Tea House

Daily Perspectives and Stories on Buddhist Trends, People, and Ideas

Tag: rohingya

The Right Balance: Negotiating Buddhist Power in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan commandos march during a Victory Day parade in the southern town of Matara on 18 May 2014

After a mob attacked a UN safe house for Rohingya refugees on 26 September near the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne came out with some of the strongest public words I’ve seen leveled by a Buddhist public servant against fellow, self-proclaimed Buddhists. “As a Buddhist I am ashamed at what happened,” Senaratne told the press a day after the attack. “Mothers carrying very young children were forced out of their safe house which was attacked by a mob led by a handful of monks. This is not what the Buddha taught. We have to show compassion to these refugees. These monks who carried out the attacks are actually not monks, but animals.”

Strong words from a government that’s struggling to convince a skeptical Buddhist establishment it isn’t attempting to undermine Buddhism’s interests. One might read Senaratne’s condemnation as a subtle plea to mainstream Buddhists: “we are sincere, critical Buddhists.” Not only has it been accused by detractors of pandering to religious minorities, the center-right United National Party is also being pressured to underwrite the state patronage and protection of Buddhism that is guaranteed by Sri Lanka’s current constitution.

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No Easy Answers: Bangladesh’s Buddhists and Rohingya Refugees

Rohingya refugees walk next to huts in a makeshift camp in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. From Hindustan Times

The tragedy of Myanmar’s displacement of Rohingya Muslims, aside from its complex ethnic, historical, and religious backdrop, is exacerbated by two essential political realities. The first is that Western media and governments erroneously saw what it wished to see in Aung San Suu Kyi throughout her difficult struggle against the Burmese junta. When she decided to become the country’s state counselor in 2016, she did so under a constitution that favors the continuity of military authority and acquiesced to a context of government that does not fit with the simplified dichotomy of oppressor versus oppressed. Myanmar is also far more ethnically and politically diverse than many care to appreciate.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s father was the founder of Myanmar’s independence movement and the modern Burmese army; her mother was a high-level diplomat in the newly created country. She has the full backing of the Buddhist sangha and its representative organization, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee. She is therefore understandably and justifiably a nationalist. As a statesman and diplomat, her priority is the political integrity of Myanmar, nothing more and nothing less. So she isn’t unaware of international sentiment turning against her; she’s as cosmopolitan as they come. Rather, it’s far more likely that she sees the criticism against her and has decided that there are more pressing urgencies. Such hard choices are dilemmas that haunt many a politician.

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