Rohingya: ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ in a Buddhist country?

Occasionally, those with an interest in Buddhism make the comment that Buddhists are peaceful and peaceable, that they are the only ‘religion’ that has never started a war or engaged in violence. Unfortunately, this is a predominantly Western-idealistic view, and there are countless instances where it is plainly not true. Tibetan Buddhist activists have ambushed and killed Chinese soldiers for decades. Zen Buddhist monks and priests took up arms during WWII, becoming soldiers, naval officers, kamikaze pilots. Burmese kings throughout the centuries have aggressively expanded their territory, whilst guaranteeing support for Buddhist monasteries and the ethos that is supposed to underpin them.
Now there is the continuing persecution by Buddhist monks and the military of the Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar. Their villages are being destroyed and their populations murdered and abused; those tens of thousands that survive have been forced to become refugees and internees. The documentary evidence would appear to be indisputable, despite protests that Rohingya activists themselves are destroying Rohingya communities to discredit the government forces. It is difficult to judge from a distance whether there might be some truth in this. It would seem unlikely that Rohingya activists could gather in the numbers needed to drive out over a quarter of a million  Rohingyas, even assuming they would want to destroy their own people – although in the mercenary and ruthless world of arms sales and political power, almost anything is possible. But the shocking behaviour of militant monks filmed ferociously attacking, burning and beating men, women and children is as shocking as it is mystifying, given that Buddhist tenets are meant to be a guiding force for the highest ethical conduct, for Good.
Equally mystifying to many is that State Counsellor and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, previously so steadfast in her commitment to non-violence and her support of all the people, has not been more vociferous in condemning what is now being termed ‘ethnic cleansing’. Since August 15th, when Rohingya militants organised attacks on Myanmar military positions which saw an escalation of violence against the Rohingyas, she has apparently been silent. Other Nobel prize-winners such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai have called upon her to condemn outright such actions against a persecuted minority, and now there are growing calls for her to renounce her Nobel Prize. Such comments as she has been quoted as making – ‘fear is not just on the side of the Muslims, but on the side of the Buddhists as well’; ‘…there are many Buddhists in refugee camps’; ‘This is the result of our sufferings.’ – do not go down well with observers of this ‘ethnic cleansing’. Effigies of Aung San Suu Kyi are being publicly burnt. Her supporters are turning away in disappointment. The explanations offered in her defence – that she is powerless to influence the military, that she is working quietly behind the scenes – do not bring back the people who have already been massacred and displaced. As always, a lack of clear and verifiable fact allows speculation and condemnation to proliferate. What does seem beyond dispute, however, is that a system that helped develop one of the world’s most potent and effective forms of Buddhist practice (including Vipassana meditation, widely taken up by the West) has degenerated to the point where orange-robed human beings have stepped outside their monasteries and taken up arms against a largely-defenceless group of other human beings. Is there anything Aung San Suu Kyi can say that doesn’t appear to be simply a clinical re-statement of the results of a people’s karma? If so, will she say it, categorically, unambiguously, and will she say it soon?

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