THE BLOG

Religion and Human Rights: Buddhist Hatred in Sri Lanka and Burma

Faith can be a comfort and faith can be a cudgel. Faith has been and remains for many to be a wellspring of inspiration that can be used to check one's moral compass and to recharge one's internal resources the struggle for all people's human rights. It is also important to recognize that there is a long tradition of religion being misused to justify the systematic denial of people's human rights, or indeed their very humanness. We must always be vigilant in watching religion.

The documented misuses of religion are considerable in their impact for human rights. Catholic Inquisitions spanned nearly six centuries and the justification to deprive people of rights, liberty, and in many cases life itself, was framed in the need to correct "heresy." From the Partition Riots early in India and Pakistan's independence, through the destruction of a mosque in Ayodhya, to the bombings in Mumbai, the use of religion to justify violence by both Hindus and Muslims is well-documented. The deployment of state force to dispossess Palestinians and to build Jewish-only settlements is defended on the basis of religion.

In cases too numerous to list, and across the spectrum of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, the world is often aware of the capacity of religion to anesthetize so-called "true believers" to their individual actions. We can look back at considerable documentation of the ways in which travesties are committed (or are being committed) because they have become normalized by the misuse of religious doctrines and the active campaigning or complicity of real-or-imagined religious leadership. That these things happened in some cultures and faiths is unquestionable. The fact that they continue to happen is one of the many motivations of others of faith that work in solidarity with human rights. Awareness of a problem is always a key point in beginning to solve it. After all, with a history of Christianity being used to justify the ugliest parts of racism from slavery to segregation, Martin Luther King Jr. tapped the wells of faith to inspire generations of people to use their religions as a force to increase freedoms and rights for all.

With this in mind, what religion is usually cited as being somehow beyond these concerns? In the West, the popular view is that Buddhists would never do such things as the nightmares brought about by the misuse of other religions' doctrines. It is important to see that Buddhism is being misused to justify horrific abuses right now. In the displacement and deprivation of basic human and political rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the incredible unrest and displacement of the Rohingya in western Burma's Arakan/Rakhine State, it is Buddhism itself that is being misused to justify and normalize the abuse of others for being different.

In Sri Lanka, an imperative to "protect" Buddhism has been used to discriminate against non-Buddhist peoples for decades. Disturbingly, there have been mobs either composed of or led by robed monks that have attacked churches and have made pronouncements of the imperative to "protect Buddhism" a rallying cry for violence against Tamils of different faiths and of other peoples who are not practitioners of Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism. Though the civil war there was conclusively won by government forces in 2009, there remains an alarming tendency to dismiss non-Buddhist peoples in the country as being less-than in ways that infringe on the very fundamentals of political and human rights. Colombo has refused to allow independent human rights monitors or the United Nations to have access to the areas and peoples most at-risk and their popular internal support for such actions are often couched in the language of "defense of Buddhism."

The Rohingya minority in Arakan/Rakhine state in western Burma is often considered one of the most disempowered peoples in the world. Formally stripped of citizenship and recognition in 1981, tension has long simmered along these people who live not far from the border with Bangladesh. The current tensions and violence has been abetted by government security forces and that is unsurprising. What is disturbing is that the discourse from some in the opposition democracy camps that received so much support internationally for their struggle are now calling for the forced expulsion of these people to Bangladesh, in spite of Bangladesh emphatically denying that option. Most alarming is the fact that there are robed Buddhist monks calling for this expulsion, for maintaining the Rohingya in separate camps, and in actively blocking basic food and medical aid from reaching them. The excuse? The claim is made to "defend" Burmese Buddhism.

The privileging of an exclusive religious, ethnic, or national grouping (or almost anything else that creates an in-group/out-group model) becomes a problem when other groups are considered to be intrinsically "less." The world mustn't see any religion as being somehow beyond being used for horrific ends, not even Buddhism. The most inspiring religious models for human rights are those that focused foremost on human equality, on the important of individual character, and the belief that we're all in this world together.

It is Buddhism that gave the world the Kalama Sutta, which specifically shuns accepting statements because of any speaker's authority and encourages critical thinking as the only way to know if a statement is true or not. It is Buddhism that asks for Five Precepts of adherents, the first of which is to not harm other living beings. When people of faith use their religions to support human rights, we end up with figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. Who will come out of the horrors and misuses in Sri Lanka and Burma to return to a Buddhism that supports and protects human rights for all? We must support each other in the struggle for dignity and rights from a ground of loving one another instead of dividing. It is more important than ever before. Examine religion in the daily details. Does it deny human rights or does it support them? More than ever, religion must adhere to the rules of tolerance and embracing diversity.

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