Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Myanmar Muslims Genocide Awareness Convention in Culver City, CA. I went because I felt it was important to put my presence where my mouth was: as I’ve indicated here at this blog, the situation in Burma has been incredibly distressing to me, and rather than simply talk about it, I want to be more involved in helping in any small way that I can to get it resolved.
I’ve certainly tried to be involved, at least from my desk. My friend Joshua Eaton and I collaborated last year on an open letter from Buddhist teachers and scholars and others on Islamophobia that you can read at buddhistletteronislamophobia.wordpress.com. (Joshua authored the letter — though a few of us offered little tweaks and edits — and I put together the website and helped him get the word out and generate signatures.) Not long after I also added my name to “A Joint Buddhist-Muslim Statement on Inter–Communal Violence in Burma”, authored by my friend Bill Aiken at SGI-USA. In addition, I took the time to write a substantial post about Engaged Buddhist icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence and lack of action on this matter back in November, and you can read that post here.
As I explained in that post, for the uninitiated: the Rohingyas are the 800,000 or so Muslims who live in the western part of Burma. They have lived in the area of the Rakhine state for centuries, with much immigration and flight between Burma and Bangladesh — the result of ever-changing political fortunes and conquest. British colonialists encouraged their immigration from Bangladesh in the nineteenth century to boost their agricultural yield in the region. By 1939, the population of Rohingya Muslims (and tensions with local Rakhine Buddhists) had risen to such a degree that a commission of inquiry decided to close the border. Once World War II began, the British left the region, and terrible violence erupted between the two groups. Thousands died. More bloodshed ensued when the Japanese arrived: the Rohingyas were supporters of the Allies — some of them even served as spies for the British — who had promised to support them in their goal of a separate Muslim state. Tens of thousands are believed to have fled to Bangladesh at this point. Following the coup of 1962, more were forced to seek refuge in Bangladesh and Pakistan due to the junta’s targeted attacks on the Rohingya community. In 1982, General Ne Win tightened a nationality law in the country and effectively (and illegally) rendered the Rohingyas a stateless people.
Today, the United Nations consider the Rohingyas “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.” Right now there is considerable unrest and devastating violence — dozens are dead, whole villages have been razed, and well over 100,000 have been displaced — in the Rakhine state as a result of what the Agence France-Presse identified as “the rape and murder of a Rakhine women and the revenge mob killing of 10 Muslims.” By last fall, Human Rights Watch had issued a report noting that “recent events in Arakan State demonstrate… state-sponsored persecution and discrimination [of the Rohingyas],” including murder, rape, and mass arrest. Reuters released a shocking special investigative report not long after which led with what was essentially a confirmation of HRW’s report: “The wave of attacks was organized, central-government military sources told Reuters. They were led by Rakhine nationalists tied to a powerful political party in the state, incited by Buddhist monks, and, some witnesses said, abetted at times by local security forces.”
International news agencies and the Buddhist media have since been following the situation closely, and have reported on those in the Burmese sangha who are encouraging violence, as well as those trying to do something to help. It was all this news and information that brought me to the Myanmar Muslims Genocide Convention on June 9th.
Attended by easily 250-300 people or more — the crowd grew steadily throughout — the audience at the convention was made of largely persons of South Asian heritage, quite a few of them readily identifiable as Muslim from their hijab, kufi, and other distinctive dress. Things got off to a very strong start with some simple, important points of clarification from host Devin Hennessy. In the context of the event, a “Myanmar Muslim,” he stated, was “any Muslim living in the borders of the country, regardless of ethnicity.” This is an important point considering that, even though the Rohingya Muslims of the Rakhine state are dominating news coverage right now, there are more than one-hundred ethnic groups in Burma, and many of them have Muslims in their ranks. Hennessy also laid the groundwork for later discussion about proper terminology in this situation by stating that it had “escalated to a genocidal level,” and that the word “genocide” was being used specifically because what is happening is “within the criteria” for its use.
These introductory remarks were followed by a dua from a young boy in attendance, and a statement from Culver City Mayor Jeffrey Cooper. As the mayor took to the stage, I braced myself for the usual, rote politician’s speech at these sorts of things, only to be very pleasantly surprised: he spoke movingly as both “a Jew and the husband of a Burmese Muslim woman” about how much the cause and the event “hit home” for him. The powerful launch of the event wrapped with the singing of two national anthems: the United States and Burma’s.
Before speakers and others rose to speak, the Burmese American Muslims Association presented a video of their own making (with quite a lot of clips from this Al Jazeera English report) to set the stage for anyone unfamiliar with the situation in Burma. Two things in particular struck me in the video presentation, though neither were surprises exactly — just shocking to see explicitly: first, this clip from the BBC, which shows an attack on Muslim-owned gold shop, with police doing nothing and Buddhist monks joining in the violence. Second, the explication of how precisely what’s happening in Burma now fits with scholar and Genocide Watch president Dr. Gregory H. Stanton’s “8 Stages of Genocide” was arresting.
This segued nicely into Dr. Stanton himself, who presented prepared remarks for the conference via video. He noted that the plight of the Rohingya has been on Genocide Watch’s radar for at least two years, and offered useful perspective on what it means to be a Rohingya right now: no ID cards (needed for education and travel), placement in displaced persons camps and forced labor for many, no government employment, limits on marriage/childbirth, coercive situations, and a host of other indignities. Dr. Stanton also highlighted the unique threats to Rohingya refugees and “boat people” fleeing Burma.
In addition, he noted that the attacks on Muslims in Burma had reached the level of genocidal massacre, saying that “the world must speak out.” He chastised Aung San Suu Kyi, calling her much-discussed silence as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate “unacceptable.” Dr. Stanton also outlined other things that he felt must happen now: (i) Burma’s parliament must pass legislation to make the Rohingya citizens with full rights; (ii) displaced persons camps must be dissolved with UN and ASEAN assistance; (iii) authorities must cease all rights violations; and (iv) Bangladesh must stop turning away and pushing back refugees. This was the first of many times that the issue of Rohingya citizenship would come up in the proceedings.
The second instance came with the next speaker, who also spoke via video: Wai Hnin Pwint Thon, campaign officer for Burma Campaign UK. She began by lamenting that the international community still hadn’t “gotten the balance right” in terms of praise for Burma’s reforms and concrn/penalty over human rights violations. She pointed out that sanctions on Burma had been lifted despite stated benchmarks not being met; by her count, at least eight international laws and treaties are currently being violated by the Burmese government. As many others have pointed out, she reminded the audience that the Rohingya’s exclusion from citizenship in particular represents a clear violation of Article XV of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. “Casual racism and intolerance exist and must be acknowledged and confronted,” she said. “The Burmese have to decide what it means to be Burmese.”
At this point, after quite a bit of information had been presented, the organizers wisely changed up the pace and brought Rev. John Iwohara of the Venice Hongwanji Buddhist Temple to the stage. “It is difficult to receive a human form,” he preached, explaining the Buddhist way of helping others, or, at the very least, “acting less inhumanely.” “The pain and loss of losing a loved one is the same for everyone; you don’t feel more or less if you’re a Buddhist or a Muslim or a Christian or a…” he continued. He invoked the Dhammapada‘s fifth verse and King Ashoka’s experience at the Kalinga War as resources for Buddhists thinking about their approach to this situation. “Let us take this opportunity to exchange anger for love, and violence for beauty. May every life help us find beauty and joy.”
The Buddhist representation at the conference continued in a way with Gordon Welty from the U.S. Campaign for Burma, who named Soka Gakkai International president Daisaku Ikeda as “his mentor” during his remarks. A board member of the organization, he offered a helpful blow-by-blow of how things in Burma have escalated to the point of genocide. Like his predecessors, Welty stated that the removal of the 1982 citizenship law was the “first step” in fixing the problem. He also said authorities must “unambiguously” devote themselves to ending mob violence.
A rousing speech by Omar Jubran, executive member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)-LA, was followed by a presentation of photographs by Matt Rains. Rains has done striking, groundbreaking work photographing Muslims in Burma, and jolted the audience as much with his words as his images. He claimed to have seen “boxes of DVDs from the national government” delivered to monasteries and video halls, which were then used to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment. “This has all been devised by the government,” he said flatly.
Naama Haviv, a genocide expert with Jewish World Watch, spoke next about genocide in general. She joked about being the only speaker who didn’t know anything about Burma, but added that genocide happens in places where leaders are “habituated” to it. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda, she reminded us, was actually the second (arguably third) such event in that country’s history. With such a violent past in the form of the military junta’s reign, she felt Burma was definitely a place that we should continue to watch closely.
Statements of support from House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce and Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Michael Downing were read by Hennessy before the mighty Dr. Maung Zarni rose to speak. Buddhist magazine readers will undoubtedly recognize Dr. Zarni, whose name has been coming up a lot lately: his piece “Buddhist Nationalism in Burma” was a feature in one of the most recent issues of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and Alex Caring-Lobel interviewed him not long ago for Trike’s Awake in the World blog. A Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics, Dr. Zarni received applause when he began his remarks by saying, “I offer my apologies as a Burmese — and a Buddhist at that.” Saying he felt compelled to “speak truth at any cost,” he castigated his fellow Burmese for “sleepwalking into a genocidal space,” adding that “the Buddha himself was not a Burmese, so he would be treated as such an outsider [under current laws and conditions].” Joining the chorus of voices decrying the 1982 citizenship law, he noted that “this problem has come to the Rohingya,” and not the other way around.
Dr. Zarni was followed by Dr. Wakkar Uddin (Director General of the All Rohingya Union), Dr. Nora E. Rowley (a humanitarian doctor who works with refugees in Burma), and Htay Lwin Oo (Myanmar Muslims Civil Rights Movement). Dr. Rowley’s comments in particular made an impression. She referred to the country’s leadership as the “Burman supremacist regime,” took the international media to task for “lazily or complicitly” framing the situation as “Rakhine versus Rohingya,” and pointed out what Human Rights Watch has observed about the national police force in the country.
A panel discussion and Q&A with Haviv, Dr. Zarni, Dr. Rowley, Dr. Uddin, and Lwin Oo followed. Among the questions addressed was, “Why haven’t a majority of Buddhists — who are supposedly against violence — come out to strongly denounce the racist ’969 Movement’? Are they silently supporting them?” Dr. Zarni spoke about the false, fear-based narrative of 969, and how it “criminalizes” Islam, and produces a largely complicit Burmese Buddhist population in the country. He then went “on the record” to say that the 969 Movement enjoys “the full backing of the Burmese state.” He continued, “In this [current] scenario, the 969 Movement is going to thrive and help destroy the Muslim communities. Therefore, I think it is important for the Buddhist community to wake up to the danger of 969, which is self-destructing the Burmese society.”
While the question, and Dr. Zarni’s response, were helpful, the question that was more important to me personally was, “What can Buddhists, particularly Buddhists outside of Burma, do to help?” So I set out to ask a few of the conference organizers and participants this question.
“Burmese Buddhist is different from other forms of Buddhism,” one of the conference’s spokesmen, Yousef Iqbal, told me. “So they don’t actually look at other Buddhists as ones who can inspire them. Unless you can find a Burmese Buddhist, in Burma’s Theravada Buddhist tradition, to say, ‘Killing people is wrong and you should not do it,’ I’m not sure how much it will do.” While he acknowledged the important contributions of Buddhists from other traditions, like Rev. Iwohara, he was clear about what was needed: “More participation from the Theravada, the Burmese Theravada Buddhists. They should be involved, especially those who have spiritual authority.”
Iqbal’s co-spokesman, Yusman Madha, was more optimistic about the wider Buddhist community. “It would definitely be helpful — definitely,” he said in response to my question of whether or not a more pronounced, ecumenical Buddhist response to the situation would be useful. “The teachings of their faith are being flouted by these thugs, and they should now speak up. There are Buddhist monks in Burma speaking up, but they are in the minority.”
Dr. Uddin agreed, and told me, “American Buddhist organization can do a lot to influence the [anti-Muslim] monks in Burma. We really believe that American Buddhist leaders can have a tremendous influence on this situation, and teach the heretical Buddhists in Burma that this is not the right path. We would like to open up more of a dialogue with the American Buddhist community, in fact. We’ve spoken to some monks here in America, and they’ve been receptive. The vast majority of Burmese Buddhists in America have a totally different vision [then their fellows within Burma]. We can work together — the Rohingya in diaspora and the American Buddhist community.”
As we talked, Dr. Uddin added, “We look forward to making these connections with American Buddhists, but we don’t have the means and know-how. We don’t know who to approach, or how to approach them. We’ve asked ISNA, the Islamic Society of North America, to help us open up a dialogue. We need to get connected to Buddhist leaders and discuss this and develop strategies.”
Before the conference, but even more so after, I was determined to help. After talking with Dr. Uddin about approach, I’d like to say, for whatever it’s worth, that I’m happy to help in any way I can to make these connections and get this conversation started. If you’re the leader of a Myanmar Muslim group and you’d like assistance making connections, please leave a comment. And if you’re a Buddhist leader, please feel free to leave a comment alerting us to anything you might be willing to do or offer.
Dr. Uddin offers a good starting point for us as concerned Buddhists in America: just get Buddhist American leaders to the table with Rohingya in diaspora to talk. At the very least, let’s all of us, as Buddhists in America, make sure this happens.
At one point during the conference, it was observed that the event bore the year 2013 in its title, implying that the Myanmar Muslim community is digging in for what portends to be a long struggle. If we as Buddhists in America truly aspire to love all beings the way a mother loves her only child, we need to get to that table with Rohingya leaders and see to it that this doesn’t become a yearly event.