A GROUP of 72 Burmese people from Buddhist backgrounds have released an open letter denouncing violence against the country’s Rohingya Muslims, a rare expression of dissent amidst what has been deemed by the UN as ethnic cleansing.
Coordinated by the organisation Saddha: Buddhists for Peace, the open letter was signed by many raised Buddhists in Burma or who are living abroad, including some in self-imposed exile. It argues that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has become “complicit” in discrimination, hatred and violence perpetrated by Burma’s Buddhist majority against minorities, including Muslims.
“Ultranationalist monks routinely harass interfaith activists and journalists, and rally against the Rohingya and other Burmese Muslims in the country,” read the open letter, prominent signatories to which included Zar Chi Oo, an adviser to Free Expression Myanmar; Geoffrey Aung, a PhD candidate in anthropology at Columbia University; filmmaker and Fulbright scholar Eaint Thiri Thu; and Dr Naing Aung, a former leader of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front.
“There was a time when the military killed Burmese monks without remorse, demonstrating that they truly had no regard for the actual tenets of a religion they patron as an institution. There was a time when Burmese people rejected propaganda disseminated by the military,” it continued.
“Now, just because they are using Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who minimises the gravity of these atrocities, as their shield, we are expected to follow her without question or be branded a traitor to Burma’s democratic transition.”
Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate once heralded as the hero of Burma’s democratic transition, has faced widespread criticism for failure to comprehensively condemn violence against the Rohingya. In a national address last week, she largely avoided addressing persecution of the Rohingya directly, stating that “the world’s focus in on Rakhine right now, but we also need to peacefully develop the country.”
The UN has said more than 671,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Rakhine State into Cox’s Bazar in neighbouring Bangladesh since Aug 25 in response to so-called “clearing operations” by Burma’s Tatmadaw army.
The military and Buddhist vigilantes stand accused of mass killings, rape and arson in Muslim villages.
A report from the Burma Human Rights Network released last September documented extensive “state-led persecution” against Burmese Muslims, including an increase in attacks against and closures of mosques, designated ‘Muslim-free’ villages, and rising hate speech from ultranationalist and extremist Buddhist groups targeted at Muslims.
“We have struggled to reconcile these events as adults, when as children we were taught to pay respects to monks at Buddhist monasteries, memorise Pali Suttas, and made to feel that Theravada Buddhism was intrinsic to Burmese culture,” continued the open letter released this week.
“Yet, now it seems like the Burmese public’s widespread attitudes towards the Rohingya directly contradict the teachings of Lord Gautama Buddha.”
Many Burmese – even among the nation’s non-Bamar Buddhist minorities – have continued to enthusiastically back the NLD government of Suu Kyi despite widespread international condemnation of her administration and the military.
Facebook has been a potent tool for disseminating anti-Rohingya propaganda, painting the minority group as illegal migrants from Bangladesh who espouse terrorism.
“We know that there are many Buddhists among us, and in Burma still, who share our beliefs but do not speak out because they fear persecution by the Burmese government and those around them,” concluded the letter.
“Our identities as Burmese will not be defined by the hateful voices of nationalists, racists, and Islamophobes.”