Sooner or Later, We Face History’s Judgment

Sooner or Later, We Face History’s Judgment

The changing face of Buddhist Burma in TIME.

In October 2007, when the Burmese generals sent in the Army to crush the peaceful protests led by Buddhist monks, TIME exposed the confrontation with this cover. Under the headline PRAYING FOR BURMA, it shows a group of rain-soaked monks with raised palms. The story summary — perhaps the editor’s warning to the Military Regime — ends with “The world is watching.” And I for one was glad that TIME was watching. I knew the cover and the article wouldn’t stop the slaughter on the ground, wouldn’t protect the monks crouching under the shadow of Shwe Dagon from the soldiers’ batons, boots, and bullets. But perhaps, I thought, perhaps it would prompt the top brass in Naypyidaw to pause and reflect. When the world is a witness to your crime, your know you’ll have to face history’s judgment sooner or later.

This week, when TIME released the cover for its July 1st issue, many Burmese come to realize the world is watching them once again. This time, the magazine turns its editorial gaze on a different kind of monk. The Asia edition features a closeup of Wirathu from Masoeyein Monastery in Mandalay. Set against his maroon robe, the blazing white type screams: THE FACE OF BUDDHIST TERROR.

Wirathu believes his country, culture, and race are under attack. In this video interview with The Guardian, he claims, “In every town, we’re raped, insulted. In every town, they form gangs and bully us. In every town, many such cruel and savage Muslims can be found.” In his widely circulated YouTube sermon, he urges his followers to boycott Muslim-owned businesses. “Whatever you do, be motivated by nationalism,” he says. “Look at things from nationalistic perspective. Listen with nationalism in mind. Whatever you do, do it with nationalism. Eat with nationalism. Go with nationalism. When trading, do it with nationalism.” He accuses both Aung San Suu Kyi and former student leader Min Ko Naing of being under Muslim influence; he complains they didn’t stand up for the Rakhine people during the Rakhine-Rohingya conflict in western Burma in 2012.

Last week in the town of Hmawbi, at a monastic convention involving more than 200 monks, Wirathu and a few others proposed a draft law, called the Race-Protection Act (Myo Saunt Upade). Without seeking women’s input, they came up with what they felt was a measure to “protect the Buddhist women.” The law would require Buddhist brides to seek parental consent and government approval before marrying Muslim men. It would also require Muslim men marrying Buddhist women to convert to Buddhism. If Wirathu and his gang could have their way, violators would be penalized with up to 10 years in prison. Oddly, the law’s authors didn’t see the need to impose similar measures on marriages involving Buddhist women and Hindu or Christian suitors. The Act was also silent on Buddhist men who might wish to marry Muslim women. After severe criticism from women’s groups, led by none other than Suu Kyi’s own voice, the monk assembly in Hmawbi dropped the drafted law. But not Wirathu. He has vowed to plow ahead, to continue to gather signatures of support for the law.

This is the monk TIME‘s reporter Hannah Beech has chosen to expose as the face of radical Buddhism in Burma. And this is the monk many Burmese — monks and laymen alike — are flocking online to defend. For once, I’m glad most of my American friends don’t understand Burmese, because I’m frankly embarrassed by the vitriolic words written in my native tongue, flooding Facebook like a monsoon downpour. But unfortunately the onslaught is also spilling out in English.

A Facebook page titled “We Boycott TIME Magazine” serves as one of the popular destinations for Wirathu supporters. It came online three days ago, on June 20. It has since gained more than 10,000 fans. Here, my countrymen express their indignation in both Burmese and English.

Commenting beneath a photo of the reporter, Rocky Burmese writes, “She is fucking know nothing about Buddhist (sic).” Phyo Arker adds, “She is trying to spread hate message to middle east so to create more violences she can get $$$ from rich oil billionaires (sic).” Another uploaded a photo of Wirathu with the words “He’s our Hero!” across it.

I want to tell my American friends — and the rest of the World, for that matter — that Wirathu’s preachings and his get-them-before-they-get-us battle cry do not represent the kind, gentle, tolerant spirit of my homeland. But reports of Burmese mobs burning down mosques and leveling Muslim villages suggest otherwise.

In my view, Wirathu’s preachings are not defensible. Neither are the waves of violence spreading across Burma, striking terror in the hearts of a vulnerable minority. There have certainly been individual acts of atrocities committed by some Muslims against the Burmese. The rape and murder of a Buddhist woman that sparked the Rakhine-Rohingya conflict, the murder of a Buddhist monk in Meiktila, and the burning of a Burmese woman, to name but a few. But the collective punishment the Burmese have meted out in retaliation is shocking, to say the least. It suggests the mob no longer made a distinction between the perpetrators and the Muslim communities they belonged to.

Weary of the tarnished image of religion, some prominent Burmese Buddhist monks publicly contradicted Wirathu. In his interview with Kamayut Media (video in Burmese), Badana Panna Wuntha, a veteran from the Saffron Revolution of 2007, observes, “We can’t always think with a religious slant. If we do, we won’t become a democratic nation. We’d become a theocratic nation. What’s the point if we do that? We’d be right back at the feudal age.”

The violence committed in the name of Buddhism doesn’t sit well with the Dalai Lama either. In an interview with London-based Chanel 4 News, His Holiness was asked to comment on the Buddhist-Muslim conflict in Burma. He says, “I’m Buddhist, but I should not develop attachment to Buddhism. If I’m too much attached to my own faith, then [the] whole mental attitude becomes biased.”

That may be the clue to understanding the reactions among some Burmese toward the July 1st TIME cover. Never mind that Wirathu is preaching inflammatory sermons directed at a minority belonging to another faith. Never mind that his rants run counter to the established Buddhist tenet of universal love and nonviolence. Never mind that he may have contributed to the plight of thousands of displaced refugees, still cowering in fear. All some Burmese see is a Buddhist monk branded with the word TERROR. That, they feel, is an insult to their national identity, as inseparable from them as the Moke Hingha they eat or the pagodas they bow to.

TIME once helped define the face of Buddhist Burma by highlighting the dignity and grace with which the better angels of the country faced one of the most brutal regimes in the region. In the coming months and in the future, the Burmese will define who they are by the way they treat the powerless and the weak when they have the upper hand.

You can’t defend Buddhism by taking up arms in its name. If you do, you have already lost your faith. You defend it by becoming an exemplar of Buddhist compassion. You can’t protect Buddhism by sending other faiths into exile. You do it by banishing prejudice, bigotry, and hatred from your heart. Only that brand of Buddhism will allow my fellow Burmese to stand proud and tall when they face history’s judgment.

For more on this topic:
Statement from President Thein Sein’s office rejecting TIME’s cover story on Wirathu:
A Burmese translation of the article by blogger Harry Lwin:

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One Response to “Sooner or Later, We Face History’s Judgment”

  1. unsteadying Says:

    Today, I went to the beachfront with my kids. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear
    and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is totally
    off topic but I had to tell someone!

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