I Believe in the Rights of Rohingya Muslims

Two readers of my blog reached out to me and asked my thoughts about the oppression and killings of Rohingyas in Arakan State. I wish I had more time to write about this and share my perspective, but my spare time is little and my perspective probably would not be at all illuminating. After all, I condemn the violence against the Rohingya community in Burma, and I believe that they should be recognized as citizens of the Burmese state and guaranteed the same protections that every citizen is due.

Many people are shocked that a predominantly Buddhist nation, such as Burma, would have such violent and ethnocentric responses to the Rohingya community. Though I am incredibly saddened, I am not as surprised or indignant as the rest of the Western Buddhist blogosphere perhaps because this is a situation that I have been aware of my entire life. This is not the first time that Rohingya Muslims have been violently targeted in Burma, and this is not the first time that some of the Burmese public have reacted with violent force. Just as I felt powerless to do much in the past, I feel powerless today. After all, what else can I do but express my support for those oppressed and condemn the violent injustices levied against them?

In general I do not write about these complex issues on this blog because my audience here are predominantly white middle-class Western Buddhists who know very little about either Burma or Islam. The discussions and even arguments I have with individuals of the Burmese expatriate community are of a completely different nature than the ones I have with most Western Buddhists on this blog simply because with the former I do not have to waste a thousand words explaining why I write “Arakan” instead of “Rakhine” or why I make the effort to specify Rohingya Muslims rather than use a more general term such as, Burmese Muslims.

I believe in the rights of Rohingya Muslims in Burma just as I believe in the rights of Jumma Buddhists in Bangladesh. I condemn the violence against both groups, and I condemn the history of persecution and oppression which cannot simply be washed away overnight. I furthermore condemn the simplification of political and socio-economic conflicts into religious terms of “Buddhist” versus “Muslim.” But I also try to cultivate understanding and compassions toward all involved in this conflict, I recognize that I have neither answers for nor a complete understanding of this conflict, and I don’t believe I can do anything of more substantive consequence on this blog than make this statement of my support for their rights and condemnation of their persecution.

What more I do say and do, I do offline. So my apologies in advance if I neglect your comment.

Thingyan Mingalar

By word of a friend, I was put in touch with Aung Htin Kyaw, a talented and enthusiastic community organizer in Southern California. I interviewed Aung Kyaw to learn his thoughts on Thingyan, the Burmese New Year, which begins today.

Who are you?

I am a 2nd generation Burmese American of Chinese heritage. I am currently a college student studying in Los Angeles.

What is the Buddhist significance of this holiday?

While there is no overt Buddhist meaning to this holiday (unlike Thadingyut, for example, which marks the end of the Buddhist lent), Thingyan is considered a very good time to practice the Buddhist precepts, perform merit acts and show respect for one’s elders (by practicing gadaw, the custom of kneeling, prostrating to show veneration to parents and grandparents).

What does this holiday mean to you?

To be honest, this holiday does not have much spiritual meaning for me. Considering that I also celebrate New Year and the Chinese New Year, the importance of crossing over to the Burmese New Year loses its significance for me. It’s just a nice time to celebrate my cultural heritage with friends and family.

What do you plan to do on/for Thingyan?

I’m hoping to organize a trip to South El Monte for other Burmese students to celebrate “Maha Thingyan,” an annual Thingyan festivalheld in the San Gabriel Valley by the Southern California Burmese Association.

Aung Kyaw’s blog Fifty Viss has kept me informed on many issues relating to Burmese Americans, be it finding Burmese food in America or the status of “Burmese” in the 2010 United States Census. Although he hasn’t continued updating the blog in recent years, you can still learn lots (not to mention look at beautiful photos) by combing through the archived posts. I’m not going to have time to attend the Southern California Thingyan festival this weekend, but if you live down here, I strongly encourage you to drop by—and afterward, drop me a comment and let me know your thoughts!

(Disclaimer—I’ve never actually heard anyone say thingyan mingalar, but it works better for the post title than hnit thit mingalar…)

When Non-Violence is the Wrong Way

Over at Progressive Buddhism, Kyle suggests a violent solution to the situation in Burma.

The time for non-violent, peaceful civil disobedience is quickly coming to an end, and in my opinion the truly compassionate route for the populace of Burma to take, including the monks, is to take off their robes, pick up a rifle and decapitate the despotic, tyrannical and repressive leadership of the current Burmese regime. The good people of Burma have been abandoned by the rest of the world and therefore should join the remnants of the rebel guerrillas and other repressed minorities such as the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Tavoyan, and Mon, and take the most unpleasant route of armed confrontation. The Burmese people can not afford another Cyclone Nargina [sic], they can not afford 40 more years of quietly waiting while their young girls continue to get sold into the human sex slave trade and their small children are forced into hard labor. They can not afford 40 more years of hunger and disease, of poverty and repression, 40 more years of wasting away into a black hole of endless suffering. No longer does the path in Burma lay in peace and civility; the way to end this suffering, unfortunately, lies in the gun.

When I was much younger, I held opinions not too far removed from Kyle’s, but these sentiments are both naïve and misguided. As I mentioned in comments to a previous post, I feel very conflicted about the situation in Burma, especially from a “Buddhist” perspective (whatever that means). Hopefully I’ll be able to set aside enough time to discuss these issues more thoroughly (and yet succinctly) over on Dharma Folk

Metta Sutta Politics

As with many other concerned newswatchers, I was dismayed to hear that the Burmese government banned numerous monasteries from reciting the Metta Sutta on the past full moon day. It is a shame that the words of Lord Buddha have become so politicized. In response, Rev. Danny Fisher posted a YouTube video of himself reading the Karaniya Metta Sutta. His act of solidarity with the Burmese monastic community was publicized on Shambhala SunSpcaceBarbara’s Buddhism blogPrecious MetalGo Beyond Words, and Bodhipaksa also recorded himself reading the Metta Sutta. But I worry that this act comes as a reaction to the Burmese junta, that we might be a little too trigger happy when it comes to dragging religion into defining political boundaries. After all, this sutta belongs to all of us. I certainly encourage you to recite the Metta Sutta every day, but when we chant in solidarity with the Burmese monks and nuns, we should also be emanating goodwill toward the very military dictatorship that oppresses them. We should wish them happiness, freedom from stress and suffering, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression, freedom from trouble, and that they may take care of themselves with ease. When we recite words of loving kindness, it should be with the goal of emanating sincere loving kindness. We should be wary of hijacking Buddhism for the sake of political backlash.

The Saffron Revolution Continues in Utica

The New York Times LENS blog is exploring the lives of U Pyinyar Zawta, U Gawsita and U Agga Nyana, three monks who were involved in Burma’s Saffron Revolution, and who now continue their struggle in New York. You can view the full video here.

In September 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks led the “saffron revolution,” a series of peaceful marches in response to military oppression and a dire economic situation in Myanmar, formerly Burma. Since then, three monks who escaped Myanmar and settled in Utica, N.Y., have continued campaigning across the United States for democracy and human rights for their country with the All Burma Monks’ Alliance.

As soon as I saw this link in my news feed, I had to call them up. (You’re famous!) The New York Times has plans to publish weekly pieces on Burma, they told me, with this one as their first. Stay tuned!