Buddhist atrocities

Aung San Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize for “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights”.

The Burmese Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of the legendary liberation movement leader Aung San. Following studies abroad, she returned home in 1988. From then on, she led the opposition to the military junta that had ruled Burma since 1962. She was one of the founders of the National League for Democracy (NLD), and was elected secretary general of the party. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, she opposed all use of violence and called on the military leaders to hand over power to a civilian government. The aim was to establish a democratic society in which the country’s ethnic groups could cooperate in harmony.

In the election in 1990, the NLD won a clear victory, but the generals prevented the legislative assembly from convening. Instead they continued to arrest members of the opposition and refused to release Suu Kyi from house arrest.

The Peace Prize had a significant impact in mobilizing world opinion in favor of Aung San Suu Kyi’s cause. However, she remained under house arrest for almost 15 of the 21 years from her arrest in July 1989 until her release on 13 November 2010, whereupon she was able to resume her political career and put her mark on the rapid democratization of Myanmar.

She is currently the de facto leader of Myanmar (although trying to puzzle out the tangle of factions running that country is not trivial), and representative of the Buddhist majority. A Buddhist majority which is currently active in perpetrating genocide. A Muslim minority, the Rohingya, have been living in Myanmar, and right now they’re being rounded up by the military and murdered.

“They’re killing children,” Matthew Smith, the chief executive of a human rights group called Fortify Rights, told me after interviewing refugees on the Bangladesh border. “In the least, we’re talking about crimes against humanity.”

“My two nephews, their heads were cut off,” one Rohingya survivor told Smith. “One was 6 years old and the other was 9.”

Other accounts describe soldiers throwing infants into a river to drown, and decapitating a grandmother. Hannah Beech, my Times colleague who has provided outstanding coverage from the border, put it this way: “I’ve covered refugee crises before, and this was by far the worst thing that I’ve ever seen.”

Even Buddhists. We tend to think of Buddhism as the nice peaceful religion (we conveniently ignore their history and the oppressive nature of Tibet), but this just goes to show that people with power can be horrible no matter what philosophy they pretend to have.

“We applauded Aung San Suu Kyi when she received her Nobel Prize because she symbolized courage in the face of tyranny,” noted Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Now that she’s in power, she symbolizes cowardly complicity in the deadly tyranny being visited on the Rohingya.”


  1. says

    As usual, the problem isn’t the religion: it’s the conservatism. I noted in 2015:

    The good news is that Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party overwhelmingly won the recent elections, despite the Ma Ba Tha monks running around for the past 18 months shrieking that “the NLD is the party of the Muslims,” and that Myanmar’s Buddhists face a grave threat from the 3% minority population of Rohingya Muslims who are desperately fleeing the country in droves. The NLD will now select the next president. The bad news is that under Myanmar’s constitution, ministers for defense, home affairs and border affairs are appointed by the head of the military, not the president—and the constitution cannot be changed without the military’s consent.

  2. Ed Seedhouse says

    In Japan during WW2, Buddhist priests urged their followers to go to war, and specifically to fly in kamikaze attacks with a promise of guaranteed rebirth in the “pure land” where they were bound to become “enlightened”. There are other historical examples, of course. Buddhism overall is perhaps less violent than other religions but, as you point out, any system of beliefs is subject to manipulation to violent ends.

    The minute you set someone else up as “holy” or an authority to be followed uncritically you are, as Alan Watts once said, giving them permission to steal your watch and sell it back to you.

  3. says

    This is a side effect of a religion that emphasizes reincarnation: atrocities can be justified as 1) it is their karma to have bad things happen to them and 2) we are doing them a spiritual solid by being the agents of that karma and thus helping them along the path of enlightenment.

    This same reasoning is often found to justify doing nothing to fight poverty and disease in Buddhist majority countries: they deserve their life, and who are we to interfere with cosmic justice?

  4. says

    When I read things like this I can’t be help “When at last the world is overrun with inhabitants the last remedy of all is war. which provides for every man with victory or death.” It’s not nice, it breaks your heart but its inevitable.

  5. JoeBuddha says

    As an actual Buddhist, I find it odd how people give it a pass. Actual Buddhism is bloody difficult; it requires you to challenge your prejudices and your beliefs at every turn. It’s not for the faint hearted. It’s much easier to spout the ‘teachings” and let the priests worry about the rest. Not that they are necessarily better. You end up with a culture doing what they always did despite pretending to follow The Way.

  6. says

    @JoeBuddha #12 – I would think the problem is more about being raised in a majority religion. Christian converts in Myanmar have a lot of similarities to Buddhist converts in the US, while Burmese Buddhists have a lot of similarities to US Christians. Basically, if you were raised in a faith, and have the support and approval of your family, community, and larger social institutions, it is much easier to get away with being an awful person.

  7. says

    Religion is only the mechanism. The real issue is power. In Myanmar, the Buddhist have power; feeling threatened (or greedy), they are offering the Rohingya as ‘sacrifice’ to their majority population to satisfy the blood lust the elite have deliberately instigated. We saw this in S. Africa with apartheid, Israel with Palestinian rights, U.S. with civil rights and globally with corporate ownership conferring rights over essentially the health, life and liberty pf their workers. Aung San Suu Kyi should speak up; it’s a major failure of leadership to not take a stand. But regardless of Aung San Suu Kyi, concentrated powerful will always defend its hold on power and greedily grab for more power.

  8. says


    You quite clearly didn’t recognize my quote. I doubt you know the work it is taken from intimately. As such I think you might have missed my main point. I could have easily gone with (through this is more of a paraphrase) “So we find in the constitution of man three principle causes of war…One makes man invade for gain, the second for safety and the last for reputation.” to make the point I was making. That being this violence has nothing to do with Buddhism, but caused by the human nature as such. War is inevitable. All the ways we have every devised to prevent it were demonstrated to be for naught last US election. It is simply the case “that the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

  9. KG says

    Mike Smith@15,

    No, I didn’t recognise the quotation. That doesn’t make it any the less stupid.
    Hobbes’s “remedy” was absolutism: that all should surrender their independence to a “sovereign”, who (or which) must be obeyed completely. Do you agree with him there, too?

    War is inevitable. All the ways we have every devised to prevent it were demonstrated to be for naught last US election.

    What a provincial numpty you are! A single event in one country cannot possibly demonstrate a universal truth about “human nature” – appeal to which is the first refuge of the morally and intellectually lazy. Human nature obviously makes war possible. but you have given no reason at all to consider it inevitable.

    It is simply the case “that the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

    Hobbes said that was the case in a state of nature, i.e. if there were no “civil society”. Which is not the case in Myanmar.

  10. mickll says

    It’s not just the Rohingya, the Karen and Karenni people have also been brutally persecuted by the Burmese government. The official “four cuts policy”, which started in the 1970s but was re-launched in 2010 a program where the Burmese government has attempted to “assimilate” the ethnic groups and minorities of Burma by suppressing language, culture and religious beliefs. It’s as nastily genocidal as it gets and it’s been all but ignored by Aung San Suu Kyi.

  11. Walter Solomon says

    …we conveniently ignore their history and the oppressive nature of Tibet

    This seems to be a remnant of US Cold War hysteria that has, somehow, spread to some on the left.
    Since the Chinese annexed Tibet and the Chinese are BIG BAD COMMUNISTS then it follows that Tibet was a paradise before they annexed it. Many on the left have glommed on to this sentiment but skewered it by making the argument that Tibet was once a noble culture that was oppressed by ruthless fascists or something completely ignoring the fact the lamas used to rule Tibet like a feudal state.

  12. says

    Indeed. In a way the Chinese conquest of Tibet was the best thing that could happen to the current Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, including the Dalai Lama. If China had let Tibet remain independent we’d probably consider the Dalai Lama a religious dictator running an authoritarian state. Instead he’s an international celebrity with a lot of support.