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Burma’s Genocide: A Panel Discussion, Plus 5 Things You Can Do Right Now

Panelist Aye Min Thant presents in Chicago via videoconference. The remaining five panelists, pictured below, are (L to R): Jeanne Hallacy, Dr. Mohammed Zaher Sahloul, Tauseef Akbar, Brad Sugar, and Jess Benjamin.

As many readers know, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, now being called a genocide by growing numbers of United Nations officials, has reached a tipping point.

Though persecution against this stateless Muslim minority has been perpetrated since the country received independence from Britain in 1948, many are only waking up to the news now. It is estimated that nearly one million Rohingya have fled Myanmar since the late 1970s, and the military-backed government’s campaign of destruction — coupled with a refusal to grant Rohingya the rights and protections of citizenship — has made a return to Myanmar both unappealing and, in many cases, impossible for Rohingya refugees.

Further troubling is the name in which the genocide is being carried out: 

Buddhist nationalism.

With all of this suffering abounding, I recently had the honor of serving on a panel addressing the crisis, hosted by the Chicago Theological Seminary. At this event I wore three hats: (1) committed BPF Board member; (2) Insight mindfulness and Vipassana practitioner in a lineage directly indebted to Burmese Buddhism; and (3) deeply concerned and slightly helpless-feeling human. Fortunately, I was surrounded by a group of thoughtful, passionate experts and activists who shared their inspiring stories, wisdom, and calls to action.

Key Presenters

  • Jeanne Hallacy, director of Sittwe, a short, poignant documentary viewing the crisis through the eyes of one Buddhist teenager and one Muslim teenager, both living in Mynamar’s Rakhine state.
  • Dr. Mohammed Zaher Sahloul, Syrian-American doctor and founder of MedGlobal, an NGO providing medical relief in disaster areas.
  • Jess Benjamin (yours truly), Board member representing the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.


Five of six panelists sit in red chairs before the room, backed by a wood panel wall and large drop-down screens. L to R: (1) Jeanne Hallacy, (2) Dr. Mohammed Zaher Sahloul, (3) Tauseef Akbar, (4) Brad Sugar, (5) Jess Benjamin.

Key Takeaways

The panelists did an excellent job of framing the current Rohingya crisis in terms of its complex history, reminding us that the intergenerational trauma of colonialism, along with a harsh 50+ year military dictatorship that the country is still emerging from, has enabled cycles of violence that continue to play out in everyday interactions.

Buddhists who once peacefully protested military rule during the Saffron Revolution are now siding with the very same military in oppressing and othering the Rohingya minority.


All My Ancient Twisted Karma:

Buddhism and Intergenerational Trauma

May those who suffer be without suffering, may those who fear be without fear, may those who grieve be without grief — may all living creatures be so!

Mahāparittaṁ, The Great Safeguard

If nationalist violence is antithetical to the core of Buddhist teachings, which encourage us to act from a place of fierce compassion and non-harm, how can we reconcile what is happening? True collective liberation doesn’t come at the expense of certain groups, and it doesn’t mean just a little more liberation for Buddhists.

While it is easy to point the finger in a binary framework of blame, deeper investigation reveals a country still reeling from centuries of oppressive colonial and military rule, and a military that is using Buddhist ethnic nationalism to foment conflict and stir up unfounded fear of the Rohingya in a thinly-veiled attempt to consolidate their own power.

Though it may not be agreeable, one can see how these conditions are the ripe breeding grounds for turmoil and tension, enabling oppressed peoples to either look the other way or continue to perpetuate cycles of violence out of fear and desperation. Dr. Joy DeGruy and Dr. Gabor Maté are two notable scholar-practitioners who have explored intergenerational trauma grounded in historical realities of oppression: slavery, colonization, and the criminalization of substance addiction. We can also find wisdom from Lama Rod Owens in Radical Dharma:

Thus, trauma becomes a cyclical experience of continuous unfolding, of continuous movement through places without consent as it perpetuates terror, despair, hopelessness, and disconnection. It is a voyage that never docks at any port, but is suspended, unexamined.

Such a long-standing and complex crisis does not have an easy fix. Instead, it requires the engagement of many different people and organizations close to the issue. BPF has been fortunate to partner with, learn from, and support the work of some incredible Buddhist-based organizations, including Saddha: Buddhists for Peace; the Clear View Project, founded by BPF’s former ED Hozan Alan Senauke; and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists.


5 Ways You Can Take Action Right Now

Since the most pressing audience question from the event was “What can we do??,” I’ll share here the main action items I took away from the evening, and I invite others to contribute additional thoughts, resources, and actions in the comments as well.


1. Listen to and learn from those closest to and mostly deeply impacted by the crisis!

2. Watch and share this illuminating video produced by Saddha: Buddhists for Peace, addressing the conflict in Myanmar from a group of young Burmese-Americans to their elders.

3. Educate yourself and others by reading and sharing these outstanding articles (here and here) by Khin Mai Aung, a Burmese-American writer and former lawyer at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

4. Visit the Burma Task Force website, an excellent resource for concrete, legislative-based actions, toolkits and alerts, and up-to-date information.

5. Donate to and/or volunteer with organizations doing important, on-the-ground work, like BRAC, International Organization for Migration (IOM), Doctors Without Borders, MedGlobal, UNHCR, Action Against Hunger, and Burma Task Force.

A recording of the panel event is here.

Jess Benjamin serves on the Board of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. They collaborate on media projects related to spirituality, science, and social justice, and work with nonprofits to raise money and awareness for issues such as food security, education reform, and community health. They have been practicing in the Vipassana tradition since 2005 and are currently a mindfulness meditation teacher.

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Comments (7)

  • Arindam

    First and foremost: there is no ‘genocide’. Bengalis are in absolutely no risk of being wiped out; there are at least a hundred million of us in Bangladesh alone, and a comparable number in India as well. If you want to worry about genocide, I’d suggest considering the plight of the Yezidis.

    Secondly, the anti-Muslim offensive was triggered by Islamic terrorism. For details, please see:

    Myanmar-The Rohingya Conundrum: Regional Implications

    Finally, if you really want to help the Bengali Muslim refugees (‘Rohingyas’) then you can pressure the members of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference) to either take in some of them, or provide more financial aid to Bangladesh. Right now, they seem to care more for an American embassy in Jerusalem than hundreds of thousands of their co-religionists.

  • Shaun Bartone

    This is genocide, according to UN law, and Myanmar Buddhists share responsibility for the violence of the military in their own country.

    Regardless of ethnic history, there is no excuse for supporting a genocide in which Buddhists–as the privileged religious majority–benefit from the mass murder and forced expulsion of a religious minority. The doctor on the panel discussion (video below) shared reports that Buddhist monks are actually setting fire to Rohingya homes and throwing children into the fire. Jeanne Hallacy reports that women and young girls are being raped as a tactic of war. Another panelist reports that the forced expulsion of the Rohingya has happened four times in Myanmar’s modern history.

    As you said, Jess: “Buddhists who once peacefully protested military rule during the Saffron Revolution are now siding with the very same military in oppressing and othering the Rohingya minority.” This is a conscious choice to support violence and genocide.

    I know from working with PTSD that the violence you do to others only INCREASES the trauma that you experience in yourself, whether that trauma is personal, familial or generational. ‘Hatred does not dispel hatred, but love alone dispels hatred.’ This wisdom is a prescription for healing trauma as much as it is a method for resolving ethnic conflict.

    There are costs for resistance, yes, but look at the power of the resistance movement against the Trump Regime in the US—we are pushing back against white supremacy and defeating a fascist regime.

    At the very least, as Buddhists, the Burmese must condemn the violence and refuse to support the military regime. As the Dalai Lama said about monks who sexually exploit their students, if you point out their wrong-doing, you are actually helping them to follow an ethical Buddhist path.

    Panel Discussion on violence against Rohingya:

    BBC report on mass murder of Rohingya:

    Burma Task Force:

    MSF (Doctors w/o Borders) estimates more than 6,700 Rohingya have been killed in Myanmar

    MSF report (Doctors w/o Borders) on the cause of deaths of Rohingya:
    69% of the violence-related deaths were caused by gunshots
    9% were due to being burnt to death in their houses
    5% were beaten to death.

  • Arindam

    Given that the UN is an illegitimate globalist organization (like the IMF, WTO, etc.. – no one voted for it), itself responsible for mass murder in Iraq (the sanctions regime in the 1990s) – there’s no reason why anyone in Myanmar or elsewhere should abide by its definitions of genocide or anything else.

    If these individuals really care for the Myanmar Muslims, they should pressure the governments in North America to let in the refugees (just like Germany let them in two years ago). I’m sure Bangladesh will be more than happy to share the burden with the United States.

    One last thing: the ‘resistance’ against the regime in Washington is a joke. First and foremost, most don’t even realize that the creature in the Oval Office is a Zionist puppet (this should be blatantly obvious after the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem). Secondly, they still don’t mention the 2016 election fraud – as exposed by Greg Palast and Mark Crispin Miller: how pitiful that the American public got duped by a bunch of Republicans.

    And they have the temerity to lecture Myanmar on what it should do?

    ‘Mind your own business. It is in dire need of attention.’ (Major C. H. Douglas).

  • Stephen Antle

    For pity’s sake, this is not about definitions. Don’t be so petty. What the Burmese military and Buddhist nationalists are doing to the Rohingya is unacceptable in any human society. Full stop.

    You can’t credibly tell the West to mind its own business about Myanmar and in the same breath suggest it take in the Rohingya refugees. where I live we call that trying to suck and blow at the same time. Can’t be done. The West is helping the refugees. Ordinary people here are helping in the refugee camps. Others are financially supporting them. That gives the West the right to redress the causes of the Rohingya being refugees. If the West were to “mind its own business” that would leave the ulema to take care of the Rohingya itself. Good luck to them with that.

    Most importantly: “Mankind is my business. The common welfare is my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence are all my business. The dealings of my trade are but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.” (Charles Dickens) Your business too, Arindam. Everyone’s business.

  • Arindam

    It is not for me or anyone else to speak on behalf of ‘humanity’ and to arrogantly declare what is and what is not acceptable in a human society: one size does not fit all. After all, I may be personally scandalized by the mutilation of children – but that’s doesn’t entitle me to lecture, let alone compel, Israel, Islamic countries, African countries, the United States, etc… with regard to circumcision. I seriously doubt such lectures would do any good either; if anything, they’d probably backfire. Aesop’s fable regarding the North Wind and the Sun comes to mind.

    The West should indeed mind its own business – and if some Western hearts bleed for the Myanmar Muslims, they can indeed bring them into their own countries – because the migration of people into one’s country is indeed one’s own business. There is no contradiction here: I’m not suggesting that the West take in Myanmar’s Muslims (it doesn’t concern me either way) – I’m simply pointing out that this is what the bleeding hearts should be encouraging if their concerns about Myanmar’s Muslims are sincere.

    The West has no right to interfere in Myanmar or other non-Western countries. Of course, it will still try to interfere – but will invariably meet with a hostile Asian response, (not just from China, but also from India and probably Russia as well). So minding your own business makes sound diplomatic sense as well.

    The Myanmar Muslims – like Muslim communities the world over, are already under the ambit of the ulema: no amount of Western aid will change that. If anything, it might even entrench the position of the ulema, who will point to foreign aid as the will of Allah, and demand even greater submission in return. The kindness of infidels ends up fuelling the fires of fanaticism.

    Thus, the wisest response to a situation like this, is to leave it be and let it sort itself out.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    A few things that I think are important to note about this situation.

    1. The oppression of the Rohingya is decades old, and includes at least three separate periods between the 1970s and today of significant flareup to the point of mass numbers of Rohingya fleeing the country.

    2. The Rohingya have been in Burma for centuries now. They are not a recent arrival. Even so, they have never been officially recognized by the government, which leaves them even more vulnerable to persecution. As such, a large percentage of the current refugee population in Bangladesh do not want to return to Burma.

    3. The Rohingya are only the most visible of the many ethnic minority groups who have suffered serve and deadly repression over the past 60-75 years in Burma, post colonial period. I personally spent several years working with Karen refugees, who’s people experienced similar levels of hostility during and right after WWII, including Myanmar military led massacres and village burning not unlike what we’re seeing now with the Rohingya. A more recent campaign by the Myanmar military during the 2000s led to several hundred thousand Karen fleeing the country and resettling in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and parts of Europe.

    4. 19th and 20th century British Colonialism played a huge role in creating the kinds of ethnic and religious divides that have lead to massacres and genocide.

  • Andre

    It is sad to see a people deprived of their rights in which
    extremely hard and condescending to tolerate violence against a minority group. I hope the UN can do something in favor of this people.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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