Opinion: Buddhists should speak out against the Rohingya crisis

Photo by Richard van Wijngaarden
Photo by Richard van Wijngaarden

Buddhism has had a longstanding persona of being the world’s most harmonious and nonviolent religion. Where does it stand amidst the violence and bloodshed?

Little has been said about the general Buddhists populace and their views on the Rohingya crisis happening in the volatile western state of Rakhine. The images of destruction and turmoil may come as jarring to many who have adopted the ‘romanticized’ view of Buddhism. 

Buddhism has largely escaped the scrutiny of religious extremism that other religions face, but has this changed?


Photo: Katie Hunt, CNN


The refugee crisis seems to have brought to light an awakening of deep-rooted, angry, segregative sentiments riding on the wave of simmering inter-religious tension.

Which begs the question, is it a dilemma with the Buddhists themselves? Or does the issue lie within Buddhism itself as a thought system?

Prejudice against the minority Muslim group, in particular, are enduring in Myanmar. Locals too aren’t shy to share their perspectives— Rohingyas are not acknowledged as citizens of Myanmar by the government.

De-facto leader and peace-icon, Aung San Suu Kyi came under fire last August.  She failed to speak out against the unrest that saw thousands displaced from their homes, fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh. Whole villages razed to the ground as a result of mass military operations that left many injured or dead.


Photo: Reuters



Still, locals stood by Suu Kyi and showed their support, a stark contrast to the worldwide criticism her 30-minute address sparked. Her handling of the crisis has elevated her to the status of a moral hero in her native country while her pristine reputation in the West is marred.

Local headlines cast a different light with no allusion to the ethnic cleansing or alleged massacres as portrayed in the international media— how could this be? Stories printed, have cast the events as a military response to attacks by terrorists.

Some groups, Buddhist monks included, carry the belief that the growth of the country’s Muslim population represents a threat to Myanmar and its culture. Powerful clerical voices of the Buddhist faith and monk-led Buddhist nationalist group, Ma Ba Tha believe that their faith and by extension, their traditions, are in danger.

The main threat is Islam.

However, not all locals share this animosity. Some do wish for peace and stability in their country.


Photo: Kathleen Prior, CNN



Although Suu Kyi’s attempts to shape the message within the country amidst the international storm has seen progress leavened by her ascent to power, she does not hold all the reins of power even as State Counselor.

Ultimately, complete authority is held by Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing as stated in Myanmar’s constitution. With little concern for the plight of the Rohingyas amongst her supporters, there may be a delicacy in the way Suu Kyi denounces the military’s responses against the Rohingya. Some of which may not be aligned with the views of the international community.


Photo:Dan Kitwood/Getty Images


News of the crisis has not escaped the attention of Buddhists around the world, however. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, renowned spiritual leader of Buddhism, has addressed the crisis with advice for those taking part in the violence to “remember Buddha” when inflicting harm unto others.


Photo by Guilherme Romano

In Singapore, The Singapore Buddhist Federation weighed in on the crisis with grave concern. They confirmed that the Federation alongside all Buddhist institutions have strongly supported fundraising led by the Islamic Council of Singapore (MUIS) to provide relief to the Rohingya victims.

“We believe humanitarian consideration should transcend all man-made boundaries, be it race or religion”, said the Federation’s president, Venerable Seck Kwang Phing.

In the same light that Muslims faced to speak out against terrorist acts committed by ISIS, should Buddhists be pressured to do the same?

The silence is deafening.

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