Buddhism, Burma, the Rohingya and ethnic violence

By staff writers
August 19, 2013

Human Rights Watch (HRW), the globally respected human rights NGO, has described the treatment of the Rohingya people in n Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) as "ethnic cleansing".

The Rohingya are an ethnic group who practice Islam and speak an Indo-European language of the Eastern Indic branch, closely related to Chittagonian and more distantly to Bengali. Their persecution by people who are ostensibly Buddhists, stoked by racism, has raised fresh questions about the religion, and its relation to some very distasteful ideologies.

BBC Radio 4's 'Beyond Belief' strand today (19 August 2013) tackled this issue from a number of angles, and is well worth listening to online or downloading as a podcast if you missed it.

Buddhism is generally portrayed in the West as a religion of peace and non-violence. The first of Buddhism's 'Five Moral Precepts' states that it is wrong to take the lives of others.

But the recent clashes between native Buddhists and minority Muslims, the Rohingya, has left hundreds of people dead, and more than 150,000 people homeless.

So what is Buddhism's teaching about the use of violence? Is it permitted or prohibited? What are the different styles of interpretation of texts, canonical or otherwise, in the different branches of the religion? How does extreme nationalism and hate ideology seek to co-opt a faith which has clearly peaceful precepts at one level?

In Burma there is a neo-Nazi ideology afoot which has sought to exploit ethnic and religious tensions to feed a conflict in its own interests. Some have even spoken of the danger of genocide.

Joining Ernie Rea to discuss Buddhism and violence were Michael Jerryson, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Youngstown State University, Ohio, who co-edited the book 'Buddhist Warfare'; Rupert Gethin, Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol, and Soe Win Than, a journalist who was born in Myanmar and who works for the BBC's Burmese Service.

'Beyond Belief' debates the place of religion and faith in today's complex world. Ernie Rea is joined by a panel to discuss how religious beliefs and traditions affect our values and perspectives.

* More on this programme here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b038c0f6

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