Rohingya: The Most Persecuted People in the World?
by Bill Schulz
Of all the world’s religions, Buddhism has been most successful in marketing itself as a religion of peace, in large part because of the teachings of the Buddha himself. In verse 130 of the Dhammapada, for example, he is quoted as saying, “All are afraid of the stick; all hold their lives dear. Putting oneself in another’s place, one should not beat or kill others.” Buddhism is often associated in the Western mindset with the pursuit of inner peace through practices like meditation and yoga. The highest profile political acts of Buddhists in the last fifty years have included images of monks burning themselves to death to protest the Vietnam War and brave Saffron-robed monks and nuns walking peacefully in the streets of Yangon in 2007 to protest the repressive military government in Myanmar (Burma). The notion of a “violent Buddhist” appears to be an oxymoron.
All of which is why it is so shocking to see Buddhist monks and laity leading the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, beginning in 2012 when 140,000 Rohingya were forced into refugee camps following Buddhist-led rioting there. Since then, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya (whom the Burmese call “Bengalis” to underscore the Burmese view that Rohingya are outsiders) have fled to Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand, and elsewhere in the region. The United Nations has called the Rohingya the “most persecuted people in the world.” Others have warned of impending genocide. What’s behind this mistreatment?
Despite their image as people of peace, it is naïve to assume that Buddhists are any less inclined to stray from the more benevolent teachings of their faith than practitioners of other religions. History presents us with numerous instances of Buddhists engaging in violent behavior. Many Japanese Buddhists, for example, strongly supported the Japanese military in World War II, including during the so-called Rape of Nanking. Militant Buddhists contributed to atrocities in Sri Lanka during the recent civil war and the Myanmar military government that ruled from 1988 to 2011 was itself led by Buddhists.
Moreover, it can be difficult to specify which beliefs are core to a given faith and which extreme. Buddhists, like Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, are divided into a myriad of different schools but, unlike many other faiths, draw inspiration not from one holy book (like the Qu’ran or the Bible) but from a host of texts, including sutras, commentaries, rules, and stories, all of which may be considered scriptures. Nor is there one central Buddhist agency or authority to which adherents look for guidance. This means that when Buddhists are tempted by self-delusion and ethnocentrism, it is not easy to rule such doctrine as “out of bounds.” In Myanmar such religious nationalism has taken the form of the 969 Movement led by a monk named Wirathu, who has instilled fears in a significant portion of the Burmese that the Muslim Rohingya minority has designs on the country: their population explosion, he has said, means that “they will capture our country in the end.”
Complicating the picture are both the civil status of the Rohingya and the larger political context in Myanmar. Muslims have probably been resident in Rakhine since the 8th century but, as more of them migrated to Burma following the British conquest in 1825, local resentment grew. Such ill feelings were exacerbated when the British armed Muslims in World War II to fight the native population, many of whom sided with the Japanese. As a result, the Rohingya were never granted citizenship by the post-colonial government in Burma and are still stateless today, unable to claim the protection of any government anywhere. The result is that no existing state has strong enough ties to the Rohingya to champion their plight in international fora or the media.
The dissolution of the military junta in Myanmar in 2011, while welcome in many quarters, did little to resolve ongoing ethnic conflict throughout the country. Uncertain of its hold on power, the government encouraged the targeting by allied agents of a despised minority through hybrid or proxy aggression, not unlike such actions taken by Russia in western Ukraine. Tragically, it has also suited the political opposition led by Aung San Suu Kyi to remain silent for fear of political repercussions in the recent election. The United States too, deeply invested in not disrupting Myanmar’s “transition to democracy,” has largely remained silent on such matters. The result is that, paradoxically, the yearning for the emergence of a democratic state has obscured atrocities that are damaging to the very notion of democracy.
That has left the Rohingya’s fate largely in the hands of international NGOs who have done their best to sound the alarm and in some cases intervene directly. A Canadian NGO called the Sentinel Project has provided resources for documentation of human rights abuses in Myanmar. U.S.-based United to End Genocide has exposed flaws in the recent elections in which Rohingya were not permitted to vote and Rohingya members of Parliament were unable to run for reelection, conditions which, coupled with previous revelations of mistreatment, have prompted U.S. Congressional interest in a stronger American response. Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asia NGO, has joined Yale Law School’s Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic in implicating the Myanmar government in deliberately triggering communal violence and warning of possible future accusations of genocide—a warning that might spark the attention of the UN Human Rights Council. In Myanmar itself the student-led My Friend campaign encourages people to post selfies with people of other religious or ethnic backgrounds to encourage solidarity and fellow-feeling across categorical boundaries.
Ultimately it will be the government of Myanmar, spurred perhaps by more rigorous international pressure and renewed political and moral courage on the part of Aung San Suu Kyi, that can stop the ethnic violence which, after all, is as much politically motivated as it is religious. The words of the Buddha serve as suitable inspiration for progress on this issue: “Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live, giving up victory and defeat.”
About the Author
The Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, former executive director of Amnesty International USA, is president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and chairperson of the board of United to End Genocide.