Stop the racist monks

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Ashin Wirathu, an extremist monk and leader of the anti-Muslim movement in Myanmar. Reuters

Will the ongoing genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state stoke tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in the region? Definitely.

Are the Buddhist clergy and government in neighbouring Thailand prepared to prevent latent animosity from getting ugly? Absolutely not.

The latest atrocities committed by the Buddhist army and militia against the Rohingya Muslims, with accounts from the victims and eyewitnesses starting to emerge, are igniting resentment and fury from Muslims outside Myanmar, which will be used by hardliners to further fuel hate and violence in their countries.

In Thailand, the insurgency in the Muslim-dominated deep South against the Buddhist state has been raging on for more than a decade with no end in sight. The government and the clergy should, therefore, avoid doing things that could exacerbate existing conflicts. Reasoning, however, has given way to Islamophobia.

Call them Bengali, not Rohingya. The demand came from Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon after his meeting with Myanmar’s commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing last week. His call speaks volumes about the Thai military government’s stance on the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Bengali is what the majority of Buddhists in Myanmar call the Rohingya people to denounce them as invaders who must be chased from Myanmar. That the history of ethnic diversity on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border area is denied by the Buddhist Burmese population is nothing short of an ultranationalist, even racist supremacy.

Playing the racist name game cannot be seen as anything else than an endorsement of Islamophobia and the systematic violence of the Buddhist majority against the Rohingya minority.

With atrocities against the Rohingya now tantamount to ethnic cleansing, such an endorsement cannot be seen as anything else but an endorsement of inhumanity.

Indeed, how would the ethnic Malay Muslims in Thailand’s restive South feel? For they, too, are living under what they consider an unsympathetic Buddhist state and clergy.

True, Thai security forces are not as ruthless. But persecution and abuse of power are a real problem on the ground. Meanwhile, the country’s assimilation policy has fostered widespread and deep resentment among the general ethnic Malay Muslim populace.

The three southernmost Thai provinces are also historically part of an Islamic kingdom before it was annexed to old Siam through warfare. In the eyes of the separatist movement, the state is, therefore, the invader.

The military often stresses the importance to win the hearts and minds of the southern Muslims. Endorsing ethnic cleansing of their fellow Muslims by a Buddhist state is certainly not the way to do so.

True, Thailand’s Buddhist clergy is not as overtly Islamophobic as what we see in Myanmar. But we cannot deny their latent animosity against Islam either.

Like the Myanmar clergy, Thailand’s is more into racist nationalism and ethnic chauvinism than Buddhist teachings. They are also into the accumulation of wealth rather than following the monks’ spiritual vocation. When public faith declines, the monks blame it on “foreign elements” out to destroy Thai Buddhism – read Islam and Christianity – instead of fixing their own mess.

The clergy also constantly blames the government for giving “too much” support to Islam – which is unfounded – while relentlessly pushing the government to make Buddhism an official state religion with more perks and privileges.

The southern insurgency that often targets monks has intensified that animosity. But the distrust is mutual. When monks flee the violence, soldiers are ordained to reside at the temples in the deep South. Is it a surprise that many local Muslims now see monks with suspicion?

Amid the monks’ racist nationalism that outrightly betrays Buddhism, it is refreshing to hear what the Dalai Lama has to say about the situation.

To Buddhists who harbour hatred against the Rohingya Muslims, they “should remember Buddha’s face”, he said. “Buddha certainly would protect those Muslims brothers and sisters.”

The Dalai Lama reminds us what Buddhism is about. It’s about indiscriminate compassion. It’s about the spiritual practice to transcend all layers of prejudice – be it from race, beliefs or gender – to understand that all is one and the same.

Will his message ring any bells with the autocratic Thai clergy so deeply entrenched in patriarchy and ethnic chauvinism?

When a group of high-ranking officials in the National Office of Buddhism (NOB) and monks were caught in a corruption scandal over a temple maintenance fund early this year, investigations by National Office of Buddhism (NOB) chief Pol Lt Col Pongporn Promsaneh upset the clergy tremendously.

For not only did his investigations look set to involve more temples and more senior monks, Pol Lt Col Pongporn was also planning to propose a law to get rid of temple corruption by requiring temples to declare assets and financial records subjected to transparent auditing.

Apparently speaking for the elders, well-known preacher Phra Theppatipanwatee vented his fury and announced the clergy’s plan to boycott the NOB.

The military government, despite its anti-corruption campaign and vows to reform the clergy, finally caved in to the pressure from the clergy. Pol Lt Co Pongporn was eventually fired for having the nerve to touch what matters to the clergy most – money.

In 2015, the Religious Reform Committee under the then National Reform Council was also disbanded following monks’ protests against the committee’s proposed law for transparency in temple donations.

How high are the stakes involved?

According to research by Assistant Professor Nada Chunsom of the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida), temple donations amount to at least 100 billion baht (more than $3 billion) a year. Temples’ bank deposits nationwide total around 300 billion baht.

The law gives abbots total control of temple assets and donations. Given the temples’ lack of a proper accounting system, corruption is rife and it’s highly likely that the temples’ bank accounts are in the abbots’ names.

The fierce fight to keep temple donations from public scrutiny during the past six months apparently left no time for the clergy to pay attention to repeated hate speech by extremist anti-Islam monk Phra Apichart Punnajanto on social media.

In 2015, the same head preacher of the prestigious Wat Benchamabophit, or the Marble Temple, made headlines for urging Buddhists to burn one mosque for every monk killed by southern insurgents.

“If Buddhists’ patience runs out, be prepared to be blasted until nothing is left. We will give them the same conditions as the Rohingya in Myanmar,” he roared in his Facebook post.

An avowed admirer of Ashin Wirathu, an extremist monk and leader of the anti-Muslim movement in Myanmar, Phra Apichart repeated his malicious wish again when he showed his video clip on YouTube cursing a Muslim news organisation for reporting about organised trips to Bangkok for monks from the provinces to support the Dhammakaya temple.

“When will you all die and leave this country? I really want to see you suffer like the Rohingya, be massacred, beheaded, burned, from babies to old people. I really want to see that happen in Thailand. Really want to see it,” he raged furiously in the video clip which also made fun of Muslims’ praise for God “Allahu Akbar”.

This is appalling. A pity, though, that the clergy couldn’t care less about punishing this divisive man for encouraging murder – the most sinful deed in Buddhism.

It won’t be surprising if this video clip is watched more by Thai Muslims than Buddhists, fanning up more resentment and hate. Such is the dark side of social media.

Phra Apichart is not a lone extremist monk. Ashin Wirathu was the guest of honour at the Dhammakaya temple recently. Yet anti-Muslim sentiments are not confined to Dhammakaya supporters only.

With hate on the rise on both sides, it’s inevitable that the Buddhist-Muslim divide in Thailand will become ever wider as the animosity is set to become uglier and uglier. Bangkok Post

Sanitsuda Ekachai is former editorial pages editor of the Bangkok Post.

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