Of a total population of less than 1 million Rohingya present in Myanmar in mid August this year, more than 600,000 have already been pushed out of the country by a concerted military operation led by the Myanmar military authorities.
These military operations included the burning down of villages (visible from satellite imagery), widespread reports of extensive use of rape as a weapon of war, the extrajudicial killing of civilian men, women, and children, as well as laying down mines on the paths taken by those fleeing the carnage towards the border with Bangladesh.
The UN, in its characteristic conservative tone has described the ongoing intervention by the Myanmar army as ‘textbook ethnic cleansing’, while other world leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron have more accurately described it as ‘genocide’.
As for the international response? My conversations with Western diplomats circles seem to have conceded as inevitable that the entire remaining Rohingya population in Myanmar will be pushed over the border, and everyone is resigned to just waiting for it to be over and done.
But one group of people who are not quite so complacent are those who are perpetrating this genocide and those who are urging them on. Their goal is within reach, but they will not take their success for granted until they see it accomplished.
So what do these people fear if obviously not the wrath of the international community or censure from the West? Apparently, the unwelcome intervention of human empathy and remorse. On 30 October, a revered Burmese Buddhist monk by the name of Sitagu Sayadaw has given a rather telling sermon to army officers at the Bayintnaung garrison and military training school in Kayin.
We are all failing to identify the religious bigotry dimension of a genocide carried out under the auspices of holy and revered Buddhist monksDr. Azeem Ibrahim
The Pali chronicle
The sermon is 3 hours long but the translated transcript of one small section of it is certainly worth reading (here). It involves a tale from the Pali chronicle the Mahavamsa, detailing a 5th Century CE civil war in Sri Lanka between Pali Buddhists and Tamil non-Buddhists.
The conflict kills ‘millions’ of Tamils, and after his victory, the triumphant Pali Buddhist king Duttagamani is unable to savor his achievement of winning the conflict and politically reuniting the country due to remorse over the loss of life.
But the king is swiftly released from his anguish by eight helpful Buddhist ‘saints’, who show up at his palace and proceed to put his mind at ease: yes, millions of beings have been destroyed in the conflict, but only one and a half of the millions of Tamils were in fact humans: one of the Tamils had adopted the 5 precepts of Buddhism, and another one accepted the precepts and “taken the three refuges in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha”.
The death of those two was unfortunate, but the slaughter of millions of non-Buddhists is in no way a problem, and will not impede king Duttagamani’s ascent to heaven upon his death.
So if you are one of those foot soldiers in the Myanmar army who is ordered to rape a young Rohingya girl for religion and country, you need not consult your conscience: she’s a Muslim, ergo not a human being. You are doing the work of a Buddhist saint.
If you are one of the officers ordering wanton extrajudicial killings of unarmed civilians, you are doing nothing more than your solemn duty for the protection of the sanctity of the Buddhist state. These ‘beings’ are not Buddhist, and therefore pose a threat to the religious purity of the state and need to be removed and/or destroyed.
Western audiences are accustomed with the idea of using the Christian religion or Islam to encourage and justify mass murder (crusades, jihads, the European Wars of Religion etc.), but genocide in the name of nirvana by and towards beings which expect to be reincarnated is a much more bizarre proposition.
Still, there we have it. Zen masters inciting and justifying genocide to soldiers who are in the middle of carrying out a genocide. And we are all failing to identify the religious bigotry dimension of a genocide carried out under the auspices of holy and revered Buddhist monks.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.