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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“Wings of a Windmill” or It Happened Here

A demagogue becomes president of the United States by exploiting fear politics and promising to return the country to greatness!

No, not the President-elect.  Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who becomes President after running a populist-fueled campaign in It Can’t Happen Here, a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis.  After Windrip, a Democratic Senator from a Western state, takes office he proceeds to take over the government.  He cancels Congress, takes control of the Supreme Court, and purges power from the states, establishing a fascist regime over which he has absolute power.

Lewis’ model for Windrip was Louisiana Senator Huey Long (1893-1935), who had also been Governor of the Pelican State and ruled it like a czar.  But Mussolini and Hitler’s rise to power was what motivated Lewis to write the book.  His wife, Dorothy Thompson, foreign correspondent for the New York Evening Post, interviewed Hitler in 1931 and wrote a book about it, I Saw Hitler.

Evidently, the hero of It Can’t Happen Here is a a small-town newspaper owner named Doremus Jessup, whose opposition to Windrip lands him in a concentration camp.  I say evidently because I have not read the book.

However, many people are reading it right now.  Suddenly there’s been a proliferation of articles on the internet calling it “the novel that predicted the rise of Donald Trump,” and since the election, It Can’t Happen Here “has sold out on some major online book retailers, including Amazon and Books-a-Million.”

Years ago I did try to read Lewis’ earlier novel The Jungle (1906) but as I recall his description of the deplorable working conditions in the meat-packing industry was more than I could stomach.  Readers at the time were shocked, nonetheless the novel became a best seller and its popularity helped President Theodore Roosevelt (who disliked Lewis) push through the Meat Inspection Act of 1906.

Sinclair Lewis was a muckraker.  That sounds derogatory but a muckrakers are people who expose misconduct in politics and public life.  So, being a muckraker can be a good thing.  Lewis’ 1922 satire of American culture and society, Babbit, was the work that was largely responsible for Lewis becoming the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature 1930.   Before he died of alcoholism in 1951 at age 65, he authored a a few other once well-known books, including Main Street, Elmer Gantry, Arrowsmith and Dodsworth.

Well, it did happen here, or maybe we should say it might be happening here.  And not just America.  Fareed Zakaria in an article at Foreign Affairs writes that “Right-wing populist parties, on the other hand, are experiencing a new and striking rise in country after country across Europe.”  This new populism is different from the traditional brand associated with left-wing politics.  The trumpets of nationalism are beginning to blare, too.  I don’t know if it will lead to fascism taking root around the world or no.  I have a feeling, though, that whatever it leads to in America the next four years is not going to be much fun.

I put It Can’t Happen Here on my TBR list.  It’s already pretty long.  And it’s not only the list, there’s the pile . . .

Here is a short passage from the book I found online.  The subject is Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip:

it-cant-happen-hereThe Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.

Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.”

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