For a country steeped in Buddhism, Myanmar is accruing terrible karmic debts.
Alarming news and images of attacks and killings by the Buddhist majority in Rakhine Province against a Muslim minority there have been slowly trickling out onto the Internet and the wider world. Pictures of charred bodies and crying fathers have stirred largely unheeded calls for intervention, mostly from Muslim nations.
"The attacks have been primarily one-sided, with Muslims generally and Rohingyas specifically the targets and victims," Benjamin Zawacki, a Bangkok-based researcher for Amnesty International, told The Associated Press. "Some of this is by the security forces' own hands, some by Rakhine Buddhists with the security forces turning a blind eye in some cases."
The government in Myanmar, recently lauded for taking steps toward democratization, declared a state of emergency in June following the outbreak of violence allegedly sparked by the rape and killing of a Buddhist woman by members of the Rohingya minority -- a largely Muslim group on the country's western border with Bangladesh. The official death toll stands at 78, though activists say it is likely much higher.
The Rohingya, meanwhile, remain caught between a hostile populace and a neighboring Muslim nation in Bangladesh that refuses to open its borders to fleeing refugees.
Such is the irony in a country famous for its Valley of the Temples and its unrivaled devotion to the Buddha. Alas, while Buddhism through a Western lens can appear rosy for its message of compassion, inner peace and self-cultivation, in Asian societies Buddhism as an institution has much broader political applications.
Five years ago thousands of monks across Myanmar led in mass demonstrations against the military junta that paralyzed the former capital Yangon and other cities. The catalyst was an economic crisis, coupled with a devastating typhoon that destroyed homes and rice fields. The government's failure to respond drove the monks to revolt, leading to the arrest and beating of hundreds of clergy. In such an overwhelmingly Buddhist country as Myanmar, the crackdown posed serious risks for the leadership.
For the monks, on the other hand, if fighting on behalf of the people seemed a moral necessity, such "spiritual engagement" apparently does not extend to the country's Muslims, estimated at around 800,000. They are a population denied citizenship and, by extension, the beneficence of the Buddha.
In 2001 monks handed out anti-Muslim pamphlets that resulted in the burning of Muslim homes, destruction of 11 mosques and the killing of over 200 Muslims in the Pegu region. Four years earlier, another anti-Muslim riot broke out in Mandalay during the worship of a Buddha statue at the Maha Myatmuni pagoda. In that incident, an estimated 1,500 Buddhist monks led the attack on nearby mosques and Muslim-owned businesses, looting as they went.
As for the current crisis, Human Rights Watch is strongly urging the Burmese government to end arbitrary and incommunicado detention, and "redeploy and hold accountable security forces implicated in serious abuses. Burmese authorities should ensure safe access to the area by the United Nations (UN), independent humanitarian organizations, and the media."
"The Burmese government needs to put an immediate end to the abusive sweeps by the security forces against Rohingya communities," noted Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Anyone being held should be promptly charged or released, and their relatives given access."
So far the killings have garnered little attention in the West, where they have registered little more than a blip in the news cycle. Equally as troubling, however, has been the muted response of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, an icon of human rights across Southeast Asia. Her recent tepid call for ethnic equality in Myanmar, nearly two months after the violence erupted, was met with uniform criticism around the world.
In the 1960s the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh coined the term "Engaged Buddhism." The intent, then as now, was to exhort fellow monks to emerge from their temples and engage with a society then in the grips of war.
The practice continues across much of South and Southeast Asia today. One example is the long drawn out war in Sri Lanka, during which militant monks formed their own political party, held seats in parliament and advocated military solutions to the conflict with the Tamil Tigers.
In Vietnam, the ruling class knows each time a Buddhist monk sets himself ablaze they'd better watch out. That was certainly true in 1963 when a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in downtown Saigon to protest a crackdown on Buddhism. Unrest grew as civilian fear turned into anger, and the Catholic controlled regime of Ngo Dinh Diem fell soon afterward. The current communist regime still keeps a number of leading clergymen under house arrest for fear for a popular revolt.
But if Myanmar's monks held the moral high ground five years ago when they protested against government oppression, that standing has quickly turned into a deep and dark sinkhole of depravity amid calls for the majority to oppress and purge their neighbors.
"Teach this triple truth to all: A generous heart, kind speech and a life of service and compassion renew humanity," the historical Buddha, Gautama Siddharta, once said.
One wonders what he would say now, as innocent blood is shed in his name, and the path toward enlightenment that he taught to relieve the suffering of human beings had somehow derailed into a dark road of rebirth in the lowest levels of hell?
Andrew Lam is editor of New America Media and the author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora." His next book, "Birds of Paradise Lost," a short story collection, is due out in March, 2013.
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