Burma’s Genocide: A Panel Discussion, Plus 5 Things You Can Do Right Now
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:
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.
- 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.
- Aye Min Thant, a Burmese-American immigrant and co-founder of Saddha: Buddhists for Peace.
- Brad Sugar, Director of American Jewish World Service’s Midwest region.
- Jess Benjamin (yours truly), Board member representing the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.
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!
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.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
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.