By Fatimah Mazhar
Sep 27, 2018
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists but he is also revered by Buddhists around the world.
Due to his highly-revered status in Buddhism, many often wonder what he has to say about the ongoing persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, which is a Buddhist-majority country.
For starters, the Dalai Lama does not wield any political influence anywhere in the world -- not in Tibet, from where he was exiled and certainly not in Myanmar, previously known as Burma.
Yet, since asking prominent religious leaders to denounce extremism committed in the name of the faith they profess has become more or less a tradition, it is not entirely unreasonable to turn to the Dalai Lama and find out how he feels about the rising, deadly, intolerance in Myanmar among Buddhists.
After all, non-violence is one of the cardinal virtues of Buddhism.
As far as addressing the plight of Rohingya Muslims is concerned, the Dalai Lama has been doing that at least since 2013, the year clashes erupted in Meikhtila between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.
The Dalai Lama condemned the violence, which was reportedly fueled by religious hatred on both sides.
“Really, killing people in the name of religion is unthinkable, very sad. Nowadays even Buddhists are involved in Burma,” he stated at the time, adding “I think it is very sad. I pray for them (the monks) to think of the face of Buddha."
The spiritual leader reiterated the sentiments in September 2017, saying the Buddha would have definitely helped the besieged ethnic community.
However, the Dalai Lama has incorrectly asserted the violence against Rohingya Muslims is not religious but political in nature.
The March 2013 Meikhtila riots resulted in at least 43 deaths, mostly Rohingya Muslims, and displaced an estimated 13,000 people, mostly Rohingya Muslims.
Prior to that incident, in October 2012, a bout of violence had already broken out in the Rakhine, aka Arakan, state during which extremist Buddhists successfully forced hundreds of Rohingya Muslims to flee.
According to a 2013 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report:
"Burmese officials, community leaders, and Buddhist monks organized and encouraged ethnic Arakanese backed by state security forces to conduct coordinated attacks on Muslim neighbourhoods and villages in October 2012 to terrorize and forcibly relocate the population. The tens of thousands of displaced have been denied access to humanitarian aid and been unable to return home."
The seeds of the 2012 violence were sown by Ashin Wirathu, a radical Buddhist monk who believes there is a Muslim “master plan” underway to turn Myanmar into an Islamic state. He was imprisoned in 2003 for 25 years over charges of inciting anti-Muslim violence through his “969” campaign and released in 2011.
As soon as he got out of jail, Ashin Wirathu resumed his Islamophobic campaign and began spouting anti-Muslim conspiracy theories to stoke communal tensions.
And he did just that -- with ease because the Burmese government regards Rohingya Muslims as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. On the other hand, Bangladesh has refused to grant Rohingyas refugee status since 1992.
Time Magazine even termed the saffron-robed monk as the "Buddhist bin Laden" on its July 2013 cover.
Still, Ashin Wirathu isn't the only influential Buddhist monk who encourages extremist behaviour. There are many more, including Sitagu Sayadaw, also known as Sayadaw Ashin Nyanissara, who infamously suggested in November 2017 it was OK to kill non-Buddhists because they are "one and a half real human beings," while delivering a religious sermon to officers at the Bayintnaung military garrison in Thandaung, Kayin State.
The 2012 communal violence soon spiralled into a state-sanctioned, military-driven ethnic cleansing campaign against Rohingya Muslims in August 2017.
According to a report by the Ontario International Development Agency (OIDA), during the crackdown, since Aug. 25, 2017:
- Nearly 24,000 Rohingya Muslims were killed,
- More than 34,000 Rohingya were also thrown into fires,
- Over 114,000 others were beaten,
- Myanmar’s army and police raped some 18,000 Rohingya women and girls
- at least 115,000 Rohingya houses were burned down and 113,000 others vandalized
All of this forced over 750,000 Rohingya Muslims, mostly women and children, to flee the country, according to Amnesty International. Most of them are now living the lives of refugees in squalid camps in Bangladesh.
Therefore, the Dalai Lama's statement that the violence against Rohingya Muslims is not religiously-motivated is not only incorrect, but also offensive.
The ongoing military campaign is undoubtedly politically-charged but the root cause of the persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar comes down to Buddhist extremism.
Granted, the Dalai Lama plays no significant part in Burmese politics, or even Burmese Buddhism for that matter.
But at a time when monks like Ashin Wirathu and Sitagu Sayadaw are bent on causing bloodshed of innocent people in the name of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama's condemnation of Buddhist extremism is not just a boon, it's a necessity.