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 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 Rohingyas — 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 Sang 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 Rohingyas either.
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 was 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 behavior 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, 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 World War II 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 neighbors, 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 quarter-million Rohingyas into Bangladesh in 1990-91. And now this.
On Sunday 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.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.