(RNS) — Last week I returned from refugee camps in Bangladesh where 700,000 Rohingya people have fled Myanmar — a country where Buddhism is the state religion — crossing into precarious exile in southern Bangladesh.
One Rohingya refugee we spoke with said:
"We came here just to take shelter and we are thankful to be given shelter. But camp life is not home. We stay here as refugees. We want what normal people have. We are looking for a normal standard of life."
The Rohingyas are a Muslim ethnic minority, who have lived Myanmar’s western Rakhine state for many generations. The roots of this conflict are complex and arguable. But the sheer scale of Rohingya suffering goes beyond all argument and justification.
What I saw of the camps was a seemingly endless, sprawling, dusty tangle of tents fashioned from bamboo strips and plastic sheets. There are open sewers running in thick streams beside the dirt pathways. The refugees, among them huge numbers of children, are everywhere.
I heard stories of their villages burning just miles away in Myanmar. I was told of unimaginable violence, of mass rape and murder, of soldiers throwing babies into the flames.
Satellite imagery shows the devastation of villages in Myanmar, but nothing can convey the realities of frightened and broken people, bereft of families, land and livelihood. The Rohingya people I met speak of this as the “Buddhist terror,” an unholy alliance of the Myanmar army, monks and Rakhine Buddhists.
The terrible irony is that a decade ago, the world’s Buddhists witnessed Myanmar’s “Saffron Revolution.” Monks and nuns courageously faced down the military’s guns and bayonets, chanting the Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s ancient verse of lovingkindness, which includes this verse: “ ... as a mother at the risk of her life watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things, suffusing love over the entire world … ”
Today, ultranationalist monks — members of Ma Ba Tha, the Association for Protection of Race and Religion — stand behind the military and urge them on, sometimes participating in the violence themselves. The power of this organization and of the conflation of religious, military and governmental institutions is such that concerned monks and ordinary citizens fear for their lives if they speak out.
In March the U.N. special rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, told the U.N. Human Rights Council, "I am becoming more convinced that the crimes committed bear the hallmarks of genocide." The U.N.’s definition of genocide, simply put, calls out acts committed with an "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group."
The crisis in Myanmar and in Bangladesh continues to unfold. An estimated $1 billion is necessary for infrastructure, medicine, food and clothing over the next several months. Monsoon rains are coming soon, threatening to turn barren hillside camps into a morass of mud and sewage.
Material aid is a pressing need. This must come from sympathetic governments, nongovernmental organizations and ordinary people. Along with aid, we must urge our governments and international bodies to take up all possible nonviolent methods — sanctions, boycotts, letters, vigils and all kinds of moral pressure — to persuade and compel the government of Myanmar to change its policies of oppression.
This is vital, not just for the Rohingya people, but for other ethnic minorities in Myanmar — the Kachin, Shan, Karen and others — who likewise face murder and scorched earth. The Rohingyas and these minorities want the same things: safety and freedom from violence, citizenship and legal rights in a multiethnic Myanmar, and justice — accountability in an international tribunal for the perpetrators of atrocities.
Let the U.S. Congress, U.N. officials and Myanmar’s religious and governmental authorities know that the terror must end now.
(Hozan Alan Senauke is a Zen Buddhist priest and vice-abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center in California. He advocates for an engaged Buddhism as founder of Clear View Project and the Buddhist Humanitarian Project. The views in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion New Service.)