Chicago Area Buddhists React to Ongoing Persecution in Myanmar

By Ramsen Shamon

Ko Un ready to greet admirers at the Chicago Public Library, Thursday Oct. 2, 2014.
Ko Un ready to greet admirers at the Chicago Public Library, Thursday Oct. 2, 2014. Ramsen Shamon/MEDILL

The Rohingya people of Myanmar in Southeast Asia are considered to be among the world’s most persecuted refugees. Making up less than 5 percent of the country’s population, the Rohingya, who are Muslim, are largely confined to refugee camps and many have been sold into slavery. Religious persecution is nothing new, but the fact that it is Buddhists who are persecuting the Rohingya has caused many to rethink the religion’s commitment to peace and nonviolence.

Some Chicago-area Buddhists are outraged about what is going on half way across the world and say they are concerned with how extremists are using the name of Buddhism to persecute another religious group.

“This is a very unfortunate situation, but in the same way that Muslim extremists do not speak for Islam, Buddhist extremists do not speak for Buddhism per se,” said Stephen T. Asma, a practicing Buddhist and professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago.

Adds Patrick Drazen, a Buddhist author, lecturer, and freelance editor in downstate Illinois: “I am disappointed but not surprised that Buddhists in Myanmar have surrendered their compassion and have come to fear the Muslim minority. Buddhists have become caught up in the tides of politics.”

Buddhism is centered on the teachings of the Buddha, who lived between the fourth and sixth centuries. Buddhists believe in reincarnation and karma, the notion that actions, whether good or bad, are echoed when one is reborn. They also believe that humans have the ability to reach nirvana, or absolute enlightenment. When nirvana is achieved, the reincarnation cycle is broken. Tolerance and nonviolence are essential tenants of the religion.

Sunil Yadav, a University of Chicago Divinity School student, spent the summer in Myanmar observing the situation. He does not believe that the religion of Buddhism itself is to blame.

“This persecution is not necessarily Buddhist persecution. Yes, there has been involvement of Buddhists monks in the process, but it is not Buddhist in its nature,” Yadav said. “The persecution is fairly complex. Due to involvement of some politically motivated monks in the process, the whole of Buddhism has been blamed.”

Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu has become infamous for his anti-Muslim rhetoric, calling the Rohingya “savages” and comparing them to mad dogs. His group, the 969 Movement, has called for Myanmar to become a pure Buddhist state and recently aligned itself with a Sri Lankan Buddhist group called Bodu Bala Sena, which holds similar anti-Muslim views.

“As a monk, that is not right. That is not a monk’s way,” said Ko Un, an internationally acclaimed poet from South Korea who is Buddhist. “In the past few years there have been so many instances of different religions fighting each other, it’s a tragedy. It’s a vicious circle.” Un spoke through a translator at a poetry reading hosted by the Chicago Public Library last Thursday.

The government of Myanmar recently presented the Rohingya with two options. The first is to classify themselves as Bengali, or illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The second option is to be subject to arrest as illegal immigrants. If classified as Bengali the undocumented Rohingya might move one step closer to citizenship. But many reject the term because they have lived in Myanmar, also known as Burma, for generations.

In 2011, Myanmar transitioned to a parliamentary government. The country was under military control for close to 50 years.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the prominent human rights activist and Noble Peace Prize winner from Myanmar, became the face of democracy for the country. She has not been as outspoken as some expected about the violence against the Rohingya. Kyi is widely considered to be interested in running for Myanmar’s presidency.