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.

Don’t Blame Islam

One or two times in the past, I’ve seen anti-Islamic sentiments bubble up in the comments. Conflicts in Southern Thailand or Bangladesh’s Chittagong division are frequently portrayed as religious conflicts where Muslims are launching a jihad against Buddhists. In reality, the issues lie along much deeper socio-economic fault lines upon which religion has simply been overlaid. To this end, I was pleased to read an article in AsiaNews, a Christian news service, which emphasized that the land conflict in Chittagong is primarily not a religious issue.

The authorities make no attempt to stop the settler attacks, nor to resolve the situation. The tribals, says our source, are really “abandoned to themselves, often when they try to make a complaint, the police do not accept it. Because it’s convenient to see the tribal disappear, or at least take up less Bangladeshi land so that there is an outlet for the overpopulation. Moreover, since the people are in some way favoured by the army, the government does not want to go against the military. There are moments in which it operates, when it tries to do something, but in essence the problem is never resolved.”

The issue therefore, is not religious, even though the perpetrators are Muslim and tribal communities, however, mostly animist (the majority), Buddhist and Christian. “The question—in fact, specifies the source for AsiaNews—it’s only land. It becomes religious in consequence, because the tribal are not Muslims and are more vulnerable, considered inferior, but in any case these are not attacks of a religious or national background. Although the tribals say, ‘Muslims have done this,’ it is only because—he concludes—in everyday language, as they see say it, Bangladeshi is synonymous with Muslim.”

The bottom line is that religion is not the driving force behind the conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In other words, Bengali settlers are not moving into CHT because the locals are infidels. They are colonizing the area because they see economic opportunity, and they look down upon “less civilized” locals who speak other languages—or worse, languages that otherwise sound to the settlers like mangled Bangla. If we report on this situation as a religious conflict, we then do a disservice to CHT Buddhists (and Christians, Muslims and all others) by neglecting to address the conflict’s actual causes.

Dragging Buddhism into Political Fights

A post title on Danny Fisher’s blog caught my attention yesterday: “Buddhist Teacher Shot Dead in Southern Thailand.” What makes this Buddhist news? The teacher’s religion is of note only because she was killed by individuals who are Muslim, who are terrorizing southern Thailand for ethno-nationalist reasons

The predominantly ethnic Malay, Muslim region was an independent sultanate known as Patani before it was annexed by Buddhist Thailand in 1909 as part of a treaty with Britain.

More importantly, as Erick D. White has pointed out in comments that Danny Fisher has also posted:

The majority of those who have died in the South are Muslims at the hands of the insurgency. While there are inklings of the conflict taking on a Buddhist vs. Muslim character – and this is a meme that the insurgency would like to spread – it is mostly just a poor, easy hook that the international press employs. The insurgents attack all who are opposed to their project, Muslim or Buddhist. It remains, as far as we can tell, a very local affair (i.e. no international jihad) and primarily an ethno-nationalist insurgency.

The Buddhist vs. Muslim theme also plays well into the hands of Thai nationalists, who would like to tie these insurgents to global terrorist networks (i.e. Al-Qa‘ida). The story becomes “Muslim terrorists vs. peaceful Buddhists” thus legitimizing the government’s policies on the international stage. Thai authorities can accordingly marginalize Southerners’ complaints of discrimination and historical injustice, casting the struggle in terms of Buddhist and Muslim Thais. But the Muslims of Pattani are about as Thai as Tibetans are Chinese. So are we still talking about a Buddhist issue?