Critical Commentary: Buddhist monks incite Muslim killings in Myanmar

Posted on April 11, 2013 by

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Recently, there have been a number of attacks and riots in Meikhtial, Myanmar.  Buddhists and Muslims have been at each other’s throats.  This news article was published by Reuters, authored by Jason Szep.  The article was published on April 8th, 2013, and most of the violence occurred in late March 2013.

The country of Myanmar has approximately 60 million people with about 90% Buddhists and 5% Muslims.  Muslims usually have better jobs than the Buddhists.  They own better real estate, own shops, and earn more money.  The Buddhists function mainly as laborers and street vendors.  The social positions create animosity towards the Muslims.  This is an economic motive for the violence, but the motives are also religious.  Some Muslim men are marrying Buddhist women and converting them, something Buddhists are against.  Some Buddhist monks have encouraged boycotting of Muslims businesses and others have encouraged violence.  The Muslims are not blameless however as the first person to die in the violence was a Buddhist monk killed by Muslims.  The main violence broke out on March 20th and ended on March 22nd when martial law was imposed by the government.  The government and police force was addressed throughout the article.  They were described as standing by while riots occurred and watching the violence unfold.  The spokespeople for the police denied that the police tolerated the violence.

The tone of the article is relatively neutral, however there is a shift in what side the article seemed to sympathize for.  The title directly blames Buddhists for the violence against Muslims.  The article started by describing Buddhist violence, portraying them as the “bad guys” and the Muslims as the victims.  The first paragraph describes a Buddhist monk holding a young Muslim girl saying if the police come any closer he will slit her throat.  It then talks about the violence caused by the Buddhists.  The causes for any violence are withheld until page 2 of 9.  This gives the reader the feeling that the Buddhists are the “bad guys” and are causing needless violence.  The opening functions as a good attention getter by drawing the reader in by describing violence that the reader wants to know the cause of.   However, the reader is stuck with an impression that may not be able to change for the rest of the article, regardless of whether it is the right or wrong impression.

After the first part of the article, it switches into explaining why the conflict is happening.  The economic statuses are given and the Buddhists are painted in a slightly different light.  When these are given, the article describes the Muslims “earning conspicuously more than the city’s Buddhist majority.”  The use of the word conspicuously is not neutral.  The reader is influenced by this word choice into thinking there is something conspicuous about the Muslims when there might not actually be anything of significance.  Whether intentional or not, the article put the reader’s mind against the Muslims by having them doubt their innocence.  This is not to say that the Muslim’s are or are not innocent but address a turning point in the article.

When explaining the causes of the violence, the article seems to justify the actions Buddhists have taken.  The Buddhists are portrayed as a lower class that is rising up against a wealthier class searching for economic equality without discrimination.  Instances are given in the article about Muslim discrimination of Buddhists about where they allow cars to be parked and how well they treat them at their business.  A scene is described where a Buddhist is beaten by a Muslim shop owner’s staff after the owner damaged the gold hair clip the Buddhist was trying to sell.  This gives reason for the reader to support the Buddhists in the conflict because the reader is told of actions taken against the Buddhists and that they are only retaliating to unfair treatment.

The article has limited talk about religion and chose to emphasize the violence.  A portion is dedicated to the Buddhists monks involvement in the violence as opposed to what they usually stand for.  Buddhism usually stays away from crusades or jihads and tries to emphasize peace, clarity, and wisdom.  This image is not represented by monks who have taken to violence and wielding knives.  Monks do get involved in the community, but if involved in a situation like this they would be expected to be promoting peace and democracy.  This is what happened in 2011 when the county went from a military controlled state to a democracy.  There are some Buddhist leaders that have been preaching for peace they have not been able to stop the violence and destruction.  One of these leaders is a Nobel Peace Prize recipient but has been unable to defuse the situation, undermining her position.

The overall tone of this article was not negative toward religion.  This article was focused on telling the events that took place but did address causation and parts of the religious forces behind the violence.  An underlying argument was made for the reader to support the Buddhists as an underdog against the Muslims, a higher social class.

Source: Szep, Jason, Reuters, Buddhist monks incite Muslim killings in Myanmar, Apr. 8th, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/04/08/us-myanmar-violence-specialreport-idUSBRE9370AP20130408

Josh Portner

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