The Rohingya Crisis

It’s just a shot away:

“When they are being killed and forcibly transferred in a widespread or systematic manner, this could constitute ethnic cleansing and could amount to crimes against humanity.”

In fact it can be the precursor to all the egregious crimes — and I mean genocide.”

These are the words of Adama Dieng, the UN special advisor for the prevention of genocide. He is referring to the crisis in Burma (Myanmar), a humanitarian crisis that has recently worsened.

On August 25, the military began “clearance operations” in the Rakhine State.  Since that date it’s been estimated that some 370,000 Rohingya refugees have crossed over the border into Bangladesh. They have carried with them allegations of mass killings and burning of Rohingya villages by Buddhist vigilantes and Burmese soldiers.

Image: Rohingya refugees walk on the muddy path after crossing the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. (Reuters / Mohammad Ponir Hossain)

The Rohingya people, from Rakhine in Myanmar, are mostly Muslim and they are stateless. Despite the fact that they have been in Burma for centuries, the Buddhist majority refuses to recognize their citizenship. In 2013, the United Nations called the Rohingya “one of the most persecuted communities in the world.”

On Monday, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called the situation in Myanmar “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Many of the accounts of violence are unverifiable because the Myanmar military will not let international journalists in the region where the violence is occurring. According to the BBC, Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de-facto leader, claims that fake news is inflaming the outrage over Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya. She says it is “simply the tip of a huge iceberg of misinformation calculated to create a lot of problems between different communities and with the aim of promoting the interest of the terrorists.”

Up to now, Aung San Suu Kyi has been strangely silent about the Rohingya crisis.  And it is not clear to me who “the terrorists” are to her. To me, the terrorists are the Buddhists. Myanmar’s Buddhism is fueled by anger, hate, and Islamophobia.

Recent reports have surfaced of Rohingya insurgents attacking police posts, killing 12 officers, and 130 people, including women and children, massacred in a single village by soldiers and Buddhist vigilantes, but while there has been violence perpetrated by both sides, the lion’s share of responsibility for the killing and burning lies with the Buddhist majority and the military. The Buddhist side is led by a group known as the “969 Buddhist nationalist campaign.” 969 refers to a Buddhist tradition in which the Three Jewels or Tiratana is composed of 24 attributes (9 for the Buddha, 6 for Dhamma or the teachings, and 9 for the Sangha).  They rationalize persecution of the Rohingya by claiming they are protecting Buddhism from the evils of Islam.

Ms Suu Kyi, one of the most respected women in the world, has come under fire for her silence. Recently, Malala Yousafzai, 20, the women’s education activist who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in 2012 and who survived to become the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, called on her fellow laureate to condemn the “shameful” treatment of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. She said that “the world is waiting” for her to speak out.

We have been waiting.  Suu Kyi’s silence has been troubling. Yet, as the Washington Post noted on Sept. 6, “Defenders of Suu Kyi argue that she has to walk a delicate line with the Burmese military, which not so long ago was her jailer and remains backed by an increasingly vocal constituency of Buddhist nationalists.”

Friday, during an impromptu interview with reporters, the Dalai Lama said, “Those people who are harassing Muslims then they should remember Buddha helping, definitely helping those poor Muslims… Still, I feel that. Very sad. Very sad.”  He was referring to a statement he made in 2014 that if the Buddha was there, he would protect the Muslims from the Buddhists.

Several years ago, the Dalai Lama, during a meeting of Nobel Laureates, urged Ms Suu Kyi to curb the violence, and even more recently he wrote her a letter, again urging her to speak out and to resolve the crisis.

Silence is not always noble.

I’m still wondering where’s the outrage from the international Buddhist community.  We can’t allow anyone to use Buddha-dharma as a weapon of hate.  Speaking out is a responsibility that all Buddhists share.

And I still think a strong and repeated condemnation of the Myanmar Buddhists by international Buddhists would have some impact. It would be difficult for the Myanmar sangha to ignore such a response. Put the pressure on.

So, Buddhists can do more.  Out job is to raise awareness.  Buddhists need to talk more about it, blog more about it.  It is not the only crisis in the world by any means, but it is our crisis.  All Buddhists need to own it.  Not to pat myself on the back, but I’ve mentioned or dedicated an entire post to the crisis in Myanmar about 11 times between 2012 and 2015.  Even though I have been silent on the crisis for a while,  I have not given up disturbing the sounds of silence.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

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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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Insulting Buddhism

Several months ago I gave brief mention of a situation in Burma (Myanmar) where a bar manager from New Zealand and two Burmese nationals were facing four years in prison for “insulting Buddhism” with a promotional ad they posted on the bar’s Facebook page showing the Buddha wearing headphones. (See the offending image here.)

Last week, a Burmese court sentenced bar manager Phil Blackwood, the bar’s Burmese owner Tun Thurein, and another manager Htut Ko Ko Lwina to 2½ years in prison with hard labor. When you consider all the stuff that gets posted on Facebook, an image of the Buddha wearing headphones seems pretty tame, and the sentence extreme. Indeed, putting those guys on trial in the first place strikes me as a travesty.

The case is part of a larger controversy over religious images that came to a dreadful head when Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper in France, was attacked by terrorists because of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad it published. I will not rehash the issues surrounding the controversy in this post, except to remind readers that teachings based upon the Quran forbid the creation of visual images of Muhammad and even moderate Muslims find depictions of the Prophet offensive.

That is relevant because at one time, there was a ban on images of Buddha. The Buddha supposedly asked his followers not to collect or venerate his relics and not depict his image. His followers almost completely ignored his instructions regarding his relics, but for nearly 600 years, the only images used to represent the Buddha were a footprint, an empty seat, the Wheel of Dharma, or a Bodhi leaf.

Seated Buddha from Gandhara , one of the earliest images of Buddha, created between 100-300 C.E. (© British Museum)
Seated Buddha from Gandhara , one of the earliest images of Buddha, created between 100-300 C.E. (© British Museum)

In the first century, the first images of the Buddha started to appear, and they typically showed Gautama standing or seated in a lotus position, and holding a begging bowl or making the gesture (mudra) of fearlessness. One of the areas where these representations began to emerge was Gandhara, and sculpture from that period displays a definite Greek influence.

Since then folks have been going crazy making Buddha images, and today it is a very big business.

If Buddha were around now, I think he would be inclined to take stuff like a Buddha with headphones in stride, perhaps even find it amusing.  I feel sure he would be outraged at the idea of imprisoning anyone for making such an image.  I also think he would have concerns about the commercialization of his image, and he would certainly be uncomfortable with the idea of worshiping his image. Of course, this is just conjecture on my part. What the historical Gautama thought, felt, actually taught, and what his life truly was, we shall never know,  because his time is so remote and his life story buried in myth, and as far as how he would think and act as a modern person, that is impossible to know.

Nonetheless, I doubt he ever held himself out as anything other than a common, mortal human being.  We say he was an extraordinary human being; he would simply say that he was “awake.” And while many Buddhist will deny that Buddha is worshiped, all objective observers know that worship of Buddha is a reality in some forms of Buddhism, especially among rank and file devotees.  Rather early on, the myth-making process that has shrouded his true story, elevated the Buddha from a mortal man to a being who was supermundane, “perfect,” and the line between human and god became extremely thin.

The Kathavathu, one of the seven books of the Pali Canon’s Abdidhamma, compiled during the reign of King Ashoka, and evidently produced in order to correct “various errors which had developed with regard to the Buddha,” discusses various views of the Buddhist schools existing at the time that promoted supernatural notions about the Buddha. Prof. Trevor Ling, in his book The Buddha, writes,

Among the points dealt with in the Kathavathu was the idea that the Buddha had not really lived in the world of men, but in the ‘heaven of bliss’, appearing to men on earth in a specially created, temporary form to preach the Dhamma. Together with this virtual deification of the Buddha there went also a tendency to deny him normal human characteristics, and on the other hand to attribute to him unlimited magical power.”*

This elevation and immortalization of Buddha was carried over into the Mahayana canon, but today, I think many people tend to have an earthly, prosaic view that is much more realistic and proper. Ultimately, as Thich Nhat Hanh says,

Concepts like ‘nirvana,’ ‘Buddha,’ ‘Pure Land,’ ‘Kingdom of God,’ and ‘Jesus,’ are just concepts; we have to be very careful. We should not start a war and destroy people for our concepts.” **

Now, if the government of Burma is so concerned about people insulting Buddhism then they would do something about those Buddhist extremists in their country who go around preaching hate and inciting violence against the Muslim minority there. Wouldn’t they?

– – – – – – – – – –

* Trevor Ling, The Buddha, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 170

** Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Penguin, 2000, 82

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The World as Satire?

You can’t make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you’re doing is recording it.
– Art Buchwald

I’ve been laid up all week with a sore knee – actually, sore is not the word for it, more like pain to the nth degree – and as a result, haven’t done much other than read and watch TV. And think.

I keep mulling over the questions about free speech and censorship raised by the tragic Charlie Hebdo incident. And this will probably be my last word on that subject for a while. I think the bottom line on this issue was stated succinctly the other day by none other than Riss, head of publication for Charlie Hebdo, who was injured during the attack. He said, “If you don’t like the magazine, you don’t read it, you push it aside.”

This echoes the approach laid out by the Tao Te Ching in the 6th century BCE: “If you do not wish to have your heart disturbed by desire, then do not look at objects of desire.” So, if you do not wish to be offended, do not look at things you find offensive. Don’t like that a certain film has nudity, don’t watch the film. Don’t like what someone is saying on TV, change the channel.

At the same time, there can be a fine line between what is satirical and what is offensive. The legendary comedian Lenny Bruce once used the N-word 22 times in short piece of shtick that lasted about 30 seconds. He said at the end of the routine, “Well, I was just trying to make a point, and that is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.” He went on to say that if you used the word repeatedly until it “didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.” I’m not sure Lenny was right about that, but nonetheless, he was hailed as a genius.

Decades later when Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld) repeatedly used the N-word at the Laugh Factory, it didn’t work and he was labeled a racist. What was the difference? Simply that Richard, whom I don’t believe intended to be racist, didn’t have a point. He was merely trying to shock, entertain. And he ended up being offensive.

Still, making fun of things just for the fun of it is, well, fun. I guess it comes down to how it’s done . . .

I’ve also been thinking about how Islam is not the only religion that is sensitive about images of its founder. During Buddhism’s first six centuries, no images of Buddha were ever made. Instead, he was represented by a footprint, an empty seat, the Wheel of Dharma, or a Bodhi leaf. We have long passed that era but today in certain Asian countries where the more fundamentalist branch of Theravada is the predominate form of Buddhism, folks can be touchy about how Buddha is portrayed.

The offending image posted and then later removed from Facebook.
The offending image posted and then later removed from Facebook.

In Burma, also known as Myanmar, a bar manager from New Zealand and two Burmese nationals are facing four years in prison for “insulting Buddhism” with a promotional ad they posted on the bar’s Facebook page showing the Buddha wearing headphones. In August, a Canadian tourist was expelled for having a Buddha tattoo and a Spanish tourist was expelled in September for his Buddhist tattoo.

Last April, A British tourist was arrested as she arrived at the airport in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo after authorities spotted a traditional, non-satiric tattoo of Buddha sitting atop a Lotus flower on her right arm.

It’s a fine line, all right. You can err by being offensive, you can also be overly sensitive. I don’t find the Buddha with headphones image offensive, but then I’ve been guilty of creating some less than traditional images of Buddha myself . . . just for the fun of it . . .

From a 2010 post, here is a scene from the Dairyvatara or “Sutra of the Decent to Dairy Queen”:

buddha-dq

In 2011, I wondered what the stereotypical American Buddhist looked like . . .

Not content to insult the original Buddha, I’ve also lampooned the “Second Buddha”:

badass-nagarjuna2

I’ve even had to audacity to depict The Marx Brothers as iconic Bodhisattvas – here’s their statues in Guru Hall at Whyaduck Temple:

Guru-Hall

Well, whaddya expect from a guy who doesn’t even take himself very seriously?

I’m a satirist, so I’ve got boxing gloves on if the person is worthy of satire. But I’m not an assassin.
– Stephen Colbert

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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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