Rohingya Muslims, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, carry an elderly woman in a basket and walk toward a refugee camp in Shah Porir Dwip, Bangladesh, on Sept. 14, 2017. AP Photo/Dar Yasin

End the Buddhist terror in Myanmar now

(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."

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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.

This combination of two satellite images provided by DigitalGlobe — Dec. 2, 2017, left; and Feb. 19, 2018, right — displaying the village of Thit Tone Nar Gwa Son, about 30 miles north of Maungdaw, Rakhine state, Myanmar, shows the predominantly Rohingya village and hamlets that have been completely leveled by authorities in recent weeks, far more than previously reported. While Myanmar's government claims it's simply trying to rebuild a devastated region, the operation has raised deep concern among human rights advocates, who say the government is destroying what amounts to scores of crime scenes before any credible investigation takes place. (DigitalGlobe via AP)

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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 … ”

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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.

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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.)


  1. Wouldn’t you know it’s fundamentalists causing the problems!

  2. As the atrocities in Myanmar, and the ongoing vicious treartment of Tamils in Sri Lanka by Sinhalese Buddhists shows, Buddhist aren’t exempt from truly evil behavior. Many seekers in the West have embraced Buddhism as a system of belief, and a daily practice, that they have found profoundly meaningful, and spiritually essential. Along with this, some Western Buddhists proclaim a moral high road vis-a-vis the monotheistic religions, which, granted, have a terrible history when it comes to persecution of “non-believers.” Tragically, devotees of all religions and spiritual practices are prone to throw their highest moral and ethical ideals out the window when nationalism, xenophobia, and racism take front and center.

  3. Blame it on the Mongols of Genghis Khan followed by the rules of the British Empire.

  4. Some recent history:

    “The violence and long lasting tension was reignited on the 28th of May 2012. It was reported that daughter of U Hla Tin, of Thabyechaung Village named Ma Thida Htwe aged 27 was raped then killed by three Muslim men. These men were later arrested.[145][146]

    Tensions between Buddhist and Muslim ethnic groups flared into violent clashes in Meiktila, Mandalay Division in 2013. The violence started on 20 March after a Muslim gold shop owner, his wife, and two Muslim employees assaulted a Buddhist customer and her husband in an argument over a golden hairpin. A large Buddhist mob formed and began to destroy the shop. The heavily outnumbered police reportedly told the mob to disperse after they had destroyed the shop.[147][148]

    On the same day, a local Buddhist monk passing on the back of a motorbike was attacked by four Muslims. According to witnesses, the driver was attacked with a sword, causing him to crash, while the monk was also hit in the head with the sword. Per a witness, one of the men doused the monk woth fuel and burnt him alive. The monk died in the hospital.[148] The killing of the monk caused the relatively contained situation to explode, greatly increasing intensity and violence.[147]”

  5. Some past history:

    In 1006, the Muslim Kara-Khanid ruler Yusuf Kadir (Qadir) Khan of Kashgar conquered Khotan, ending Khotan’s existence as an independent state. The war was described as a Muslim Jihad (holy war) by the Japanese Professor Takao Moriyasu. The Karakhanid Turkic Muslim writer Mahmud al-Kashgari recorded a short Turkic language poem about the conquest:

    English translation:

    We came down on them like a flood,
    We went out among their cities,
    We tore down the idol-temples,
    We shat on the Buddha’s head! “

  6. “Along with this, some Western Buddhists proclaim a
    moral high road”

    This moral high road business dates back to around 1850. At that time, Western Indologists had discovered that the Buddhism of the Far East had originated in Nepal / North India. This discovery caused a puzzle. These Western Indologists had already written that Hinduism was the religion of ancient India. Now it looked as though Buddhism was also the religion of ancient India. Two religions in ancient India.

    The consensus among Western Indologists was to liken Hindusim to Catholic theology and Buddhism to Protestant theology (p134 of

    These same Western Indologists attached positive attributes like the “moral high road” to Buddhism. This is now the received opinion in the social sciences (both in the West and in Asia).

    In reality: “Hinduism” and “Buddhism” are just names of theoretical models of some Indian or Asian traditions.

  7. How about we end ALL religious terrorism, in all countries, everywhere?

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