It’s sad to see this happen in the home of Thailand’s neighbour. The cruel attacks and random killings that are common in warfare, but leave a scar on humanity, are the last thing we want to see.
But history repeats itself in Myanmar, where over 200 Rohingya villages in far western Rakhine state were burned to the ground in Myanmar’s latest brutal military campaign that started last month. The crackdown has so far forced over 420,000 ethnic Rohingya, a third of the roughly 1.1 million Muslim minority, to flee across the border to Bangladesh.
Myanmar said that around 430, the majority of them Rohingya insurgents, were killed in the fighting, which it said was in retaliation for attacks on police posts and an army base on August 25. But the UN put the figure as high as 1,000, most of them being Rohingya civilians.
While Myanmar claimed that the military were only conducting “clearance operations” to root out rebels, many surviving Rohingya shared similar stories that Myanmar soldiers fired indiscriminately on their villages, burning their homes and threatening them to leave or die. Pictures of anguished, starving, and desperate Rohingya -- many of them injured in the violence -- in a mass exodus to the overcrowded Bangladesh refugee camps have shocked the world. According to Unicef, 60% of those Rohingya refugees are children.
As a Buddhist myself, I couldn’t help but think that the fact that Myanmar is a Buddhist country means nothing as long as its government still cannot show mercy to its people
Many have compared the scale of this humanitarian crisis with the Rwandan exodus of 1994 when over 2 million people fled to neighbouring countries after a brutal genocide. Nigeria’s government also expressed deep regret at the “horrendous human suffering” of the Rohingya, saying that it was very reminiscent of what happened in Rwanda in 1994 and in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995.
Despite the apparent violence against the Rohingya, however, not many people in Myanmar, where 90% of the population are Buddhist, have condemned it. Not even Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now the country’s de facto leader.
The freedom icon, who made her name as a champion of human rights, has been heavily criticised for keeping mum on the issue, and there were widespread calls for the Nobel Committee to strip her of the prize. When she broke her silence last week, the international community remained disappointed as she tried to tone down the crisis while ignoring the army abuses altogether.
It’s hurtful to imagine life for the Rohingya, who the UN described as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. These poor Muslims have reportedly suffered years of injustice at the hands of their own government, and also the Myanmar Buddhists who only regard them as “Bengalis,” or illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
They are denied citizenship and fundamental rights even though they have lived there for generations. They are unwanted in almost every country they have sought refuge in during previous waves of persecution. Those countries, including Thailand, only agreed to offer humanitarian aid and tried every means to push them back to the sea.
Bangladesh, which had already been earlier housing more than 100,000 Rohingya refugees, also wanted Myanmar to take them back. It’s impossible to turn a cold shoulder to the plight of the Rohingya and I’m certain that many must be wondering if Myanmar has felt any guilt for causing them such torment.
It’s not a secret that hatred and fear of an Islamic takeover fanned by Buddhist hardliners over the years is the genesis behind Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya, as they are seen as a threat to the country and its religion -- Buddhism. Still, nothing in the world can justify what Myanmar has done to them.
As a Buddhist myself, I couldn’t help but think that the fact that Myanmar is a Buddhist country means nothing as long as its government still cannot show mercy to its people. Instead of resorting to atrocious means that led to what the UN called “ethnic cleansing,” Myanmar should have tried to act based on morality as much as possible.
Suu Kyi once said that the issue of the Rohingya Muslims is one of the biggest challenges facing her government but I think there is always a door open to a peaceful solution, only if Myanmar learns to put aside the sense of racial and religious hostility towards the Rohingya and treat them with humanity. In reality, Myanmar has turned a deaf ear on demands to stop the persecution in the same way it has turned a blind eye to the fact that the Rohingya are our fellow humans and deserve compassion.
Myanmar is not only setting itself as a bad example as a Buddhist country, it’s also adding another ugly chapter to its own history that will shame many generations to come.
Patcharawalai Sanyanusin is a writer of the Life section of the Bangkok Post. This article first appeared on the Bangkok Post.