Democracy Lab

Weren't Buddhists Supposed to Be Pacifists?

Their religion may stress peace, but some Buddhists are showing that they’re entirely capable of violence in the name of faith.

The man's body lies on a blanket striped in white and blue. He's wearing a dark brown tank top and a dark blue flowered sarong. Someone has tied his hands behind his back with rope. There are deep red gashes on his head and shoulders -- some of them presumably the wounds that ended his life. 

The man in the photo is a Muslim. The people who killed him were almost certainly Buddhists. He was a victim in last fall's sectarian bloodshed in western Burma, which pitted members of the two religions against each other. The image comes from a new report by Human Rights Watch that carefully documents the violence that took some 200 lives and resulted in the forced displacement of some 125,000 people. (A more recent wave of violence within the past few weeks has taken some 40 additional lives and triggered another surge of refugees.) The report argues persuasively that state institutions, including the police, often stood by while Buddhist rioters went after their Muslim neighbors -- and in some cases may have even helped to organize the attacks. A mere 4 percent of Burma's population of Burma is Muslim, while well over 90 percent are Buddhists. Perhaps the fact that the government sided with the majority probably shouldn't have come as a surprise. (The allegations didn't stop the International Crisis Group, a leading western humanitarian organization, from giving an award to President Thein Sein earlier this week.) 

But wait: Isn't Buddhism a religion that places respect for life and the embrace of peace at the very center of its worldview? The Buddha himself placed compassion at the root of his teachings, and in Burma itself, it was Buddhist monks who set the rigorously non-violent tone of the massive anti-government demonstrations back in 2007. The chants of the saffron-robed protestors were powerfully moving: "May all beings living to the East be free; all beings in the universe be free, free from fear, free from all distress!" 

It turns out, sadly, that some Buddhist monks don't see this as a binding ethical imperative. Monks have been prominent among those inciting the recent bloodshed. The most notable is U Wirathu, a monk at a prominent monastery who's made a name for himself lately as an apologist for anti-Muslim sentiment and the organizer of the "969" movement, which has been issuing stickers and signs emblazoned with that number (which has symbolic significance for Burmese Buddhists) to identify businesses that refuse to serve Muslims -- exactly the kind of policy the monk is aiming to promote. He's said to have referred to himself as "the Buddhist Osama bin Laden." How can this sort of bigotry possibly be reconciled with the teachings of the Enlightened One? 

I'm happy to say that there are plenty of other Buddhist monks in Burma who have been pushing back against their chauvinist colleagues. But to understand what's been happening, we also need to take a closer look at those who claim to be standing up for Buddhism even as they've doing things that don't seem to be easily reconcilable with their religion. 

First of all, the notion of Buddhism as an inherently pacifist religion has a strong element of Western oversimplification. Buddhist teaching has never prohibited believers from fighting in defense of a just cause. As the scholars Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer show in their book Buddhist Warfare, Buddhists have participated in wars ever since their faith came into being. Militant monks have fought for Chinese rulers (and against them) for centuries. Japan's samurai warriors were ardent Buddhists, men who cited the Buddha's teachings on the impermanence of physical existence as a good argument for soldiering. 

When the Dalai Lama urges his fellow Tibetans to maintain non-violence in their struggle against Chinese rule, his fans in the West tend to see this as a typically Buddhist attitude. But, as some astute observers have pointed out, the Dalai Lama's embrace of civil disobedience may owe as much to Gandhi and Martin Luther King as it does to his fellow believers. (Nor, intriguingly, did it stop His Holiness from approving the killing of Osama bin Laden, though he later qualified his position when it became clear that the al Qaeda leader was unarmed when he was shot.) Indeed, his religious authority hasn't been enough to prevent over 100 Tibetans from killing themselves as a protest against Chinese policy despite his injunctions against suicide. (Happily, in the wake of the Human Rights Watch report, he has been urging the monks in Burma to end the violence there.) 

But doctrine is only part of the problem. All religions -- Buddhism included -- tend to create a powerful sense of collective identity among their followers. All of the great world religions emphasize the sanctity of human life, and strive to limit the use of violence to what's admissible in certain cases. But those careful distinctions tend to go out the window when a group of believers feels that its values are under threat. 

As the current crisis in Burma demonstrates, modern Buddhists are just as susceptible to identity politics as anyone else. In March, police in Sri Lanka stood by as Buddhist monks led a mob that pillaged a Muslim-owned garment warehouse. Sri Lanka, which has been convulsed for years by a civil war between majority Buddhists and minority Tamils, is home to several hard-line Buddhist political movements, including something called the "Buddhist Strength Force," which has recently made a name for itself with vitriolic anti-Muslim rhetoric. "It is the monks who protect our country, religion, and race," said Sri Lankan Defense Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in a recent speech -- reinforcing suspicions that militant monks enjoy tacit government support. 

The government in Thailand, meanwhile, has armed local Buddhist groups to counter a simmering Muslim insurgency in the south of the country. The militias, which are distinct from the regular army and the police, have the job of defending Buddhist communities against potential attacks -- and perhaps deepening the sectarian dimension in that long-running conflict. 

What all three of these countries have in common is an ominous trend in which governments and religious institutions are lending support to destructive sectarian forces. Muslims may well bear some of the responsibility for the killings in Burma, but the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that most of the violence was committed by far more numerous Buddhists who enjoyed crucial support from local officials and religious leaders. 

None of this, of course, is to argue that Buddhists are uniquely evil. It's merely to point out that some of our idealized notions about the purity of Buddhism don't live up to real-world scrutiny. We shouldn't give Buddhist extremists a pass any more than we would their Muslim, Christian, or Jewish equivalents; otherwise we run the risk of becoming complicit in their crimes. Just because the conflicts they create are in far-away, exotic places is no excuse for complacency.

The world is too small for that. 

Democracy Lab

The Tip of the Democracy Spear

The U.S. military doesn’t exactly have an unblemished record when it comes to promoting democracy. Is there a way to change that?

Two years on, the revolt in Bahrain is still smoldering, even if the opposition can't marshal the same numbers of street demonstrators that it once did. The ruling Al-Khalifa dynasty has pulled out all the stops in its crackdown on the opposition -- including pouring vast sums into its huge and brutally effective security apparatus. But it probably wouldn't have survived as long it has without the support of the United States, which has so far declined to publicly reproach the kingdom for its lack of respect for basic human rights. The reason is simple: Bahrain is the home base of the Fifth Fleet, the enforcement arm of American interests in the Persian Gulf. Security, in short, trumps democracy.

Bahrain isn't the only country where U.S. strategic interests seem to override a commitment to other people's freedom. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates hardly qualify as democracies, but, like Bahrain, they all profit from the Pentagon's desire to pursue its strategic interests throughout the region. Elsewhere in the Middle East, it's the fight against terrorism that often seems to take priority over human rights. That's one of the biggest motives behind the close relationships that the U.S. military maintains with authoritarian regimes in Iraq and Jordan. American generals are frequently accused of putting more effort into attacking al Qaeda and its allies than on shoring up nascent democratic openings in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen. To be sure, the soldiers' primary job is to keep American citizens safe, not to build liberal societies in other parts of the world. Yet there's also a powerful argument to be made that genuine security can only come in a world where leaders respect the rights of their citizens.

Nor does this apply only to the Middle East. The need to keep military supplies flowing to U.S. forces in Afghanistan has softened Washington's policy toward dictatorial regimes in Central Asia, which allow those supplies to be transported through their territory. So the critics would seem to have good reason when they accuse America's men in uniform of prizing stability over freedom in their doings overseas -- sometimes in direct contradiction of efforts by civilian diplomats and aid workers to foster good governance and respect for rights.

Dennis Blair has heard plenty of those accusations in his day. Thirteen years ago, when he was a top-ranking admiral in charge of Pacific Command, critics in Congress charged him with maintaining friendly relations with Indonesia's military when their troops were committing atrocities in East Timor. Blair, who retired from government service after a stint as Obama's Director of National Intelligence three years ago, denies that he was soft on the generals in Jakarta. But the experience has prompted him to think about whether the U.S. military establishment can do more to promote democratic values in its dealings with other countries than it has in the past.

Those who question the depth of the U.S. government's commitment to democracy as a foreign policy goal probably won't be convinced by Blair's ideas, which he aims to present in a new book that's due to appear in the coming weeks. But the critics should give him a chance. The book, Military Engagement: Influencing Armed Forces Worldwide to Support Democratic Transition, is part of a project, directed by Blair for the Council for the Community of Democracies, to rethink how U.S. military power can be used to further democratic ends. (If you're interested in the topic, be sure to check out the exhaustive reading list compiled by the project's organizers.)

First of all, Blair suggests elevating the pursuit of democratic ideals to the status of a strategic objective for the U.S. military, on a par with the more traditional aims of protecting American economic and security interests around the world. That, he argues, would change the way that Pentagon representatives deal with their counterparts in other countries -- an approach that he would like to see adopted by U.S. allies as well. "The military officers from the democracies should be working with their counterparts to support democratic development in their own countries," he says. (And the military does have plenty of weight to throw around. In recent years, the Pentagon's budget has been roughly 13 times the amount the government spends on civilian foreign policy.)

In keeping with this, he also hopes to see democracy promotion become a feature of Pentagon's routine interactions with foreign militaries (a little-noticed but vitally important tool of American foreign policy). In many places, from Venezuela to China, officers play a prominent political role, and Blair argues that it's worth trying to leverage that reality to positive ends. When officers from other countries visit the U.S. on training and exchange programs, their American hosts shouldn't just schlep them around to the usual military bases, he says, but also to town halls, newsrooms, and other locations that show democratic institutions in action. Course material should explicitly cover international humanitarian law, the rationale for civilian control of the military, and the practical mechanics of how democracies work. The point, he says, should be to show patriotically-minded officers why it might be in their own interests, and those of their armed forces, to support liberal values back at home.

But what about situations like the one in Bahrain, where the U.S. interest in maintaining its base seems to override the desire to press the local government on human rights? "Okay, in the real world we have a mix of interests," says Blair. "But let's not be exclusive about our interests. We should have both of these missions and not pretend that they're completely irreconcilable." In reality, he says, few U.S. partners are going to break off relations (or stop delivering oil) just because the Americans are nudging them to open up politically.

That's probably true enough, but I'm not sure I completely buy the rest of the argument. Making democracy a bigger part of military-to-military exchanges sounds all well and good, but is it really going to have much of an effect? In many authoritarian regimes, liberalization threatens senior officers with a huge loss of power and prerogatives. In Egypt, Burma, or Pakistan, the military has entrenched business interests that make them loath to give up influence. Appealing to them to recognize the innate superiority of democracies is likely to have less weight than the realization that their own positions could be severely undermined by reform. And taking them on a tour of the Capitol isn't about to change that calculus.

Blair acknowledges the problem, but argues that the militaries in such countries are often split between corrupt higher ranks and a younger, more idealistic class repulsed by their superiors' malfeasance. A high-minded appeal to the second group's patriotic instincts can thus bear fruit even when their ossified elders resist. (It was just such a group of younger officers, he points out, who helped to push President Ferdinand Marcos out of power in the Philippines in 1986.) One risk of this approach, of course, is that it might tend to promote the image of Washington as an inveterate meddler, even when the intentions involved are good. And perhaps it's also worth remembering that younger officers aren't always would-be democrats, yearning to be free -- see Greece in the 1960s and 70s.

In Blair's defense, it's important to note that modesty is an important part of his vision. He's not advocating grand nation-building experiments like the one in Iraq whose failure we're commemorating this week, 10 years after the start of the war. It's no accident that words like "gradual," "incremental," and "pragmatic" permeate his conversation. And he certainly doesn't share the neo-conservative fondness for toppling autocrats by force. Indeed, Blair goes out of his way to praise people like Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, advocates of "non-violent conflict" who strive to promote gradual, peaceful resistance to authoritarian regimes. (For what it's worth, Blair has also criticized his ex-boss's penchant for drone strikes against terrorists, saying that the Obama administration's remote execution of the war on terror does more harm than good by galvanizing anti-American sentiment in the countries targeted.)

I doubt that closing the gap between America's strategic interests and its idealistic longing to spread democratic values will be as easy as Blair seems to suggest. And he acknowledges that his effort is partly motivated by politics -- specifically the need to insulate the Pentagon from congressional critics who assail it for inadequate attention to human rights. But what's most striking about the ideas he's articulating is the fact that he's saying them in the first place. This is something new, and it's definitely to be welcomed.

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