issariya, one of the leaders of 2007’s ‘Saffron Revolution,’ this is not an isolated act, as he explained to the South China Post:

“’Now, he said, ‘We are mobilising monks to aid our Muslim brothers.

“‘Many monks and monasteries have provided aid and sanctuary to thousands of displaced Muslims now in camps.’

“Ashin Issariya is part of a network of 800 monks, including at least 10 other leaders of the 2007 protests. The network sends regular truckloads of rice, clothes and other aid to the predominantly Muslim victims of the recent violence and has been promoting interfaith dialogue with Muslim leaders.”

More than 200 of Burma’s most respected monks gathered this past weekend to both conduct a ceremony reasserting the fundamentally peaceful nature of the Buddha’s teachings and his followers, and to issue a statement which, as elevenmyanmar.com reports:

“…urges the peaceful coexistence within the country, respecting the 1982 Citizenship Law, which supports peaceful coexistence in Myanmar. The monks also urged the Buddhists in the country not to take part in the so-called ‘969’ anti-Muslim movement, as well as calling for government policies and actions that are in accord with actual Buddhist principles.”

This is significant because the conference was organized by Burma’s Sangha Maha Nayaka council, viewed by some as a government mouthpiece. Up until now, while various individual monastic and lay activists in Burma have decried the unrest, this is the first time this council has publicly denounced the extremist monks.

June 18 update: For a thorough, well-linked, up-to-the-minute overview of the history and ongoing crisis affecting the Muslim minorities living in Buddhist-majority Burma, please read Rev. Danny Fisher’s June 17 blog post, “SPECIAL REPORT: A Buddhist Minister’s Experience of the Myanmar Muslims Genocide Awareness Convention.”