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Karma and killings in Myanmar

July 29, 2012

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ISRAELIS have often complained that whenever a Palestinian is killed, the story is carried by the media across the Islamic world. But when a Muslim is slain by a fellow Muslim, nobody pays attention. There is some truth in this charge: Palestine has come to occupy such a focal point in the Muslim sense of identity that reminders of the Israeli occupation feed into a constant feeling of collective outrage.

It is very human to be selective in our sympathy: with all the suffering around the world, it would take a saint to grieve equally for all the victims of injustice. So we pick and choose according to our views, beliefs and proximity. It would be fair to say that the average Pakistani feels little for, say, the native tribes being virtually wiped out due to land clearing along the Amazon.

For the same reason, the plight of the Myanmar Muslim Rohingyas does not strike a chord in much of the Muslim world. The recent outbreak of violence against them by the majority Buddhists was reported widely last month, but the story has virtually disappeared from the media. It wasn’t till the Taliban threatened action against Burmese interests that we paid attention again.

The fact is that until last month’s slaughter, few of us were even aware of the substantial Muslim population of 800,000 in Myanmar. The image of the country has always been that of a predominantly Buddhist one, with the courageous Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, being the face of Burma.

However, the fact is that the Rohingyas have been subjected to persecution for decades. According to Amnesty International, some 200, 000 of them fled to Bangladesh in 1978 to escape a brutal military operation. This was followed by another wave of around 250,000 in 1991-92. The refugees complained of rape, persecution and forced labour by the military. Another 100,000 fled to Thailand, but were forced to leave for camps along the border with Myanmar.

The Muslim presence in Myanmar goes back to the 8th century, when Arab merchants and sailors set up settlements along the coast. Later, in the 15th century, a king from the independent kingdom of Arakan sought help from the neighbouring state of Bengal. For centuries after these early contacts, there was no check on movement between the two neighbouring states. When the British took over Burma, as it was then known as, they encouraged Muslim farmers from Bengal to move to the under-populated valleys of Arakan.

Now, virtually the entire Rohingya population of Myanmar is viewed as having entered illegally, and is denied basic human rights. As the recent massacre shows, they have a very precarious existence, and are deeply resented by the majority Buddhists. Since Buddhism is a religion that teaches its followers to walk the path of non-violence and tolerance, outsiders assume that Buddhists are essentially peaceful people. Sadly, this is just not so. Over the last decade, I have spent at least a couple of months a year in Sri Lanka, another Buddhist country. While I have mostly enjoyed being there, I have been very conscious of a violent streak running just below the surface.

During the vicious civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan state fought over a quarter of a century, many terrible atrocities were committed by both sides. The last few days of the war, in particular, saw horrors seldom matched in modern warfare. It is feared that as many as 80,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the closing stages of the separatist conflict.

To try and understand how devout Buddhists could justify any kind of killing, I asked Sri Lankan friends to explain the contradiction. According to several of them, Buddhist monks had issued their version of a fatwa to the effect that violence was justified in defence of the Buddhist homeland.

Indeed, the Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka were the most rigid opponents to a negotiated settlement. They set up their own political party, and were part of the coalition government that rejected any compromise. Had it not been for the intransigence shown by these monks, it is just possible that the civil war could have been ended without so much bloodshed.

But even apart from this kind of organised warfare, there is much domestic violence and public brutality in evidence. Many political opponents have been killed, kidnapped and beaten up over the years. Thus, for all the rosy-hued images of peaceful, gentle people projected abroad, Buddhist states seldom live up to their billing.

Thailand is another Buddhist country where the government has no compunctions about putting down opposition with great force. This is as true of Muslim separatists in the southern provinces as of Buddhist supporters of political opponents of the previous junta.

More often than not, Buddhist monks play the same kind of role clerics do in Muslim countries. Fanning the flames of religious intolerance and rabid nationalism, they both equate political differences with treachery and even apostasy. Instead of advocating peace and harmony, they teach messages of hate and fanaticism.

Neither of them can win elections on their own as their followers seldom vote for them. To make up for this lack of popularity, they push their agendas in the streets, in mosques and in temples. All too often, they lend their support to oppressive regimes.

And yet the teachings of Lord Buddha have left a lasting impact: in Sri Lanka, wildlife is largely doing well because hunting is banned. Nevertheless, wild elephants are often killed by villagers for damaging crops. But to its credit, the Sri Lankan government has established over a score of national parks across the island where all kinds of wild animals and birds are protected.

Now that Myanmar is edging towards more representative government, we can hope that Aung San Suu Kyi’s towering moral authority will make it possible for the state to accommodate the unfortunate Rohingyas. However, her stand has not been encouraging for thus far, she has not condemned the violence against them in unequivocal terms.