Reading Identity and violence on Burma (1)
Identity and Violence was one of many books of Amartya Sen, a professor at Harvard University and the 1998 Nobel Prize winner in Economics. Reading Sen’s sweeping philosophical work to challenge the reductionist division of people by race, religion, and class, I envision that Burma, my native country, can be made toward peace as firmly as it has been rapidly submerging in the recent hatred waves of the 969 pro-Buddhist campaigns. The expanding 969 hate movements led by racist Burmese Buddhist monks are believed to incite widespread anti-Muslim violence across Burma in recent months. In this series of articles, I would like to present how Sen’s thoughts can be formulated to develop a new understanding of reality for the situation of current religious conflicts in Burma. As the articles evolve along the process, I hope we are likely to be more convinced that realizing the mind-set of Burmese people is more important than appreciating our seeing of ‘democratic’ institutional reforms which, of course, can also drive my nation into the endless spiral of brutality and war in the coming future.
Sen’s original work:
For example, the “creeping Shariah-ization of Indonesia” which the Indonesian Muslim scholar Syafi’i Anwar has described with much alarm, not only is a development of religious practice, but involves the spread of a particularly pugnacious social and political perspective in a traditionally tolerant ― and richly multicultural ― country9. A similar thing can be said about a number of other countries, including Malaysia, which have experienced a rapid promotion of a confrontational culture in the name of Islam, despite their history of cultural diversity and political breadth. To resist political polarization, this foundational distinction has to be pressed, since the exploitation of a religious (in this case, Islamic) identity is such a big part of organized conflicts of this kind10.
My thoughts on Burma’s contemporary situation:
Similarly, the aims of 969 campaigns are not purely religious. What we need to see is this similar particular aim of 969 to develop an aggressive cultural perspective out of our long history of multicultural and richly tolerant Burma.
The Burmese Man of 20th century is widely acknowledged as Aung San Su Kyi, the Lady. However, the late prominent Burmese historian, Dr Than Tun, would not agree to this acknowledgement and he instead nominated Ven. Janaka Biwonta of Mahagandhayone Monastery as the Greatest Burmese Guy of the past century. While the abbot who passed away in 1977 was little-known to the international media, native Burmese will hardly deny that his thoughts and writings on religion, society and politics have had more profound impacts on modern Burmese society than our Lady could have brought to Burmese people during her imprisoned years. His perspective on Burmese religious knowledge can demonstrate whether these 969 movements which emphasize the supremeness of the symbol, “969” can be determined as a religious way or not. One of the notes in his autobiography reads
“We Burmese are blind religious people. Buddha is present but the statues destroy his presence. Dharma (Buddha’s teaching) is present but scriptures and books destroy its presence. Sangha (Buddha’s disciples) are present but monks destroy their presence”.
For Ven. Janaka Biwonta, appreciating symbols is the false religious way for spiritual progress. Buddhist devout philosophers will also unanimously say no symbol can be claimed to authentically represent the Supreme merits of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, which are purely abstract ‘states’ ungraspable by any human being. Ironically, the leader monk of 969 movements, Wairathu, who claims himself to be the devout follower Janaka Biwonta encourages every Burmese Buddhist to worship the Buddhist Great Symbol “969” that his great admirer will certainly not approve. Of course, the Muslim hater monk’s great admirer would protest that Buddhist symbol fetish promoted by modern Buddhist monks obscures “the power of reasoning and curiosity”, that is one of six great attributes (tasks) of Dharma. All over and above, the symbol fetish has a definitely ill conceived idea of developing anti-Muslim hostility in Buddhist culture, which generally is regarded as a great religious tradition of peace.
We will also need to observe a big black hand behind Wairathu’s speaking on justification of his hate movements in response to what Indonesia and Malaysia have done for their Islamic religion’s progress. In fact, these movements are not done in response to these nations’ national actions but are mimicking the disgusting actions of some political organizations of these nations to exploit the religion for playing for opportunism in their political game of chess. The next point is how this recently released prisoner who is extremely deficient in formal modern education knows in-depth political phenomenon of these small countries. Even well educated Burmese, who master the English language, have to exert their great efforts for understanding such literary knowledge on political phenomenon of relatively unknown countries when even superficial political happenings of these nations are not so popularly presented on international media each and every day.
In summary, the 969 movement of Burma is a well-plotted act of a certain financially strong political organization to imitate the political chess games of Indonesia and Malaysia. Of course, the original strategic intention of people of this conceit behind is certainly not the same as that of this sectarian hatred development leader, Wairathu who claims to act in response to the Islamic threat.