A campaign by members of the nationalist group Ma Ba Tha to shut down cattle slaughterhouses, which has hit many of these Muslim-owned businesses in Ayeyarwady Region, is not the first Buddhist monk-led campaign that has tried to save cows from slaughter in Myanmar.
At the turn of the 20th century, influential abbot Ledi Sayardaw espoused the idea that Burmese Buddhists should stop killing cattle because farmers depended on them as beasts of burden to maintain their livelihoods.
British colonial administrators posed a threat to Myanmar’s cattle, according to Ledi Sayardaw, as they had no qualms about eating beef. The beef boycott movement became very successful, was promoted by other monks, and took on particular significance for Burmese nationalists seeking independence from Britain.
“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, adding that India’s Hindu and Brahman practice of venerating bovines also influenced Buddhist traditions of respecting cows.
“The two things combined, that's what makes it an issue for Ledi Sayadaw. 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],” said Houtman, who has studied Myanmar for decades. “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,” he said.
In 1961 under Prime Minister U Nu, who was a devout Buddhist, the government enacted a law that largely banned the slaughter of cattle. The law, which was later abolished when the military staged a coup in 1962, required Muslims to apply for exemption licenses to slaughter cattle on religious holidays.
Than Than Nu, U Nu’s daughter, told Myanmar Now that her father never intended to discriminate against Muslims but banned killing cattle out of his convictions about bovines, which echoed those of Ledi Sayadaw.
“Our family never eats beef simply because we all have to depend so much on cattle. There is no other reason. We owe them a lot. Personally, I do not eat the meat of any four-footed animals, and now I have become a vegetarian,” she said.
Despite this history of caring for bovines out of Buddhist compassion, many restaurants in Myanmar serve beef and many people, including monks, have no problem with eating it. Opinions are divided among the clergy over the importance of abstaining from beef or meat in general, with some monks citing the Buddhist canon that states that one can eat anything available as long as it is done “with an awareness” and “without attachment to the taste”.
Even among prominent figures in the Ma Ba Tha there appeared to be diverging opinions when the issue of cattle slaughter and beef eating was debated during a nationalist monk convention in Yangon in June.
Firebrand monk Wirathu tried to raise the issue of whether mass slaughter of animals for religious purposes should be banned, in what appeared to be an attempt to provoke a negative reaction from the audience about the Muslim Eid al-Adha festival, which entails ritual cattle slaughter.
A nun in the audience responded by saying that she was a strict vegetarian in accordance with Buddhist principles and stated that no animals should be killed, nor should meat be served during religious meetings such as the convention. The remarks raised eyebrows among the hundreds of Ma Ba Tha monks and abbots, who had just enjoyed the pork curries served to them.
Wirathu, visibly irked, said the nun had misunderstood his argument and had digressed from the issue he was raising. Soon after, he lost control of the discussion again as some monks began to argue that banning a ritual of a different faith would be a violation of a Myanmar citizen’s fundamental human rights.