Religion and Violence in Myanmar: Sitagu Sayadaw’s Case for Mass Killing

Religion and Violence in Myanmar: Sitagu Sayadaw’s Case for Mass Killing by Matthew J. Walton, 06/11/2017, Foreign Affairs

The most common explanation given for the persecution of the Rohingya revolves around their nationality. Government officials, media commentators, and religious leaders have claimed that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Ethnicity plays a role, as well. The government officially recognizes 135 indigenous ethnic groups, and Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution grants those groups certain rights. The Rohingya are not among them. More broadly, people in Myanmar insist that the Rohingya are not a real ethnic group because they worry about the unlikely possibility that the Rohingya will seek to secede, threatening the country’s territorial sovereignty.

Sitagu’s words could provide the final cover for Myanmar’s Buddhists to ignore international criticism and cloak themselves in the righteousness of holy war.

National identity in Myanmar has long been intertwined with Buddhist religious identity. But religion has had a particular effect in the case of the Rohingya. The so-called War on Terror—waged primarily against Muslims around the world—has made it easier for Myanmar’s elites to label the Rohingya as terrorists and for government officials to defend the violence against them as a legitimate response to extremism. The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army’s attacks on government targets in October 2016 and August 2017, meanwhile, have validated many citizens’ belief that Islam is inherently violent and poses an existential threat to Buddhism, Myanmar’s majority religion. It has also allowed political and religious elites to unfairly and inaccurately associate all Rohingya with terrorism. Thanks to anti-Muslim ideas spread through social media sites, the popular press, and the writings and sermons of influential laypeople and monks, Myanmar’s citizens have come to see the Rohingya as doubly unwanted—as both national and religious “others.”

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