New Boat People Crisis

According to Thailand’s foreign minister the number of migrants in the Indian Ocean has reached an “alarming level.” Migrants desperately fleeing their home countries have been landing on the shores of Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. During the past month, over 3,000 people have been rescued by fishermen or have washed ashore, and the UN estimates that several thousand more are still be at sea, abandoned by human smugglers.

Friday, during the opening of an Asean conference in Bangkok aimed at tackling the issue, Thai Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn called for governments in the region to address the root causes of the crisis. Both he and the UN singled out Burma, also known as Myanmar, as the country most responsible for the situation.

Most of the migrants are Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burmese persecution, while many others are economic migrants from Bangladesh seeking job in other countries.

At the conference, Htin Linn, the head of the Myanmar delegation, refused to accept any responsibility, while in Yangon, Burma’s largest city, over three hundred protesters, including scores of extremist Buddhist monks, took to the streets to deny that the boat people are Rohingya Muslims. Demonstrators wore shirts and held signs with messages such as “Boat People are not Myanmar, Stop Blaming Myanmar” and “There is no Rohingya in Myanmar.”

Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi, London, 2012 (Photo:Jeremy Russell/OHHDL)
Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi, London, 2012 (Photo:Jeremy Russell/OHHDL)

Meanwhile in an interview before a visit to Australia next week with The Australian newspaper, the Dalai Lama urged fellow a Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out: “It’s very sad . . . I met her two times, first in London and then the Czech Republic. I mentioned this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated. But in spite of that I feel she can do something.”

Suu Kyi’s silence on the issue has disappointed many of her admirers around the world.

I would hope that if the Dalai Lama, as head of a Mahayana Buddhist sect, feels confident about pressing Suu Kyi, a follower of Theravada Buddhism, to take some action, he would also feel confident about calling on Theravadins in Burma and Sri Lanka to do something about the Buddhist extremism on the rise in both of those countries.

In an article published Thursday at Tricycle, the Buddhist magazine, Theravada Buddhism’s Muslim Problem, Iselin Frydenlund, a researcher at the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, University of Oslo and the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), and Susan Hayward, Interim Director of the Religion and Peace building program at the United States Institute of Peace, wrote that the problem “requires an intra-Buddhist debate on Buddhist principles, religious pluralism, and human rights.” They also maintain that joint statements crafted at local summits between Buddhist and Muslims “carry far more weight than any human rights group’s condemnation of the role of religious leaders in creating intolerance and mistrust.”

This may be true, but joint condemnation or at least some rather loud vocalization from fellow Buddhists would carry some weight as well. In my opinion, Buddhists worldwide have been far too quiet.

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“If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.”

As I’ve noted previously on The Endless Further, extremists in Burma and Sri Lanka are misusing Buddhism to promote religious hatred and violence. In Burma (Myanmar) violence has left more than 200 dead and close to 150,000 homeless since persecution against the Rohingya Muslim minority began in the western state of Rakhine in June 2012. Human rights groups maintain that extremist Buddhist monks have helped incite violence and participated in rioting mobs. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist mobs have attacked Muslim neighborhoods – four people were killed in a clash between Buddhists and Muslims last month – unrest incited by the far-right Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) group.

Dalai-LamaXX444b3Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, who turned 79 this past Sunday, July 6th, used the occasion of his birthday to call on Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka to halt violence against Muslim minorities. In front of a large crowd gathered on the outskirts of Leh, a town high in the Himalayas, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader said,

I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime.

Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.”

These simple but powerful words need no further explication . . .

But I would like to point out once again that for too long, far too many Buddhists around the world have remained silent on this issue, and this is especially the case with well-known Buddhist leaders whose words influence many people.  About this matter, silence is not skillful means, but rather a tool of complicity.

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Betraying Buddhism

In 1992, Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah (1929–2014), a social anthropologist, published Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka, a book that traced the history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and asked the question “Given Buddhism’s presumed nonviolent philosophy how can committed Buddhist monks and laypersons in Sri Lanka today actively take part in the fierce political violence of the Sinhalese [Buddhist majority] against the Tamils [non-Buddhist minority]?”

monk-with-gunThat question is still relevant 22 years later despite that the civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamils technically ended in 2009.  Since then, we have seen the rise of the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) in Sri Lanka, and the 969 in Burma. Both are Buddhist extremist groups that promote racism and encourage violence against minorities.

Last month in Burma, 969 followers incited Buddhist mobs to attack offices and residences of international aid workers, prompting the evacuation of almost all non-essential staff and residents. A 13-year-old girl died when police fired into the air to disperse the crowds. The aid workers were targeted because of accusations they are favoring the minority Rohingya Muslim population.

Human Rights Watch in a new report says that Burmese security forces supported by Buddhist monks have “committed crimes against humanity” in a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

To be fair, it needs to be said that in Sri Lanka and Burma, all sides have committed violent acts, but the side I am concerned with here is the Buddhist side, for I am a Buddhist, and racism and violence enacted under the banner of Buddha-dharma is an abomination that should not be tolerated.

Make no mistake about it, these fundamentalists are abusing the dharma, justifying their actions with nonsense about how the presence of non-Buddhist ethnic groups in their countries is a threat to Buddhism, or perhaps we should say Theravada Buddhism.

But it is these Buddhist extremists who are the real threat. By promoting hate and inciting violent acts, they not only betray Buddhism, they also degrade it.

What puzzles me, and I’ve commented on this before, is the silence of the world Buddhist community. As far as I know, and I have followed the situation rather closely, only a handful of Buddhist leaders have commented on the conflicts, and those comments have been rather mild. The Buddhist blogosphere, also, save for two or three exceptions, has been silent.

Recently there has been discussion on a couple of Buddhist blogs about what this phenomenon should be called, whether terms like “Buddhist terror” or “Buddhist extremism” are justifiable, or whether something more “nuanced,” like “Ethnocentric Buddhism” would be more appropriate. This was started by a scholar, Dr. Paul Fuller, and I know academics must analyze and classify, but frankly, when considering the plight of the Rohingya Muslims, called by the UN “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world,” debating what label should be used to describe the Buddhist campaign against them seems rather trivial.  One thing is clear, what these intolerant monks are preaching cannot be called Buddhism.

I feel that if Buddhists who are a bit more enlightened were to engage the extremists in dialogue (the Buddha’s preferred method for conflict resolution), or if the Buddhist world united in one voice to basically tell these folks either to start acting like Buddhists or disrobe, there is a possibility they could be turned around, or if nothing else, made to think twice.  There is no central Buddhist authority to compel them to do anything, but world-wide Buddhist condemnation might have some effect.   At the very least, those of us who discuss Buddhism on blogs and other forms of social media could do much more to raise awareness about the situation.  To remain silent is, in my opinion, also a betrayal of Buddhism.

Aung San Suu Kyi dialoging with Muslims in 2012 (EPA)
Aung San Suu Kyi dialoging with Muslims in 2012 (EPA)

Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi has received her share of criticism for remaining largely silent about this situation. I have no doubt that as a Buddhist and a human being, she deplores these crimes. After all, she has stated many times that “democracy must include everyone.” She has also said that she can accomplish more by working quietly behind the scenes for reconciliation than by making public statements. This seems to me a wise strategy, considering that she is no longer a political dissent but an elected member of the Burmese Parliament and can dialogue not only with the persecutors and their victims, but also those who wield the real power.

Speaking of Suu Kyi, the other night I finally saw The Lady, the 2011 biopic about the Nobel Laureate. As I recall, the film received mostly negative reviews at the time of its release. Condensing a person’s life to a two-hour movie is always difficult, but I was satisfied and inspired by French Director Luc Besson’s effort.

Michelle Yeoh as "The Lady"
Michelle Yeoh as “The Lady”

Michelle Yeoh, who made her name as a star of Hong Kong action films, gave a strong, emotional performance. I thought she captured Suu Kyi perfectly, and from what I read afterward, she studied about 200 hours worth of audiovisual material on Suu Kyi and learned Burmese so that she could deliver Suu Kyi’s political speeches authentically.

One of the real-life characters in the film, U Win Tin, a writer and co-founder of the National League for Democracy Party with Aung San Suu Kyi, died Monday at the age of 84.

At the very end of The Lady, a quote from Aung San Suu Kyi appears on the screen:

Please use your liberty to promote ours.”

Ultimately, there is no “your,” only “ours.” The sufferings of the Rohingya Muslims and other minority groups are our sufferings. For those who think of themselves as Buddhists, the abuses of a small group of extremists committed in the name of Buddha, is our shame, and our business.

We, who live in more democratic societies where we enjoy the right of free speech, should use our speech to promote human rights and freedom for all.

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