Myanmar's Enemy Within: Buddhist Nationalism and Anti-Muslim Violence
by Francis Wade
Zed Books/University of Chicago Press, 256 pp.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the current humanitarian crisis in western Myanmar's Rakhine State. Both the human rights chief at the United Nations and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have affirmed that Myanmar's security forces are engaged in ethnic cleansing to wipe out the Muslim, ethnic Rohingya group in Rakhine State. Since August 2017, when violence spiked in Rakhine following the alleged attack by a shadowy Rohingya insurgent group on several police posts, more than 615,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh. The wave of murders, land grabbing, and arson allegedly has been directed by the armed forces, and local police, but has also been carried out by local vigilantes.
Those who have fled Myanmar since August join the tens of thousands of Rohingya who have already streamed into Bangladesh since the violence in Rakhine State first began in 2012. Then, the alleged rape of a Buddhist ethnic Rakhine by a group of Rohingya led to fierce attacks on Rohingya communities. Groups of Buddhists, often equipped and driven by local police, security forces, and political agitators, attacked Rohingya towns, burning many to the ground. Over the past five years, many Rohingya have been evicted from their old communities and confined to ghettos or camps located inside Rakhine State that human rights organizations have called "open-air" concentration camps.
Myanmar's top generals, still in control of the security forces, bear the ultimate responsibility for the bloodshed, but the de facto head of government, Aung San Suu Kyi, has done nothing to stop it and bears responsibility as well. Outside powers, too, are accountable. The United States and most other democracies continued to promote closer ties with Myanmar throughout the 2010s, even as the crisis in Rakhine State was intensifying into ethnic cleansing. Well before the escalation this past August, the U.S. and other democracies should have publicly warned Myanmar's generals to stop the killing or face severe targeted sanctions.
Yet one group's responsibility for the Rakhine crisis has not been fully explored: that of Myanmar's nationalist Buddhist leaders. Since the early 2010s, hard-line Buddhist monks have played a central role in fomenting anti-Rohingya sentiment, which has spiraled into a nationwide campaign of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim attacks. They have further destabilized an already precarious political situation, and revealed to the world that Myanmar's democratic success story is unfulfilled and leading to illiberal majoritarian rule.
To many Americans, the idea of Buddhist monks taking hard-line, nationalist positions, organizing hate speech, and advocating violence might seem difficult to fathom. I have done several interviews with American journalists who found the idea of monks being involved in violent politics strange, if not shocking. Views of Buddhism in the U.S. have been shaped by the writings and teachings of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, celebrity Buddhists, and authors focusing on Buddhism as a self-improvement vehicle. (To be fair, several journalists with long experience in Southeast Asia, like Hannah Beech at the New York Times, have thoroughly covered the rise of Buddhist...