Militant monks? Sounds like a contradiction; but not in Myanmar, a beautiful, elusive country full of paradoxes and conundrums that tease the traveler’s mind.
Monks play a huge role in Myanmar – from spiritual leaders to fomenting political discussion and descent.
In western Myanmar, near the Bangladesh border, monks dislike (putting it gently) the area’s Muslim community, which is composed of Burmese Muslims (often of Bangladeshi descent) and immigrants who snuck across Myanmar’s mine-strewn border.
And to make matters worse, spasms of violence occur sporadically between the two groups.
While exploring this region, I spoke to both Muslims and Buddhists to better understand the tension’s roots.
From the Muslims: Since their Buddhist neighbors dislike them, the Muslims dislike them in return.
What I learned from the Buddhists was confusing and riddled with (I hope) inaccuracies.
The first Buddhist explanation was that the Muslims were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. While none of the monks admitted to their xenophobic tendencies, their explanations – at times – seemed tinged with stereotypes about all being beggars and stealing jobs.
But the most common explanation I heard was about marriage. It made the Buddhists (especially the monks) angry that Muslims will not marry Buddhists (the Muslims require non-Muslims to convert).
A tour guide with whom I had a long discussion told me about wealthy Muslim men who pay Buddhists to convert (irrelevant of getting married to a Muslim) and who would also financially support any children converted to Islam.
I could not verify this information independently, but either way, the tension isn’t likely to subside.
We can only hope it doesn’t simmer over (ever).
Luckily the monks I did an afternoon shoot with weren’t militant, but graceful, humble students in pursuit of Buddha’s path.