Radical Buddhists in Myanmar Target Beef Trade
Since late last year, members of Myanmar’s radical nationalist Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, known as Ma Ba Tha, a collective of Buddhist abbots and influential monks, have been calling for cattle abattoirs in the country to be shut down. The campaign has forced the closure of dozens of Muslim-owned abattoirs and beef-processing facilities across the Ayeyarwady Region, where the Muslim population relies heavily on the beef trade.
Thousands of cows have been seized from their owners, and the Buddhist activists have received government permission to transport hundreds of the cows to Rakhine State in western Myanmar—the scene of violent unrest between Buddhist residents and mostly stateless Rohingya Muslims in 2012—where the animals are donated to Buddhist farmers who have resettled from eastern Bangladesh.
Myanmar’s mainly Buddhist farmers traditionally keep cows and bullocks as draft animals and only sell them to slaughterhouses to raise funds for major one-off expenses such as a wedding or medical treatment. The Ma Ba Tha-backed campaign has not called on farmers to stop selling cattle, but has instead started buying up government-issued abattoir licenses to prevent their use by business operators. The subsequent shortage of cattle prevented Muslim communities in the delta from celebrating last year’s Eid al-Adha festival, during which cows are slaughtered in accordance with Islamic tradition.
"This activity constitutes a direct violation of our fundamental religious rights," said Al Haji Aye Lwin, chief convener of Yangon’s Islamic Centre. "I estimate (Muslim) businesses in general are losing about 30 percent of their profits.” (Myanmar Now)
Ma Ba Tha spokesman Kyaw Sein Win observed that saving lives was central to Buddhist philosophy. “We are not deliberately targeting [Muslim] businesses. They would kill animals as they believe this is how they gain merit. That’s the main difference between us and them,” he said. (Myanmar Now)
This is not the first time in the country’s history that the issue has been raised as a result of a clash of cultures. At the turn of the 20th century, Buddhist abbot Ledi Sayardaw called on his compatriots to stop killing cattle as the livelihoods of farmers depended on them as beasts of burden, perceiving a threat from British colonial administrators.
“The idea was that nwas (cows), they work in the fields, they sustain [farmers] with milk and they are the capital for the Burmese,” said Dutch anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman. “The idea was that the British would come in and set up abattoirs, and they would kill all the buffaloes in the fields [to eat them]. He didn’t target Muslims. On the contrary, because it was the British that they were worried about . . . They might kill all the working capital of the people.” (Myanmar Now)
Promoted by other monks, the movement became very successful and took on particular significance for Burmese nationalists seeking independence from Britain.
In modern-day Myanmar, many restaurants in the country serve beef and many people, including Buddhist monks, eat it, with opinions within Myanmar’s Buddhist sangha divided on the subject of abstinence from meat in general. Some monks cite the Theravada Buddhist canon, interpreting it to state that one can eat anything as long as it is done “with awareness” and “without attachment to the taste.” (Myanmar Now)
Even within Ma Ba Tha, opinion is not united. At a nationalist monks convention in Yangon in June, U Wirathu, a prominent monk and a vocal figure in Ma Ba Tha, asked whether the mass slaughter of animals for religious purposes should be banned. A Buddhist nun in the audience responded that she was a strict vegetarian in accordance with Buddhist principles and asserted that animals should not be killed and meat should not be served during religious meetings. Her remarks raised eyebrows among the hundreds of Ma Ba Tha monks and abbots who had just been served a meal of pork curry. The discussion became heated as some monks began to argue that banning a ritual of a different faith would be a violation of fundamental human rights.
According to the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center, Buddhists make up about 80 per cent of Myanmar’s population, and Muslims just 4 per cent. Religious tensions have simmered in Myanmar for almost half a century of military rule, but came to a head in 2012, a year after a nominally civilian government came to power. Ma Ba Tha, founded in June 2013, asserts that Myanmar’s Buddhist population and culture is under threat from Islam. Critics of Ma Ba Tha say the group’s policies are not representative of the country’s sangha, which has 250,000 members according to a government estimate, and that they do not reflect the essence of Buddhism.
Protecting cows - a Buddhist tradition revived? (Myanmar Now)
SPECIAL REPORT - With official help, Myanmar’s radical Buddhists target Muslim-owned businesses (Myanmar Now)
Myanmar Passes Buddhist Nationalist-backed Bills into Law (Buddhistdoor Global)