Myanmar

Sri Lanka: Buddhists again turn on Muslims. So where do Western Buddhists stand?

Sri Lanka: Buddhists again turn on Muslims. So where do Western Buddhists stand?

It’s no where near as widespread as the vicious attacks against Buddhist Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, but a similar inter-religious clash is currently roiling Sri Lanka.

If you're not current with the breaking situation, this Reuters news piece will help. So will this analysis from Britain’s The Independent.

There are two takeaways here that journalists need to understand.

First, some majority Buddhist nations -- all of them in Asia -- are reacting to the growth of Islam in their midst in similar fashion to the reaction of some European countries, not to mention a large number of American Christians (religious and cultural) and others.

That is to say, with much alarm; fear of Islamic terrorism being a prime motivator. A second motivator is cultural in nature; the fear of losing one’s historical national dominance as global demographics shift. Call this the tribal component.

This New York Times analysis explains what I mean in far greater detail. Its’s headlined: “Why Are We Surprised When Buddhists Are Violent?” Here’s a taste of it.

Most adherents of the world’s religions claim that their traditions place a premium on virtues like love, compassion and forgiveness, and that the state toward which they aim is one of universal peace. History has shown us, however, that religious traditions are human affairs, and that no matter how noble they may be in their aspirations, they display a full range of both human virtues and human failings.
While few sophisticated observers are shocked, then, by the occurrence of religious violence, there is one notable exception in this regard; there remains a persistent and widespread belief that Buddhist societies really are peaceful and harmonious. This presumption is evident in the reactions of astonishment many people have to events like those taking place in Myanmar. How, many wonder, could a Buddhist society — especially Buddhist monks! — have anything to do with something so monstrously violent as the ethnic cleansing now being perpetrated on Myanmar’s long-beleaguered Rohingya minority? Aren’t Buddhists supposed to be compassionate and pacifist?

I know this is on the longish side, but allow me to also quote this part of the Times essay. It's illuminating, as is the entire article.

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New York Times writer: The most sympathetic sources may lie -- even Rohingya refugees

New York Times writer: The most sympathetic sources may lie -- even Rohingya refugees

One of journalism’s abiding truisms is that you’re only as good as your sources. Here’s exhibit A from the dawn of my own career, which is to say the mid-1960s.

My first newspaper job was as a glorified copy boy at Newsday, then headquartered in the New York City suburb of Garden City, Long Island. I say glorified because in addition to doing a lot of fetching I also wrote a spate of local obits when no one else was available.

I worked the overnight shift and it was on one such occasion that I called the home of a local man that a funeral home reported had died of natural causes.

Yeah, we did that, ignoring the intrusiveness of it all.

If we were lucky a relative or friend of the deceased would answer. To my surprise, the widow picked up the phone. She not only agreed to provide a few details of her husband’s life but sounded cheerful in the process. I took that to be odd but did not ask her why she sounded as she did out of my newbie reticence.

The following day, instead of running my three- or four-graph obit, the paper ran a lengthier piece on its prime news pages that carried the byline of a police beat reporter. My ebullient widow had been arrested on suspicion of murdering her husband.

Oh well, live and learn. Not every source is reliable.

I relate this (at the time, highly embarrassing) personal story as a lead in to a remarkable New York Times piece written by its Southeast Asia bureau chief Hannah Beech, who I've praised before.

In addition to filing the expected stories on Buddhist Myanmar’s genocidal attacks on it's Rohingya Muslim minority, Beech ably provides keen insight into how the media influences the conflict. She does so with great sensitivity. That makes her the perfect GetReligion subject, in my book.

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The pope’s Myanmar plight recalls church struggles with rotten regimes of the past

The pope’s Myanmar plight recalls church struggles with rotten regimes of the past

Journalists might tear themselves away from U.S. evangelicals’ moral entanglements with Donald Trump and Roy Moore to consider how church leaders should handle rotten regimes overseas as grist for a reflective essay.

Pope Francis’s visit to Buddhist Myanmar put this on the news docket. Beforehand, Father Thomas Reese said Francis risked “either compromising his moral authority or putting in danger the Christians of that country,” so “someone should have talked him out of making this trip.”

That is, Francis might harm Myanmar’s tiny, persecuted Christian flock if he denounced the military’s campaign of rape, mass murder, arson and forced exile against Rohingya Muslims. Yet sidestepping of atrocities had already besmirched the moral stature of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The pope decided not to publicly utter the word “Rohingya” in  Myanmar,  offering only generalized human rights pleas. Only later, meeting Muslim refugees in Bangladesh, did he cite their name: “We won’t close our hearts or look away. The presence of God today is also called Rohingya.”

On the flight back to Rome, Francis told reporters that naming the victims in Myanmar “would have been a door slammed in my face.” Instead, he figured keeping silent  facilitated behind-scenes “dialogue, and in this way the message arrived.” So, did he defend the Rohingya when meeting the military? “I dared say everything I wanted to say.”

Despite criticism of the papal performance from human rights activists, Reese says Francis balanced his roles of “diplomat” and “prophet” to protect Christians while lobbying in private, and it’s unlikely public attacks “would have had any effect on the military.”

That recalls perennial complaints that Pope Pius XII should have more forthrightly denounced Nazi extermination of Jews.

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Real fake news: Facebook's role in Buddhist Myanmar's deadly war against its Rohingya Muslims

Real fake news: Facebook's role in Buddhist Myanmar's deadly war against its Rohingya Muslims

Before I get to the Facebook angle of this post, please indulge me as I note what I believe are two widely held beliefs that we'd be better off dropping. Blame it on a recent The New York Times piece on Buddhist Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority.

The first is that Buddhists are all about peace and compassion. This idea persists in some circles, thanks to how Mindfulness and other Buddhist meditation practices are sold in the West. Well, get over it.

The exiled Tibetan Buddhist religious leader Tenzin Gyatso, better known by his title, the Dalai Lama, is a rare exception. In Myanmar, Buddhist monks are some of the fiercest instigators of nasty anti-Rohingya ethnic cleansing.

Two, we tend to believe that all Nobel Peace Prize winners are saintly advocates for equal justice for all. Well, what about Myanmar’s Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the esteemed prize in 1991 while under house arrest for her peaceful opposition to her nation’s dictatorial military government.

These days, as her nation’s prime minister-equivalent, she defends the way the Rohingyas have been treated by her Buddhist brethren. She argues that the Rohingya are simply Muslim Bangladeshis who, in essence, are illegal squatters in Buddhist Myanmar.

So what do you know? Buddhists and Nobel Prize winners can be just as broken as the rest of us.

Now for that New York Times piece out of Myanmar written by the paper’s new Southeast Asia correspondent, Hannah Beech. She’s new to the Times, but certainly not to the region or elite journalism.

What struck me most about her excellent piece, however, were not the naive beliefs cited above. Rather, it was what she reported about the role that Facebook and other social media have played in the conflict. (Facebook and other social media are also the subject of Congressional hearings this week because of how the Russians used them in an attempt to confuse voters in the United States' 2016 president election.)

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Why not quote Buddhists in news about Buddhist mistreatment of Myanmar's Muslim Rohingyas?

Why not quote Buddhists in news about Buddhist mistreatment of Myanmar's Muslim Rohingyas?

Here at GetReligion we're constantly going on about the sources journalists rely upon when reporting religion stories. We keep asking, for instance, why religious liberals are the only voices quoted in stories critical of this or that traditionalist position.

One reason for this is Kellerism, the GetReligion term for when editors at a news outlet decide that it only needs to quote one side in a debate because the other side is simply on the wrong side of history or is flat out wrong.

However, there are many other times when appropriate positions are missing simply because journalists do not know they exist or how to find them.

That’s the case with Buddhist views on the goings on in Myanmar, where Rohingya Muslims are being harshly persecuted and forced to seek safety in neighboring, and Muslim, Bangladesh. Even the presence of a Nobel Peace Prize winner as Myanmar’s ostensible leader has not helped the Rohingya minority.

Why? Because Myanmar’s overwhelming Buddhist majority simply has little sympathy for its Muslim neighbors.

Surely, though, there must be some Buddhist leaders who are more sympathetic and who can be contacted for a quote or two that expresses another Buddhist viewpoint? Or do we have to make do with global political leaders and humanitarian groups for comments critical of Myanmar’s handling of the situation, as has generally been the case.

No, we don't. #JournalismMatters

Still, other than the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader that Western journalists, in particular, seem to think speaks for all Buddhists everywhere, prominent Buddhist voices are generally absent from the many stories being produced about the plight of the Rohingyas.

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Faith angle or not, this Washington Post story on civil asset forfeiture will outrage you

Faith angle or not, this Washington Post story on civil asset forfeiture will outrage you

Yes, the story we are about to discuss has a religion angle.

But it's not a religion story per se.

Rather, this is a story about what happens when law enforcement authorities with unchecked power trample on an ordinary person and take his personal property — with little recourse on the citizen's part.

Sadly, the case in question involves my home state of Oklahoma, as the Washington Post reports:

Eh Wah had been on the road for 12 hours when he saw the flashing lights in his rear-view mirror.
The 40-year-old Texas man, a refugee from Burma who became a U.S. citizen more than a decade ago, was heading home to Dallas to check on his family. He was on a break from touring the country for months as a volunteer manager for the Klo & Kweh Music Team, a Christian rock ensemble from Burma, also known as Myanmar. The group was touring the United States to raise funds for a Christian college in Burma and an orphanage in Thailand.
Eh Wah managed the band's finances, holding on to the cash proceeds it raised from ticket and merchandise sales at concerts. By the time he was stopped in Oklahoma, the band had held concerts in 19 cities across the United States, raising money via tickets that sold for $10 to $20 each.
The sheriff's deputies in Muskogee County, Okla., pulled Eh Wah over for a broken tail light about 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 27. The deputies started asking questions — a lot of them. And at some point, they brought out a drug-sniffing dog, which alerted on the car. That's when they found the cash, according to the deputy's affidavit.

As the story continues, readers learn:

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Do the words of the Dalai Lama matter to all Buddhists?

Do the words of the Dalai Lama matter to all Buddhists?

CNN reports the Dalai Lama --the spiritual leader of Tibet -- has urged his co-religionists  in Sri Lanka and Myanmar to halt the sectarian violence that has pitted majority Buddhist populations against Muslim minorities.

The assumption behind this story is that the Dalai Lama is a person of consequence whose words will carry weight with Buddhists round the world. What he says matters, CNN reports.

But does it? And if it does matter, to whom does it matter?

The attacks on Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar have had the approval of Buddhists leaders and in some cases mobs have been led by saffron-robe clad Buddhists monks. The report from CNN cleanly and clearly reports on the Dalai Lama's call for peace, but it neglects to mention (or perhaps it assumes) that Buddhism is a monolith, a unified system of belief whose leaders are universally esteemed by its practitioners.

The bottom line: What the CNN team is doing in this story is projecting Christian assumptions about a church and hierarchy upon a non-Christian institution. These assumptions make the story intellectually accessible to a Western reader, but present the issue in a false light.

The article entitled "Dalai Lama to Myanmar, Sri Lanka Buddhists: Stop violence against Muslims" begins:

(CNN) -- Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has made a renewed call for Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to cease violence towards the countries' Muslim minorities, in an address delivered on his 79th birthday. Speaking before tens of thousands of Buddhists, including Hollywood actor Richard Gere, the exiled Buddhist leader implored the faithful in the majority-Buddhist countries to refrain from such attacks.

"I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime," he said in the Indian town of Leh. "Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking."

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