It is not uncommon for those of a particular faith majority to fall short in their duty to others. No one doubts that this applies in parts of the world and at different times to both Christians and Muslims. Perhaps because of the horrors of the Holocaust, there has been a reluctance to speak of Jews in this way. Still, the U.S. State Department recently termed as terrorists those Jewish settlers who commit violent acts against Palestinians in the West Bank. However, the one religious group that has often been given a pass on this observation of insensitivity is the Buddhists.
It is not profitable to get into a game of weighing which body of believers is the most hypocritical. Nor would it discredit all Buddhists to point out a case of their lack of concern. Nevertheless, it is a reality that Buddhists share with other mortals the ability and propensity to do great evil at times. The behavior of wartime Japan was seen as immoral, but there was a tendency to ascribe the behavior to Shinto, since many Japanese are at the same time Buddhists and followers of Shinto. However, there are other predominantly Buddhist countries that treat minorities unjustly and even cruelly. In fact, there is even a commonality in the excuses for the mistreatment—“they” do not really belong in this country.
Thus, the Bhutanese government charges that their Nepalese minority are recent arrivals that came to work on construction projects in the 1960s. This might be true for some of them; but even then it means that even the “newcomers” have been in the country for a couple of generations. In Sri Lanka the government withdrew the citizenship of those Tamils descended from workers on the tea estates who came to the island beginning in the nineteenth century. And as for Japan, there is still the matter of the treatment of ethnic Koreans in their midst.
In 1982 the military junta in Myanmar (formerly Burma) adopted a law depriving the Rohingya minority of their citizenship, claiming that they are all recent illegal immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. While even Burmese historians accept their presence since the 1950s, others have found reference to them as far back as the 1700s. While the minorities in Bhutan and Sri Lanka are mainly Hindu, the Rohingya minority in Myanmar is Muslim. Buddhists believe that Buddha came to teach humanity how to end suffering; but governments in most Buddhist countries fall short on that score—just as Christian legislators often fall short of Jesus’ example and Jewish ones of the demands of the prophets.
So when the Rohingyas are looked at as an example of a neglected or marginalized group, it becomes even more problematic to discover that there are some 800,000 of them in Myanmar. The fact that these people are denied citizenship makes them particularly vulnerable.
Nay Saan Oo is a Rohingya, now living in New York City. While the Rohingya minority is centered in the western province of Arakan (or Rakhine), he comes from Rangoon. Yet even there he felt the pain of discrimination. People disparagingly called him “kalar,” a derogatory term referring to his skin color, as Rohingyas are darker than other Burmese. Because he, like other Rohingyas, was deprived of an identity card, Nay Saan Oo could not gain entrance to higher education or even to a hospital.
Many Rohingyas had been forced into special camps, even before recent racial strife became known. Nur Hashim, who chairs the Canadian Burmese Rohingya Organization, described to me what happened to him when he was in school in 1991. “A group of soldiers surrounded our village and took all the young males to a camp. I said that I was a student, but they said that Rohingyas could not study. On the way to the camp I said that I had to urinate, so they let me move away a bit, but I ran. They shot at me but missed. I made my way to Bangladesh, where I stayed for 16 years.” There are some 300,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, but Bangladesh is trying to keep them out.
Aziz Nur, a student living in the Waterloo region of Ontario, described his family’s experiences. Troops beat his father and conscripted him to do forced labor. They also seized the family’s land. A sister was refused permission to marry. Such permission ordinarily takes more than a year—plus a bribe. And couples are made to agree to have no more than two children. Family members are not able to go to visit another village without permission. Soldiers came to the house to shake the family down for money. They have also stolen cattle.
Wakar Uddin heads up the Arakan Rohingya Union, an international umbrella organization. When he notes some of the problems facing his people in Arakan, they often mirror the experiences that have already been described by others from other areas. He is quick to identify the problems caused by their high level of illiteracy—a direct product of their mistreatment. “Less than 1 percent of the Rohingya population has graduated from high school. Most of them have not seen schooling of any kind,” says Wakar.
The government, Wakar charges, confiscates land and gives it to other Burmese brought into the area. According to Uddin, troops conscript not just adults but also children as young as 5 for forced labor. Rohingyas are subject to arbitrary arrest and taxation and to extortion. Amnesty International largely confirms these complaints and also accuses troops of killings, rape, and destruction of mosques.
There is a history of interracial mob violence between Arakan’s Buddhist majority and the Rohingyas. Such violence broke out again following the rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Rohingyas in May last year. Then a mob pulled 10 Muslim men from a bus and butchered them. Apparently they were pilgrims and not even Rohingyas. Matters then escalated with tit-for-tat killing, burning of villages, looting, and such. The government declared a state of emergency.
During the violence, troops sided against the Rohingyas in many instances, and afterward about 100,000 were put into camps, off limits to foreign observers. Buddhist monks stationed themselves at the entrances to keep food and other supplies out. Human Rights Watch reported that the troops also engaged in rape, torture, and killing.
Clearly the situation calls for intervention by Burmese democracy advocates. Well, they have spoken up—in support of the repression! Tin Maung Htoo, director of Canadian Friends of Burma, has branded Rohingyas as failed jihadists. His board later made him retract the charge. In Japan pro-democracy militants demonstrated in front of the Tokyo U.N. office in support of Burmese president Thein Sein’s desire to have the U.N. resettle the Rohingyas outside Myanmar. (His alternative was for the U.N. to look after them in camps inside Myanmar.) The prejudice against these people runs deep, leaving them with few supporters in Myanmar. Even Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi refuses to speak up for their rights.
Meanwhile, refugees continue to try to sneak into Bangladesh. Others are in camps along the Thai border. Still others take to rickety boats, looking for a welcoming harbor. Thai sailors have towed some of these boats out to sea, where those on board are likely to find a watery grave.
Canada has recently established an Office of Religious Freedom and has named Andrew Bennett as its first ambassador for religious freedom. It may be that Canada, working on behalf of Rohingyas now in Canada, will be able to speak up for the minority in Myanmar. Editor.
Author: Reuel S. Amdur
Reuel Amdur writes from Val-des-Monts, Quebec, Canada.