Regarding the Ethnic Violence in Burma

Photo by abrinsky on Flickr

All know the Way, but few actually walk it.
~ Bodhidharma

Myanmar (also known as “Burma”) is ethnically diverse (135 ethnic groups), and has faced various amounts of ethnic conflict in its history.  One such conflict that gained worldwide attention was that in the western Rakhine (formerly Arakan) state between what is referred to as “Rohingya” Muslims and “Rakhine” Buddhists.

I am deeply saddened by the continued ethnic violence in western Burma. The media, and those with agendas, are labeling this as “Muslim” and “Buddhist” violence. Let me be clear, this has nothing to do with either religion and labeling it as such only creates more hatred.

It would be like saying “Christians” instead of “Americans” even though the majority of Americans are Christian, it doesn’t mean all American’s are of that faith (we have all faiths here). And for those that do say they are of a particular faith, it doesn’t mean they are truly religious or even follow the teachings. For example, we see all faiths kill and murder which is not allowed by any religion. People are human, and humans do evil things.

This is less about religion, and more about a long history of ethnic unrest between the minority (“Rohingya”) Muslim population and the majority (“Rakhine”) Buddhist population in that part of the country. While the unrest started with the rape and murder of a young Rakhine Buddhist woman by three Rohingya Muslim men (warning this link contains graphic content), that was more than likely just the trigger for the tension that has been brewing for a long time.

The following article is based on my research of the issue after reading the reports by journalists, opinion writers, and others about this situation and issue.  I’ve found the reporting on this issue to be heavily lopsided and lacking any thorough research or balanced reporting.  Therefore, this article was written to help bring perspective to the issue.  I have no political or religious objective with this article, but believe a serious issue such as this needs to have more information brought into the light and for you the reader to decide which is right, or wrong.

Misinformation and Deception in Social Media

On social media sites (such as Facebook), groups are using pictures and videos that have nothing to do with the violence in Burma, but instead saying they are. For example, a picture of hundreds of dead people with monks around them (titled: “The body of Muslims slaughtered by Buddhist(Barma)[sic]”) was actually of Tibetan monks helping in China after a massive earthquake.  This type of disinformation needs to stop. Right action is needed to stop the violence, not wrong action.

This Has Nothing to do With Buddhism

As I stated earlier, this situation has been swelling for decades.  Muslims saying they are part of that state’s Rohingya ethnic group say they have been in Burma for generations, while Rakhine and other Burmese say they are actually illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.  Which version is true?  It is nearly impossible to tell anymore, however a report by Aye Chan entitled The Development of a Muslim Enclave in Arakan (Rakhine) State of Burma (Myanmar) may help explain why the Rakhine and other Burmese feel this way.

  • The Pakistan War:  Often missing from stories about this situation is that during and after the West and East Pakistan War (yes, there was an East Pakistan which later became Bangladesh), a large population fled Bangladesh and moved into the Rakhine state in Burma.  They then took up the “Rohingya” name to integrate quickly, and easily, into that group (even though they had no relationship to true Rohingya).  This does not mean that true Rohingya’s don’t exist in the Rakhine state…they do exist of course…but there were plenty of people from Bangladesh who took up the name as well which complicates the distinction.  This is also a reason why Bangladesh, a Muslim country, won’t accept any “Rohingya” into their country (some that fled were on the side of West [current day] Pakistan during the war, so they are hostile to Bangladesh).  For the purposes of this article, we will retain the “Rohingya” name even though it is more than likely many Muslims from Bangladesh migrated after the Bangladesh Liberation War to Burma.
  • Violence:  To further complicate the situation, since Burma’s independence from the British Empire certain Muslim extremist groups have tried to create an independent Islamic state out of the Rakhine state.  The slogan “Pakistan Jindabad” (Victory to Pakistan) was used, but they failed to gain support of West Pakistan and moved to making an autonomous region instead.  This has obviously caused fear and concern for the Rakhine ethnic group living in the area, fearing their lives and land will be gone.  A massive influx of money from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan has been flowing in to help establish the Muslim population to create a power base, and eventually make the Rakhine state in Burma an autonomous Islamic region.  There is also widespread reports (for some time now) of gang rapes, killings, and forced marriages (allegedly with promises of money) that have many Buddhists scared, and angered (none of these incidents ever make it to Western newspapers, however).  During World War II, when the British Empire had Burma as a conquest (colony), they armed the Rohingya Muslims to fight off the Japanese (Muslims held a special place and status in British colonization, especially in Burma where they were “shipped in” to do work, etc., displacing the local population) .  Instead of fighting the Japanese after being armed by the British, the Rohingya took this as an opportunity to slaughter 20,000 Rakhine Buddhists. Right or wrong despite all these instances, humans are a very fearful and suspicious animal and these factors almost certainly have added to the conflict and made it extremely complex.  And let me be clear, none of that has anything to do with true Islam.  Buddhist women being forced to marry (which means they must give up Buddhism), Muslims being rewarded with money to rape and kill Buddhist women, insurrection to create an Islamic state, etc., are the result of people, actions, and politics that have nothing to do with Islam (nor does it mean that majority of Muslims in Burma do this…the majority live in peace).
  • Lack of Acceptance:  There are at least four different Muslim ethnic groups in Burma, with millions of Buddhist Burmese living in peace with them, but why only the focus on the “Rohingya”?  As mentioned before, those who fled from Bangladesh and illegally moved into Rakhine state in Burma took up the name of “Rohingya”.  Yes, there is a history of people (Muslim and Buddhist) moving back and forth to what is modern day Burma and Bangladesh, but nobody can agree on is wether the Muslim population that moved between both were the original “Roghingya”.  The group that moved into Burma during the war refused to acknowledge Burma as their Country (and wanted to create an Islamic state through Jihad), will not accept the national standard for citizenship (which everyone else in Burma must abide by regardless of religion), and refuse to respect the laws of Burma.  Now, you may be asking why should Rohingya need to apply for citizenship if they were there for generations?  And that’s exactly the issue we have with Western reporters on this issue.  They completely accept that everyone in Rakhine state who is a Muslim is “Rohingya” without any sort of investigation, and then consider anything else “alleged” (such as the gang rape and murder of the young woman in 2012).  Of course, newspapers (and organizations) are there to make money, and nothing makes money like seeding religious strife.  If the issue were about those who illegally entered Burma, tried to violently separate a part of that country away, and refused to even learn the language…that would completely change the tone which is not what sells papers because it becomes more complex a story (and less one-sided).  Imagine if someone from Canada illegally crossed the border into the United States of America, walked into an American Indian reservation and said “I’m an American Indian and my family lived here for generations!”.  Now imagine millions doing this, which surpasses the original true population of that group.  As silly as that example sounds, that’s basically what happened in the Rakhine state.  It is no wonder (and a sad state of affairs) that the Government of Burma doesn’t consider “Rohingya” to be one of the many ethnic groups since it is impossible to determine who is who anymore.
  • Medical Care, Education, and Poverty:  Plenty of reporters cite lack of medical care for the Rohingya, lack of education, and the conditions in which they live.  Let’s be clear, Burma is largely a third world country where the majority of the population in rural areas (like the Rohingya) face these same issues.  More “Buddhist” women face giving birth outside of a hospital with high mortality rates, lack of healthcare is widespread, and poverty is rampant more than the Rohingya.  However, the Western reporters cite only the Rohingya who face…the same situations as pretty much everyone else.  Any lack of disgust and appeal to the international community is nonexistent for Buddhists who face countless more deaths and disease and poverty than Rohingya.  This is not to say that Rohingya are not facing the same issues…not at all…but placing the microscope on only one of the 135 different ethnic groups in this country for political gain doesn’t help.
  • Majority of Buddhist Monks Think Differently:  While a small minority of Buddhist monks in Burma have been outspoken against the Rohingya, other Buddhist monks are  saying that Buddhists should come together and can live in peace with the Rohingya (in-fact, other Muslim ethnic groups do live with Buddhists without violence in Burma).  Why are Buddhist monks so outspoken on both sides of this issue?  What may surprise many westerners is that many in Southeast Asian Buddhist countries go into monkhood only for a short time (much like ‘college’ if you will), and are also very involved in politics (a research paper entitled The Role of Monkhood in Contemporary Myanmar Society can offer a thorough overview of how monks behave and live in Burma).
  • Aung San Suu Kyi:  The opposition leader for democracy, Auung San Suu Kyi, has stated that her party wants nonviolence for everyone in Burma, regardless of religion or ethnicity.  She has stated:

“My party is totally dedicated to nonviolence. Violence has been committed against us repeatedly … over nearly 20 years but we never retaliated with violence. So I’m unhappy that there are those in my country who think differences can be settled by violence.”

“Without rule of law we cannot expect our people to settle their differences peacefully,”

“I have always defended those whose human rights have been attacked, but what people want is not defence but condemnation. I am not condemning because I have not found that condemnation brings good results. I want to achieve national reconciliation.”

Burmese Buddhist monks praying for peace and an end to the violence

I’m not alone in the assertion that this has nothing to do with religion.

  • Author Ayesha Siddiqa posted two full articles (first and second) in the Pakistani Express Tribune about the history of this conflict, and agrees that this has nothing to do with religion.

However, it is not certain if those flagging the issue are really seriously concerned about the atrocities against the Rohingya Muslims, which represent one of the four groups of Muslims in Myanmar and have been in trouble since the 1940s. The real problem between this religious-ethnic group and the military-political leadership in Myanmar is not based on religion but national contestation as the Rohingyas have never really accepted being part of Myanmar and vice versa. In fact, in 1947, Mohammad Ali Jinnah had discouraged them from harbouring any secessionist ideas and instead advised them to sort out matters with their state.

Although successive governments in Pakistan claim to have stuck with Jinnah’s advice, Burma accused Islamabad of fuelling insurgency during the 1950s. Despite trying to improve relations by signing of a friendship treaty in 1952, which probably led to the arrest in 1954 by Pakistan of the head of the Mujahid Movement of Burma, relations didn’t improve substantially.

  • Another author, Asif Nawaz, posted an article entitled “Burma killings: Keep religion out of it!“, which was well written and explained how religion in general becomes an easy scapegoat during violence, and it shouldn’t be.  A good point raised by Asif:

To all those who are saying “I thought Budhistst [sic] were a peaceful bunch,” I would like to say that it is wrong to stereotype. The actions of a handful shouldn’t malign an entire religion.

But Buddhism, in all fairness, isn’t the exclusive member of this club. There are always individuals who are eager to judge an entire creed based only on the acts of an individual or a group of individuals.

  • In Afghanistan of 2012, a woman was murdered for “adultery” by the Taliban and cheered by men watching. This has nothing to do with Islam, and was murder and pure violence.  Even the villagers were upset as well that the fundamentalist “religious” Taliban did this violence.  Despite the Taliban’s stance as defenders of Islam, they are nothing of the sort.  Just like we should not accept the Taliban as true Muslims living the life of Islam, we should not accept those of any other religion who incite violence either.

This is the stance we need to take with what is happening in Burma.  The violence has nothing to do with Buddhism or Islam, but is actually the anger, tension, fear, suspicion, and hate that all humans have inside them.  The Buddha would never condone such violence.

What Can Be Done?

Together we can solve any situation, not against. This is always the way of the world. Right action and right thinking is needed here. Let us all pray, and write, to get the weight of the world involved to help and find longstanding solutions and not temporary ones.

  • President Obama will be talking to President Thein Sein about human rights, and the situation of the Rohingya.  Burma has been undergoing massive political and economic change in just the year and a half since democracy.  They want to become a bigger part of the world stage and economy, and not less.
  • Author Shehlah Zahiruddin posted in the Express Tribune that a wider look at the situation not just in Burma, but everywhere, should give some added clarity:  http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/12825/burma-killings-think-before-you-point-fingers/
  • The book “Common Ground Between Islam & Buddhism” (translations in Arabic, Malaysian, and Persian can be found here) is a great place for all sides to start and grow from.  Although designed for a Muslim audience, it is meant for interfaith understanding and communication.

The Buddha never advocated violence, hatred, or war even against enemies or people who want to harm us:

In times of war give rise in yourself to the mind of compassion, helping living beings, abandon the will to fight.

Even if thieves carve you limb from limb with a double-handed saw, if you make your mind hostile you are not following my teaching.

The following story comes from one of my favorite teachers, Vietnamese Monk Thich Nhat Hanh who led non-violent protests during the Vietnam war:

A Vietnam veteran was overheard rebuking the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, about his unswerving dedication to non-violence.

“You’re a fool,” said the veteran – “what if someone had wiped out all the Buddhists in the world and you were the last one left. Would you not try to kill the person who was trying to kill you, and in doing so save Buddhism?!”

Thich Nhat Hanh answered patiently “It would be better to let him kill me. If there is any truth to Buddhism and the Dharma it will not disappear from the face of the earth, but will reappear when seekers of truth are ready to rediscover it.

“In killing I would be betraying and abandoning the very teachings I would be seeking to preserve. So it would be better to let him kill me and remain true to the spirit of the Dharma.”

Thich Nhat Hanh is not saying that he believes it is ok for an entire group of people to be killed, but as a Buddhist monk (not the laity) he would allow allow himself to be killed (instead of fighting to save himself) just to save “Buddhism” because he is a deep practitioner of the Dharma (and fighting to save “Buddhism”, is completely against the point of Buddhism).

Buddhists around the world want this violence to stop. Muslims around the world want this violence to stop. On that, we will always agree. We are all human beings and want peace.

Engaged Buddhism in Action

Major Buddhist monk leaders in Burma have also called out for a stop to the violence:

“I felt sorry for both Muslims and Buddhists,” said [Buddhist Monk] Venerable Ashin Sandadika. “If people from different religious groups show loving kindness to each other, the country will get peace. True compassionate love isn’t based on religion and race – we all need to spread such kindness and compassion to all different faiths.”

This video from Al Jazeera shows a Buddhist temple that has taken in a large number of their Muslim neighbors to protect, feed, and shelter them:

If the attacks were based on Buddhism then we would not have been allowed to shelter in a Buddhist monastery. These monks have provided shelter and food to Muslims.  That support was offered to us as soon as the violence started.  No religion teaches violence.  ~ Enaamol Hasan, Imam

Editorial Note:  This article was updated in 2013 and 2014 with some new information and hyperlinks.

 


 

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