Buddhism and human rights
Five Lessons from my Thesis
Amy Doffegnies is a PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Canberra, Australia. Her research is concerned with understanding ‘lived’ Buddhist responses to the idea of international human rights in Myanmar and why Buddhist actors and arguments matter in relation to the promotion of human rights in Myanmar. She would be very happy to hear from anyone interested in the topic or involved with related work or research.
1. Religious doctrine and religious actors are sometimes thought to be either problematic or irrelevant to the promotion of human rights. However, scholars looking at the relationship between religion and human rights have argued for more engagement between religion and human rights and a closer examination of their relationship at the local level. According to these arguments, if we are to promote international human rights concepts at the local level, the relationship of human rights with religious arguments and religious actors, who are very powerful in many, if not most, cultures, must be better understood.
2. Applying this to the Myanmar context, my research seeks to better understand the responses of Myanmar Buddhists to the idea of ‘human rights’. While the international community has seen Myanmar Buddhists as either largely supportive of ‘human rights’ (especially following the 2007 monk-led protests) or conversely, as unsupportive of human rights (in relation to Buddhist-Muslim violence and Buddhist nationalism), both views need to be complicated.
3. In my fieldwork to date I have been talking with monks and lay Buddhists about their understandings of the term human rights. I have found a broad spectrum of opinion, from monks who are uncomfortable with the term human rights, associating it with politics, opportunism, bias and ineffectiveness to those who strongly support human rights and use Buddhist arguments to justify why.
4. I have also been talking to human rights activists in civil society to find out how they see Buddhism impacting upon and interacting with the human rights situation. Many argue that as the term ‘human rights’ has relatively recently entered the political discourse, it is important for human rights to be better understood and are working towards this.
5. While there are many ways in which Buddhist arguments could be used to support human rights, in practice, there are also many challenges and complexities to the meeting of human rights and Buddhism in Myanmar. At present, ‘human rights’ remains a relatively new and a divisive term, with negative implications for many people. Moving forward with efforts to promote human rights, it would be helpful to keep trying to understand people’s suspicion of human rights, as well as why human rights might be meaningful and useful for others.