SEATTLE—The Burmese-American organization Saddha: Buddhists for Peace, which describes itself as “a group dedicated to anti-racism and interfaith solidarity efforts,” has issued “An Open Letter to Burmese Buddhists Concerning the Rohingya” detailing their concern about the ongoing repression of the mostly Muslim ethnic group in eastern Myanmar. The organization is led by a diverse cross-section of Burmese from Buddhist backgrounds, some living in Burma and others outside the country.
The Rohingya have been targeted by the Burmese military and local militias for several years, but a surge in violence last summer has led to more than 500,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing the country, most to neighboring Bangladesh. Others have been resettled internally in camps where access to education, employment, and healthcare have been severely limited. The unrest in Myanmar’s eastern Rakhine State is just one of several areas of conflict in the country, which has experienced insurgencies and civil war since its independence from Britain in 1948.
The recently published letter explains recent violence against the Rohingya and calls on the country’s Buddhist leaders—more than 80 per cent of Myanmar’s 52 million citizens are Theravada Buddhists—to draw upon the religion’s teachings on peace to end the violence.
An Open Letter to Burmese Buddhists Concerning the Rohingya
As Burmese individuals of Buddhist upbringing, we have been following the crisis in Rakhine State which has caused an exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees into neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017. Like many around the world, we have been horrified by reports of widespread atrocities committed by Myanmar security forces under the Tatmadaw’s command. These have included mass rape, arson, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings that have included the sadistic murder and torture of young Rohingya children and infants. Thirty thousand ethnic Rakhine, Mro, Thet and Daingnet refugees also had to flee from violence, abandoning their homes. Furthermore, we have been shocked to see that so many Buddhist activists, monks, and respected elders in our communities who we once admired as voices for justice within Burma are either silent or defending the actions of a military they were once so vehemently against.
We write these words in unity, though our backgrounds are diverse. Some of our parents left Burma decades ago to escape political unrest as refugees and immigrants, with dreams of raising their children in a nation where our liberties would not be under authoritarian threat. Some of us grew up in Burma, but chose to study abroad or have traveled to different countries, forging friendships and bonds which transcend nationality. Some of us are trying to advocate for immigrant and refugee communities from Burma in nations like the United States, where we are citizens. And some of us wish to return to Burma, to see our families and friends and give back to the communities that shaped us, standing for peace and equality in a society that we watched suffer under a military regime our whole lives – and is still suffering.
Like many Burmese across ethnic and religious lines, we all hurt as one for those suffering in Burma under the tyranny of the generals and continued to place our hopes for reform in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi during the years she spent under house arrest. We were sickened by footage of peacefully protesting Buddhist monks being humiliated, beaten, and murdered by Burmese riot police in the streets of Yangon during the 2007 Saffron Revolution. We are upset that anyone could support the command of the Tatmadaw after such actions, or after thousands of student protesters were massacred in 1988, for that matter. We kept faith in the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, hoping that she could finally bring Burma out of military rule when her party won the election in 2015.
Now, by their willful inaction, she and the NLD have become complicit in this violence against Rohingya civilians carried out by Myanmar security forces, which the United Nations has called “textbook ethnic cleansing” and “acts of genocide.” Members of the Burmese sangha have also been fueling anti-Rohingya sentiment in the country. Sitagu Sayadaw, one of the most senior and influential Buddhist monks in all of Burma gave a sermon to the Burmese military in Karen State in November 2017 that implied non-Buddhist individuals are inferior beings because they have not lived up to full human potential, which he instructed requires conversion to Buddhism. Ultranationalist monks routinely harass interfaith activists and journalists, and rally against the Rohingya and other Burmese Muslims in the country.
We have struggled to reconcile these events as adults, when as children we were taught to pay respects to monks at Buddhist monasteries, memorize Pali Suttas, and made to feel that Theravada Buddhism was intrinsic to Burmese culture. Yet, now it seems like the Burmese public’s widespread attitudes towards the Rohingya directly contradict the teachings of Lord Gautama Buddha.
We were always taught that Buddhism is a religion based on a desire to end suffering. Throughout his many lifetimes, Buddha saw the ways in which all beings suffered – sometimes from the nature of life and other times from religious and cultural systems that devalued certain groups of people. His teachings promote critical thinking, compassion, and striving to make ourselves and the world around us better. He warned against the dangers of attachment – to one’s race, religion, and nation – as these attachments prevent us from seeing the four noble truths and following the eightfold path.
To defend Buddhism without practicing the loving kindness and commitment to justice Buddha taught us is to destroy it. To us, Buddhists who enact violence against the Rohingya, by intentionally spreading lies and abusive speech, attacking Rohingya people and their homes, or harboring hateful thoughts towards Rohingya villagers and refugees are not acting in accordance to the dhamma we were taught. We are told that these actions are done in the name of preserving Burmese Buddhist culture – out of pride for one’s country – but to us, extreme displays of pride, anger, and blind allegiance to a nation have no place in Buddhist practice.
Each day brings new stories of inhumanity and abuses of power. Elsewhere in Burma, innocent villagers – many of whom are also young children – are brutally displaced by ethnic armed conflict in Kachin, Shan, Chin and Karen States and along the Burma-Thai border. Burmese journalists, like our brothers Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, are targeted and detained by the Burmese government for trying to shed light on the army’s crimes in such an oppressive political climate. Even in hearing of the National League for Democracy’s plans for refugee repatriation in Rakhine State, we are still increasingly concerned for the wellbeing and safety of all those affected by this violence, and the perilous state of human rights and freedom in the country of our heritage.
Yet, in Burmese culture, there is a persisting mentality that we can never be wiser than our parents and older generations. For expressing these views, many of us have been accused of treachery by our own friends and family. We have been told that we are turning our backs on Burmese culture and our fellow Burmese people. Any attempt to defend or explain our opinions is disregarded as being misguided or elitist. Some of us who immigrated as adults have been told that we are no longer Burmese because of the time we spent outside the country. We are told that our minds have become indoctrinated by Western media and institutions, and if we are not willing to support Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and a military backed-narrative, we should just keep our mouths shut on the issue.
There was a time when the military accused Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the idea of democracy itself as presenting Western ideologies antithetical to traditional Burmese values. There was a time when the military killed Burmese monks without remorse, demonstrating that they truly had no regard for the actual tenets of a religion they patron as an institution. There was a time when Burmese people rejected propaganda disseminated by the military, and rose up against it in protest. Now, just because they are using Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who minimizes the gravity of these atrocities, as their shield, we are expected to follow her without question or be branded a traitor to Burma’s democratic transition. However, if the cost of democratic transition and holding onto power is the systematic sacrifice of human lives, we believe that cost is too high.
We know that there are many Buddhists among us, and in Burma still, who share our beliefs but do not speak out because they fear persecution by the Burmese government and those around them. As some of us are more privileged and live abroad, we realize that it is a lot to ask of anyone still suffering under the regime to take such risks. However, even if one does not support the hate speech of a nationalist monk or carry out physical violence against the Rohingya, they can still maintain less overt, but still dangerous, anti-Rohingya or Islamophobic sentiment. If one claims to be Buddhist, we believe that they should evaluate how their own learned prejudices influence or inhibit their practice of Buddhist teachings.
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. No matter the ways in which they try to shame us, we will not be ashamed to speak. We speak from the Buddhist morality we were taught as children, which guides our belief that everyone’s humanity should be recognized and respected.
Thus we, the undersigned, who reside in different places around the world, condemn the persecution of the Rohingya by Myanmar security forces. We support all ethnic minorities’ right to self-identification, condemn the violence enacted unto Rohingya, Rakhine, Shan, Kachin, Chin, Mon, Karen, and Kayah peoples, and prejudice against unrecognized racial minorities such as Burmese Chinese, Burmese Indians, and Burmese Gurkha peoples. We also disapprove of religious discrimination against Burmese Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Burmese of any other faiths. We believe in the equal rights and representation of all those who live in Burma, no matter what religion they practice.
We encourage our brothers and sisters to join our global cause of unity. We call on all Burmese who believe in metta (loving kindness) and sila (moral discipline) to voice their solidarity. For even if we cannot eliminate fear, we will still cultivate bravery.
An Open Letter to Burmese Buddhists Concerning the Rohingya (Saddha: Buddhists For Peace)
Saddha: Buddhists for Peace (Facebook)