Sea of Suffering: The Rohingya and the Conundrum of Buddhist Terror

The Rohingya refugee camps in southern Bangladesh lie just across the shallow Naf River from the scorched villages in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. A million Rohingya—a mostly Muslim-minority community—live precariously in these camps, nearly 700,000 having fled Myanmar since the end of August 2017. The refugee camps spill across the hills as a sea of suffering—a seemingly endless, sprawling, dusty tangle of tents fashioned from bamboo strips and plastic sheets. Open sewers run in fetid streams beside the camp’s dirt pathways.

In late March I took part in an interfaith witness delegation to camps south of Cox’s Bazaar. Among 15 interfaith delegates from the United States were representatives of different religions—from Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist—and of varying political stripes—from conservatives active in the Bush and Trump administrations, to Obama Democrats, to progressives like myself. We found ready consensus in our concern for the present and future plight of the Rohingya, and for the stark realities of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Satellite images shows the devastation of their villages in Myanmar, where the Rohingya have lived for many generations. But nothing can convey the realities of frightened, traumatized, broken people bereft of families, land, and livelihood. The Rohingya people I met speak of this as the “Buddhist terror,” an unholy alliance of the Myanmar army, monks, and Rakhine Buddhists. This brings up a deep sense of sorrow and responsibility in my heart. I heard them speak of villages aflame just a few miles away in Myanmar. These people were witnesses and victims to unimaginable atrocities, mass rape, and murder. A young woman told us:

When the Burmese military started to burn all the houses and tried to kill all the people, we came out of our homes and fled to a small island. . . . The military killed all the men with knives, and then they took the small children. They took my two-and-a-half-year-old son and threw him in the fire. Everyone was surrounded. They took all the bodies and put them in a hole, and then they put some petrol in it and burned all the bodies.

Another woman said:

I don’t want to go back to Burma, because I was tortured so much. I saw the Burmese military plant mines in our houses. They put 10 people together and blasted the mine. I saw it myself. Sometimes they hanged people in the coconut tree, and they just hang there. I saw a lot of massacre in my village . . .

I don’t want to go back. I just want to live safely.

A question haunts me, as it does many others in the West and elsewhere in the Buddhist world: how is it that Buddhists have abetted atrocities that might be considered a genocide of the Rohingya? Is there something within Buddhism or within Burmese Buddhism that permits hate speech, provocation, and xenophobia? Of course, we like to think of Buddhism as a path of peace and nonviolence, but is this a dangerous kind of idealization?

These are difficult questions, with deep roots in the past and a cloudy, uncertain future. Simply considering the last century, we see stark examples of Buddhist nationalism and violence. Imperial Way Zen in 20th century Japan—melding imperialism and samurai values with Zen training and principles—was framed as “Buddhism for the protection of the realm” (gokoku Bukkyo). Zen teacher Harada Sogaku famously wrote:

 . . . [If ordered to] march: tramp, tramp, or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest Wisdom [of Enlightenment]. The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war [now under way].

Millions in China, Manchuria, Korea, and other parts of Asia (including Burma)—even fellow Buddhists—were the victims of systematic violence supported by virtually all the schools of Japanese Buddhism.

Following independence from Britain, tensions among Sinhalese Buddhists and the minority Hindu Tamil population in Sri Lanka boiled up in 1983 into 25 years of civil war between the government and armed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgents, with terrible brutality on both sides. In 2009 this ended in the slaughter and defeat of the LTTE. Modern Sinhalese Buddhist monks, inciting and participating in armed violence against the Tamil population, often cited the fifth century Mahavamsa, the post-canonical chronicle of Sri Lanka’s history as a Buddhist nation, which has been used (or misused) as a core text for Buddhist nationalism. Chapter 25 of the Mahavamsa recounts the first century BCE victory of King Dutthagamani, a Sinhalese Buddhist king, over King Elara of Anuradhapura. Dutthagamani was praised for protecting the unity of his nation and the Buddhadharma, but when he grieved over the many thousands of Tamils he had killed, visiting arahants explained to him that these thousands of dead amounted to only one-and-a-half persons: one who had taken the Three Refuges and another who had received the Five Precepts. The rest of the Tamil dead were:

. . . men of evil life . . . not more to be esteemed than beasts.

In Sri Lanka, the Mahavamsa has resurfaced in anti-Islamic messages from the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which translates as Buddhist Power Force, and other ultra-nationalist groupings. BBS general secretary, the monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara has said:

This is a government created by Sinhala Buddhists and it must remain Sinhala Buddhist. This is a Sinhala country. . . . Democratic and pluralistic values are killing the Sinhala race.

Last October, this Sinhalese triumphalist narrative was quoted by the senior Burmese monk Sitagu Sayadaw in a sermon to Burmese military officers. The irony is that a decade ago, the world witnessed the Myanmar’s bold “Saffron Revolution.” In late 2007, monks and nuns bravely faced down the military’s guns and bayonets, chanting the Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s ancient verse of loving-kindness which says:

Even as a mother at the risk of her life watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things, suffusing love over the entire world, above, below, and all around, without limit.

For many years, ethno-religious nationalism was at the heart of Burma’s independence movement. Now it lays the basis for racism. The popular racism of a Buddhist majority is being appropriated by the generals to rally anti-Muslim Burmese sentiment. These generals and political figures have always been patrons of Buddhist monasteries, schools, and temples. Their patronage has always served to buy loyalty and quell dissent.

Loving-kindness has not always marked relations between Burmese Buddhists and other ethnic groups. What we now call Myanmar was for hundreds of years a diverse assortment of ethnic regions and small kingdoms rife with war, contests of power, disputed boundaries, and ethno-religious conflict. Muslim settlements of sailors, traders, farmers, and fisherman in coastal Arakan/Rakhine State have been documented as far back as the ninth century. Following three 19th century wars of conquest, the British Raj attempted to forge a “Burmese” national identity out of many ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups living in the “Golden Land” they called Burma. The region’s new name gave primacy to the largely Buddhist, dominant group, the Bamar.

But this Burmese ethno-religious identity also provided a focus for a developing anti-colonial movement. In the period following World War I, Burmese nationalists opposed to British colonialism scapegoated the Indian Hindu and Muslim populations, leading to race riots and the destruction of mosques, Hindu temples, and whole neighborhoods. In World War II, Burma’s military leaders—including Ne Win, who came to rule Burma with an iron hand between 1962 and 1988, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s father General Aung San, independent Burma’s first leader, who was assassinated by political rivals in 1947—were trained and initially fought alongside the Japanese—until joining the Allied forces in 1945. Meanwhile, many of the other ethnic groups fought fiercely against Japanese occupation, working closely with the British in the Burma Campaign. The postwar fracturing of Burma played out along lines that were drawn during the war. In many ways those fault lines persist even now.

Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, Karen, and other states have resisted the central government since the formation of the modern Burma in 1948—some with organized armed forces of their own. In many cases, these ethnic groups were promised independence by the British in the heat of World War II. But the British, broke and exhausted by the war, had neither the will nor the ability to keep promises to those who had fought on their side. Dreams of independent states remained dreams. But dreams are persistent for those who wish to be free.

Today, ultranationalist monks—many of them members of Ma Ba Tha, the Association for Protection of Race and Religion—stand behind the military, urging them on, sometimes participating in anti-Muslim violence themselves. The power of this organization and the conflation of religious, military, and governmental institutions intimidates more tolerant monks and ordinary citizens, who fear for their lives if they speak out.

This historical sketch just begins to lay the ground for understanding Buddhist violence. To my mind, the mix of nationalism and religion is the main problem. When the political machinery of a nation get tangled up with religious beliefs both religion and the state are degraded. This is true of Myanmar; it is also true of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, India, and even the “Christian” United States. It is true wherever these volatile vested interests collude.

No religion, no culture, no person is free from the potential of violence, either their own or that of others. Principles of righteousness and justice in the Hebrew scriptures are belied by ancient massacres at the bidding of an often cruel and demanding God. Christ of the New Testament is a remarkable paragon of kindness and love, but immeasurable violence has been done in his name. Chronicles of the Buddha and his early sangha recount his cousin Devadatta’s several assassination attempts. In the Transmission of the Lamp, Master Bodhidharma says that he was poisoned five times. The Sixth Ancestor of Zen Hui Neng was pursued and threatened by Hui Ming. This is what we Buddhists describe as our deluded nature. An instinct for hierarchy and domination may well be present in all mammals. However, as human beings, as potential Buddhas, we have the capacity to transcend such instincts and urges. That is the heart of Buddhist practice, but we have constantly to guard against conditioned habits of violence.

By extension, sentient beings form groups, clans, tribes, communities, and nations. These are marked by values, traditions, rituals, and beliefs. Just as Buddhist temples had a sima or boundary marking out consecrated ground, tribes and nations have borders and definitions declaring what land and which people are inside, and which are outside. In modern Myanmar, the Burmese and other Buddhists within the country’s present borders are inside. All others must either convert, leave, or face exclusion, oppression, or death. This is the case with the Rohingya. So it is with the predominantly Christian Kachin people, embattled by the Burmese military for more than 50 years.

The “Burmanization” of ethnic groups within the Republic of the Union of Myanmar is not simply an eruption of domination or identity. It has to do with power and wealth. If one looks at an ethnic map of Myanmar, the central plains region of the majority Burmese population is ringed by once-independent states: Shan, Kachin, Chin, Rakhine, Karen, and many smaller groups. These states border China, Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, and India. Myanmar sits at the crossroads of Asia. And within those border states lies much of the country’s wealth—timber, minerals, gems, hydropower, seaports, and, of course, large reserves of oil and gas.

Myanmar—with wealth of its own—sits between two regional superpowers, China and India, each of which is heavily invested in infrastructure projects there. China has long wished for “blue-water” access to the Indian Ocean. It is presently constructing a port at Rakhine State’s Kyauk Pyu harbor, with rail links and a pipeline northeast across Myanmar to China’s Yunan Province. India’s multi-modal Kaladan project will connect the port of Sittwe, also in Rakhine State, to India by water and highway.

Looking beneath the surface of religious or ethnic conflict between Burmese and Rohingyas, there is a two-stage strategy:

1. Scapegoat the Rohingya to build cooperation between ethnic Rakhine and majority Burmese, a relationship that has always been rocky.

2. Clear the Rohingya population from coastal areas of northern Rakhine State, intending to reduce the likelihood of Islamic resistance from the Rohingya or from other Burmese Muslim or Pan-Islamist militant groups, such as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which in recent years has launched guerrilla attacks against Myanmar police, military, and local Hindu communities.*

Another Rohingya survivor recounted:

After killing the seniors, they just simply started to chop up the babies. Simply killing the babies. Cutting bodies into two parts and throwing them into the river. I saw that, I crossed the river and hid out in a safe place and was simply watching that—the Burmese military chopping the small babies and throwing body parts into the river.

As the world watches these humanitarian disasters unfold, what can we do to alleviate the suffering of the Rohingya, whom the UN calls one of the most persecuted minorities in the world? An estimated US$1 billion in aid is required over the next several months. Refugees immediately need food, medicine, and shelter as the monsoon season arrives in Bangladesh, rains which will turn their camps into a morass of mud. Children need education, almost non-existent in the camps. The experience of violence and dislocation calls for appropriate trauma work and psychotherapy if exiled Rohingya are to find any relief from their physical and psychological wounds.

In March, the UN’s special rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, told the UN Human Rights Council:

I am becoming more convinced that the crimes committed bear the hallmarks of genocide. The UN’s definition of genocide, simply put, calls out acts committed with an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.”

This is vital, not just for the Rohingya people, but for other ethnic minorities in Myanmar—the Kachin, Shan, Karen, and others—who have faced murder and scorched earth for decades. The Rohingya and many minorities want the same things: if they are to be part of a multi-ethnic Myanmar they must have safety and freedom from violence, legal rights, justice, and full citizenship. Myanmar’s Progressive Voice recently reported on calls from within Myanmar:

. . . toward accountability for the Myanmar Army, including referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Kachin and Karen civil society organizations have also joined the recent calls for ICC referral in order to seek justice for the decades of abuses suffered by Kachin, Karen, and other ethnic minorities at the hands of the Myanmar Army.

The Rohingya themselves are clear on what they want. On our way out of Bhalukhali camp, I was handed a worn leaflet outlining three points:

Safety—in the camps, settlements in Bangladesh, or on their return to their homes in Myanmar;

Citizenship—recognition of legal rights that effectively disappeared with Myanmar’s 1982 citizenship law;

Justice—accountability for the Burmese military before an international tribunal, for acts of murder, rape, and genocide.

Accomplishing these goals is another matter. Although Myanmar has spoken of potential repatriation, the government maintains the discriminatory demands that drove the Rohingya out of Myanmar in the first place. Any Rohingya wishing to return to Myanmar must sign documents affirming Bengali/Bangladeshi origin and relinquish all rights to citizenship in Myanmar. Additionally, Rohingya would be subject to Myanmar’s repressive “Race and Religion Protection” laws, passed in 2015 to control and restrict marriage across religious lines, and limit family size for Muslim parents.

A refugee I spoke with in Bangladesh put it simply:

We came here just to take shelter and we are thankful to be given shelter. But camp life is not home. We stay here as refugees. We want what normal people have. We are looking for a normal standard of life.

Given the views and actions of Myanmar’s Buddhists, Buddhists around the world have a responsibility to listen and speak with our Burmese co-religionists. First, we have to find ways to engage, settings in which we can hear each other. I know that friends in Asia, particularly those in Thailand and Myanmar, have been reaching out both to progressive monks and nuns inside Myanmar and to monks of Ma Ba Tha and others of a nationalist bent. The work of dialogue is often slow and quiet, calling for great patience. So far, the results have not been encouraging.

The wider Buddhist community—in the West and East—has also spoken publicly against atrocities and genocide. After the Burmese army’s systematic attacks on Rohingya villages September 2017, more than 200 Buddhist teachers sent a letter to Myanmar’s religious, governmental, and military leaders, as well as to the United Nations and the US State Department.

We are greatly disturbed by what many in the world see as slander and distortion of the Buddha’s teachings. In the Dhamma there is no justification for hatred and violence. Mean-spirited words and direct provocation led by Ma Ba Tha monks . . . stand in stark contradiction to monastic precepts and Buddha’s teachings on universal morality, peace, and tolerance.

In March, members of Saddha—Buddhists for Peace—published an open letter to Burmese Buddhists, saying:

. . . . to us, being Buddhist means standing up against injustice and extending compassion to all suffering beings, regardless of ethnicity or faith, and holding other Buddhists accountable for actions that go against these values. Our identities as Burmese will not be defined by the hateful voices of nationalists, racists, and Islamophobes.

Toward material aid and political support, we have launched the Buddhist Humanitarian Project. So far we have gathered hundreds of signatures for a new letter to Myanmar’s various authorities. We have also raised more than US$27,000 in direct support for exiled Rohingya, channeling the funds through respected NGOs on the ground in the camps in southern Bangladesh. We encourage each of you to take the Rohingya people into your hearts; to give and act in ways that let them know their cries are heard, that they will no longer be adrift in this sea of suffering, that we will continue to respond.

* Amnesty International investigations recently confirmed that ARSA massacred nearly 100 Hindu women, men, and children in Rakhine State in August 2017.

For information, support, and editorial advice, nine bows to Richard Reoch, Jill Jameson, Chris Fortin, Laurie Senauke, Somboon Chungprampree, and Malik Mujahid. 

Rev. Hozan Alan Senauke is a Zen Buddhist priest, vice-abbot of Berkeley Zen Center in California. As a Buddhist activist Alan works closely with the International Network of Engaged Buddhists. In 2007, he founded Clear View Project, developing Buddhist-based resources for social change in Asia and the US. He is the author of The Bodhisattva’s Embrace: Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism’s Front Lines and Heirs to Ambedkar: The Rebirth of Engaged Buddhism in India. In other lives, Alan is a father and a musician, not necessarily in that order. 

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