The prevalent image of Buddhists as passive, nonviolent people is very largely true. However, there are vivid counterexamples. Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka both rank in the top 25 of human rights violators.
Burma is at least 90 percent Buddhist, and has the fifth largest Buddhist population in the world (48 million). Yet it has had a very long, bloody past of conflict with its neighbors as well as internally. Warfare and internal strife have characterized Burmese history since around A.D. 1300, and since 1962, when a military junta seized power, Burma has been ruled by one of the most oppressive, violent governments in the world. Under its present government, it was ranked as the 14th worst country in terms of human rights violations. Violations include detention of political prisoners, forced labor, child labor, human trafficking, and sexual violence against women by the military.
The ongoing detention of political prisoners has, most notably, included Aung San Suu Kyi, General Secretary of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and recipient of the Noble Peace Prize in 1991.
She is the daughter of Aung Sun, who founded the modern Burmese Army and negotiated with the British Empire for Burmese independence. He was assassinated in 1947, when she was only two years old. She was educated at the University of Delhi; St. Hugh’s College, Oxford; and the University of London. In 1988, heavily influenced by Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and her Buddhist beliefs (Theravada Buddhism), she entered the political arena to work for the democratization of Burma and helped to found the NLD. She has spent approximately 15 of the 21 years from 1989 until 2010 under house arrest, refusing the freedom she was offered if she would leave the country. In April 2012, at the age of 66, she won a seat in the lower house of the Burmese parliament.
While known for its Ceylon Tea and called “The Pearl of the Indian Ocean,” Sri Lanka was deep in civil war from 1983 until 2009, with an estimated 80,000–100,000 people killed during that time. Sri Lanka is approximately 70 percent Buddhist followed by 15% Hindu, 8% Islam and 8% Christian, and has a Buddhist population of 16 million people, the seventh largest in the world. The constitution of Sri Lanka guarantees human rights as ratified by the United Nations, but Sri Lanka is listed as the 24th worst human rights violator and has been criticized by organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for violations.
Amnesty International (AI) cites that both the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Hindu minority aggressively seeking independent statehood, committed “gross human rights abuses, including war crimes, for which no one has been held accountable.” Included in these crimes are the harassment and attacks of independent journalists and human rights defenders, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture, use of child soldiers, and unlawful killings. AI further states, “At the end of the war, about 11,000 displaced people suspected of links to the LTTE were arbitrarily arrested and detained without charge or trial.” Since then, many of them have been released, but those who remain have not been lawfully charged or prosecuted.