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.



The bin Laden of Buddhism

It’s hard to believe, but he actually calls himself the “Burmese bin Laden.” His name is Saydaw Wirathu and he’s a Burmese Buddhist monk who was arrested in 2003 for distributing anti-Muslim literature, and since then has been stirring up, well, let’s call it what it is, racial hatred. He’s currently urging Burmese people “to join the 969 Buddhist nationalist campaign” and “do business or interact with only our kind: same race and same faith”.

969 comes from 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). The movement is a counterpoint to the Muslim 786 movement (evidently based on a Quranic phrase “In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Ever Merciful”), which many Burmese believe is a Islamic conspiracy to take over the world. I am not terribly informed on this, but from what I have read it seems that the Burmese characterization of 786 is a misrepresentation.

From a video of Wirathu released this week.
From a video of Wirathu released this week.

In a rant delivered Monday at the Ma-soe-yein monastery in  Mandalay, Wirathu encouraged Burmese Buddhists to think “nationalism” in everything they do and support the boycott because “Your purchases spent in ‘their’ (Muslim) shops will benefit the Enemy. So, do business with only shops with 969 signs on their facets”. Some have called Wirathu a “neo-Nazi” for his Islamophobic activities. He frequently uses a term, “kalar”, the equivalent of the N-word, to describe Muslims of South Asian descent.

According to the Democratic Voice of Burma, in February, Wirathu inflamed tensions in a Rangoon suburb by spreading false rumors that a local school was being turned into a mosque: “An angry mob of about 300 Buddhists assaulted the school and Muslim-owned businesses and shops in Rangoon.”

Sectarian violence is escalating the country officially known as Myanmar. The DVB reports that “Religious clashes continued to spread through Burma late on Monday night, as Muslim homes and businesses in two townships of Pegu division were ransacked by Buddhist mobs numbering in their hundreds.”

The Democratic Voice of Burma, by the way, is a non-profit media organization based in Oslo, Norway and operated by Burmese expatriates. On their website, the organization states that “Our mission is to provide accurate and unbiased news to the people of Burma,  to promote understanding and cooperation amongst the various ethnic and religious groups of Burma, to encourage and sustain independent public opinion and enable social and political debate, to impart the ideals of democracy and human rights to the people of Burma.”

Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have occurred frequently since last June when riots took place in the Rakhine State, a territory in western Burma, following the killing of ten Burmese Muslims after the rape and murder of a Rakhine woman. The Muslims call themselves Rohingya and are not recognized as citizens of the country.

Many Rohingya are being held under shocking conditions in Burmese “refuge” camps. Scores are fleeing Burma, illegally entering neighboring countries such as Thailand and precipitating a humanitarian crisis there. Over the weekend Thailand Marines and residents rescued 106 Rohingya people, starving and without water, adrift in a boat far offshore Thailand. The recent clashes I’ve mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg as far as the unrest is concerned, and there are even reports of genocide.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the international Buddhist community has been largely silent in the face of  racial and religious persecution committed in Buddha’s name. However, last week one leading monk in Burma, Ashin Nyanissara, did call for restraint in an interview with the DVB. He said that “all religions should live peacefully with loving kindness and tolerance.” Nice, but pretty mild.

BuddharakkithaTherotheprimeconspiratorWhether or not Wirathu deserves his self-proclaimed designation as the Burmese bin Ladin, I don’t know. He seems mainly to be a rabble-rouser. Bin Laden was not much on words. He was a terrorist. There have been Buddhist terrorists. One such person was a monk named  Buddharakkhita, who organized the assassination of the Sri Lankan Prime Minister in 1959. He was condemned to death in 1961 but the sentence was later changed to life imprisonment. He died in jail in 1967.

Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.
– John F. Kennedy

Fundamentalism isn’t about religion, it’s about power.
– Salman Rushdie


From The Saffron Revolution to The Saffron Racism

Last week Buddhist monks in Burma led a demonstration in the city of Mandalay against the Muslim minority Rohingya, the first large monk-led demonstrations in Burma since the 2007 uprising against military rule. But things were different this time. Instead of marching for democracy, the monks were marching is support of President Thein Sein’s proposal that the Rohingya, described by human rights groups as one of the world’s most oppressed minorities, be segregated and deported.

The 2007 protests, called the Saffron Revolution after the color of monks’ robes, were widely hailed as a defining moment in the history of Burma. Sadly, this too may be on the same order, and the current situation seems as surreal as it is ironic. Thein Sein was Prime Minister in 2007, when the government waged a violent crackdown on the monks. Now, the monks are supporting him.

Human Rights Watch Deputy Director for Asia Phil Robertson told Voice of America last week that the monks’ moral authority “raises the stakes in the sectarian tensions”:

The fact that these monks just several years ago were protesting for democracy and human rights, and are today now protesting for exclusion and potential deportation of a particular ethnic group causes some concern that the government in Burma may in fact listen to these kinds of voices.”

I wonder, though, if the monks haven’t now lost their moral authority. I am beginning to wonder if Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s champion of democracy, isn’t finding herself on “shaky moral ground.”

Aung San Suu Kyi continues to pick up criticism over the way she has reacted to the Rohingya controversy. As Jocelyn Gecker of the AP reports, “For weeks, Suu Kyi has dodged questions on the plight of a Muslim minority known as the Rohingya, prompting rare criticism of the woman.” A blogger at the Huffington Post asks, Should Aung San Suu Kyi be Stripped of her Nobel Peace Prize? At the Wall Street Journal, William McGowan writes this:

In Europe to receive her belated Nobel Peace Prize when the Rohingya crisis peaked, Aung San Suu Kyi was like a deer caught in headlights. When asked if the Rohingya should be treated as citizens, she answered. “I do not know,” followed by convoluted statements about citizenship laws and the need for border vigilance. Nowhere did she or the NLD [National League for Democracy] denounce either the attacks or the racist vitriol that followed them, or express sympathy for the victims.

According to some analysts, Ms. Suu Kyi’s reluctance to speak out reflected concern for her own parliamentary district, where anti-Rohingya feeling runs high. Others note the fierce racism of Buddhists in Rakhine, a state that plays a key role in the NLD’s wider electoral strategy.

The pinched response left many observers downcast. Journalist Francis Wade, who has followed the democratic transition in Burma closely, wonders whether Western observers have “overromanticized” the struggle between the NLD and the junta and if the pro-democracy movement ever had the “wholesale commitment to the principle of tolerance” many presumed.”

Perhaps we’ve also “overromanticized” Aung San Suu Kyi as well. “The Lady,” as she is often called, will be in the United States next week. She’ll travel to Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the top honor bestowed by the US Congress. She will also pay tribute to five leading activists from Burma who will accept the National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) 2012 Democracy Award honoring the Democracy Movement of Burma at an event scheduled for September 20 at Capitol. Suu Kyi will speak at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Ft. Wayne, Indiana Tuesday, September 25.

I truly don’t know what to think of all this. I find it bizarre, and terribly sad. A recent artcle in the suggests that “It is impossible to understand Aung San Suu Kyi, or Myanmar, without understanding Buddhism.” Well, I don’t understand.

I fail to see how anyone who has a commitment to Buddhist ideals can remain silent in the face of this kind of injustice. I’m willing to cut Aung San Suu Kyi some slack. I’m hoping there is some reason we don’t know about that explains her reluctance to speak out. I don’t feel quite as generous toward other quarters . . .

As the Saffron Revolution gives way to Saffron Racism, we also hear the sound of the Saffron Silence, as Buddhists worldwide continue to be largely silent on this issue . . . and once again, we say hello to darkness, our old friend . . .