Gwynne Dyer: Burma's Buddhist monks demonstrate lack of compassion for Muslim minority

At last somebody in an official position has said something. United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay has called for an independent investigation into claims that Burmese security forces are systematically targeting the Rohingya, a Muslim minority community living in the Arakan region.

Even the Burmese government says at least 78 Rohingya were murdered; their own community leaders say 650 have been killed.

Nobody disputes the fact that about 100,000 Rohingyas (out of a population of 800,000) are now internal refugees in Burma, while others have fled across the border into Bangladesh. As you would expect, the Buddhist monks of Burma have stood up to be counted. Unfortunately, this time they are standing on the wrong side.

This is perplexing. When the Pope lectures the world about morality, few non-Catholics pay attention. When Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran instructs the world about good and evil, most people who aren’t Shia Muslims just shrug. But Buddhist leaders are given more respect, because most people think that Buddhism really is a religion of tolerance and peace.

When the Dalai Lama speaks out about injustice, people listen. Most of them don’t share his beliefs, and they probably won’t act on his words, but they listen with respect. But he hasn’t said anything at all about what is happening to the Rohingya—and neither has any other Buddhist leader of note.

To be fair, the Dalai Lama is Tibetan, not Burmese, but he is not usually so reserved in his judgements. As for Burma’s own Buddhist monks, they have been heroes in that nation’s long struggle against tyranny—so it’s disorienting to see them behaving like oppressors themselves.

Buddhist monks are standing outside the refugee camps in Arakan, turning away people who are trying to bring food and other aid to the Rohingya. Two important Buddhist organizations in the region, the Young Monks’ Association of Sittwe and the Mrauk U Monks’ Association, have urged locals to have no dealings with them. One pamphlet distributed by the monks says the Rohingya are “cruel by nature”.

And Aung San Suu Kyi, the woman who spent two decades under house arrest for defying the generals—the woman who may one day be Burma’s first democratically elected prime minister—has declined to offer any support or comfort to the Rohingya.

Recently a foreign journalist asked her whether she regarded Rohingyas as citizens of Burma. “I do not know,” she prevaricated. “We have to be very clear about what the laws of citizenship are and who are entitled to them.”

If she were honest, she would have replied: “Of course the Rohingya are citizens, but I dare not say so. The military are finally giving up power, and I want to win the 2015 election. I won’t win any votes by defending the rights of Burmese Muslims.”

Nelson Mandela, with whom she is often compared, would never have said anything like that, but it's a failure of courage on her part that has nothing to do with her religion. Religious belief and moral behaviour don’t automatically go together, and nationalism often trumps both of them. So let’s stop being astonished that Buddhists behave badly and just consider what’s really happening in Burma.

The ancestors of the Rohingya settled in the Arakan region between the 14th and 18th centuries. This was long before the main wave of Indian immigrants arrived in Burma after it was conquered by the British empire during the 19th century.

By the 1930s the new Indian arrivals were a majority in most big Burmese cities, and dominated the commercial sector of the economy. Burmese resentment, naturally, was intense.

The Japanese invasion of Burma during the Second World War drove out most of those Indian immigrants, but the Burmese fear and hatred of “foreigners” in their midst remained, and it then turned against the Rohingya.

They were targeted mainly because they were perceived as “foreigners”, but the fact that they were Muslims in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country made them seem even more alien.

The Rohingya of Arakan were poor farmers, just like their Buddhist neighbours, and their right to Burmese citizenship was unquestioned until the Burmese military seized power in 1962. However, the army attacked the Rohingya and drove some 200,000 of them across the border into Bangladesh in 1978, in a campaign marked by widespread killings, mass rape, and the destruction of mosques.

The military dictator of the day, Ne Win, revoked the citizenship of all Rohingyas in 1982, and other new laws forbade them to travel without official permission, banned them from owning land, and required newly married couples to sign a commitment to have no more than two children.

Another military campaign drove a further 250,000 Rohingyas into Bangladesh in 1990 and 1991. And now this.

On Sunday (July 29), former general Thein Sein, the transitional president of Burma, replied to UN human-rights chief Navi Pillay: “We will take responsibilities for our ethnic people but it is impossible to accept the illegally entered Rohingyas who are not our ethnicity.” Some other country must take them all, he said.

But the Rohingya did not “enter illegally”, and there are a dozen “ethnicities” in Burma. What drives this policy is fear, greed, and ignorance—exploited, as usual, by politicians pandering to nationalist passions and religious prejudice. Being Buddhist, it turns out, doesn’t stop you from falling for all that. Surprise.

Comments (17) Add New Comment
Cuthbert
You conflate a number of issues here, namely Rohingya and Burmese Muslims, human rights and citizenship. Probably most Muslims in Myanmar would be happy to see the Rohingya leave - some of this is due to fear, bystanders worried that the bully will notice them next, but much is also due to plain racism (Rohingya are the wrong colour) and xenophobia. DASSK won't win votes from Muslims by standing up for Rohingya, she won't lose them for ignoring them either. Also, it is the case that there are many thousands of people who have entered Burma from Bangladesh illegally over the past few years: border guards make a nice bit of cash on the side, those poverty-stricken along the border find new opportunities. There are also Muslims who have been living there for many, many decades, who have nominal citizenship but with very restricted rights. And there are other shades in between. What annoys me is that all are lumped together in one group - the Rohingya - and the debate switches to the history of the group name, that all the group should have x / should not have x / are terrorists / are a persecuted minority / should get out now / should be given full support to integrate. Lazy thinking.
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Burmese-Canadian
There are lots of factual errors in your writing. For example, the writer wrote, "at least 78 Rohingya were murdered." It is the number of dead on both sides of the conflicts, not only Rohingyas - more than half of them are local Rakhine people.

And it is not about honest or dishonest of Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. She rightly pointed out the lack of the rule of law in the country and emphasized the need to verify the citizenship status of those stateless people.

Before you wrote this article, you should have checked the root cause of the conflicts and the history. There are lots of misinformation disseminated online - some of them are merely accusations and some fabricated in many ways.

What we got to be careful is that the ongoing democratic reform could be derailed by this communal conflicts in Burma, ending up the power again in the military hands.
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Kamel
The bagladeshis are actually turning their Muslim brother's away and not giving them refuge. They are sending them back into Burma. What do you have to say about that Gwynne?
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Son
Numerous villages were attacked , villagers were robbed, beaten, and shot by Muslims but no o e said anything or come to their aid. Now out of desperation they took action to prevent further attack by Muslims. I am surprise thwart this is not mentioned in the news at all. Please read what actually happened not long before the riot:

Buthidaung: Some remote Buddhist villages in southern Buthidaung Township, 80 miles north of Sittwe, are under threat of damage due to the rampant Muslim robbers in the area, report local people widely.


A villager in Kwe Gomaw Village said, "The authority is not protecting our village right now. So many families are thinking of moving to more safe places like downtown Buthidaung, where many army battalions are stationed."

The village of Kwe Gomaw is located near Nyung Chaung Nasaka outpost in southern Buthidaung Township, and the village was hit by dacoits on 1 January, 2011.

"At 12 pm on 1 January, around 30 armed Muslim robbers surrounded our village. After that the robbers entered our village and robbed property from all the houses one by one. When a villager refused to give over his property, a robber beat him with his gun and injured his head. Properties worth 3 million kyat were taken by the robbers," the villager said.

After the robbers left the village, they hit another Buddhist village in the area, Thein Daung Byint, where many people of the Dynet tribes are living.

During the second attack, the village chairman's wife was severely wounded when some of the robbers opened fire on villagers who were trying to fight back against them. The woman is now hospitalized in Buthidaung in critical condition, although her condition is improving.

A villager from Thein Daung Byint said, "We are now afraid to live in our village because we have no safety, despite that our village is located in inner Buthidaung Township, not in the border area. Moreover, when we informed the Nasaka officers about the robber, the officers beat us because were unable to defend ourselves against the robbers. Now we are facing many difficulties living in our village."

During December, 2010, a large robbery also took place in Shwet Bying Village under Zaydi Bying circle in Rathidaung Township. The villagers lost 30 million kyat of property. The robbery was also committed by a group of armed Muslim dacoits.

The Muslim robbers have never robbed any Muslim villages in the area, having so far only struck Buddhist villages in Buthidaung Township. Because of this, many ordinary citizens, including those in the Muslim community, are anxious that the robberies might foment conflict and lead to riots among the people in the area.
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kareem
Osama bin Lama , your monks have gone astray.
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Asri
If intruders break into your house, attack your children, and start making themselves at home, it is foolishness, not compassion if one were to invite them to dinner.
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zoheb
do dat in india then wil show. the burmens r cowards. taking advantage of ur majority. n to whom r u killing ya to womns n children dats wt ur religion says
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Suban
If Muslims are somewhere you cant find peace. In every country they follow this method to rob the land from native people. Muslims raped an innocent Buddhist girl is the reason for this flames.
This is not the problem of Muslims, but of the Quran, the socalled holy???? book!
Myanmarr has to take strict actions to control the Muslim violence. If living as minority they can do this violence, what if they grow??

Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia were Buddhist countries in histoy. But what has happened now?
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X Monk
There are pro burmese monks posting - this is for them - How can you ever try to support these kind of people - When the Monks were getting oppressed they were crying out for help but now they are the oppressors.

Surely Truth prevails over falsehood - The burmese monks are getting exposed for what they really are.

Murderers and rapists of innocent women, children elderly, Men and not to mention the hundred

IF WHAT THE MONKS ARE DOING WHO ARE ALSO SUPPORTED BY THE GOVERNMENT IS NOT ETHNIC CLEANSING WHAT IS?

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Raskolnikov
If Mr. Dyer believes strongly in helping those muslims peoples, I think he should step up to the plate by contributing money and work to sponsor them to come to his native Newfoundland, instead of criticizing one of the poorest countries in the world for not helping the people who want to kill them.

Anyway this is not the job of Buddhist monks. Clearly Mr. Dyer does not understand Buddhism. Monks aren't even supposed to talk except a few scholarly monks to teach Buddhism and never talk about politics.
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Sheeple
Thank you for an insightful article.

Here I always thought this woman was up there with President Mendela...

As a firm believer in Human Rights I am shocked and have lost all respect for this woman who courted the world based upon Human Rights and Democracy.

Yet seems to absolve herself of her responsibilities to other Human Beings in her country because of their Skin Color, Race and Religion.

She should be held to account and publicly shamed in the West for this totally Anti-Democratic Xenophobia!!!
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hAYOKA
People are individuals first and they can call them selves what ever they want , the proof of who they are is in there actions . If we want to paint with broad strokes then we are pushing an agenda / propaganda . I will just say look into Bangladesh and there leadership , life isn't so black and white when your living on the edge of survival .
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ErnestPayne
Unfortunately this situation will only hit the mainstream headlines when the muslims, having had enough, strike back. At that point there will be more outrage against "muslim terrorists".
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Sameer Alibhai
Since when did oppressing and harming people become okay just because they are (supposedly) illegally living there? Gosh!!! If there is some crimes, take them to court and deal with them appropriately. Aung San Suu Kyi, shame on you! You are responsible for all of your people, whether they are your culture and skin colour or not
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McRocket
Just because someone is brave and mentally tough - doesn't automatically mean they are righteous on all things and without prejudices.

Imo, people have to stop looking for others to save them - and learn to save themselves.
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hAYOKA
I posted the wrong article above . There is a wave of very harsh and subtle propaganda by the extremist machine and I meant to post this article here , but the above article shows the insidious nature of extremism and how it corrupts and polarizes views .

http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/12867/social-media-is-lying-to-you-abo...
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Charlie Smith
hAYOKA,
I accidentally deleted your previous post because I read your first sentence about posting the wrong article above. Feel free to repost it if you like, and I'll make it available for our readers.

Sorry about that.

Charlie Smith
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