Buddhism and the Rohingya crisis

The Western media seems to be largely ignoring the Rohingya crisis. My sense is that I’ve seen some articles about how Aung Sang Suu Kyi isn’t doing, and some more articles about how nobody cares when bad things happen to Muslim people. The latter is a low-hanging fruit sort of observation.

Facebook isn’t helping. Is Facebook ever helping?

Facebook is currently facing substantial criticism for what appears to be an indifferent attitude toward promoting divisive material. Last week, ProPublica revealed that the network sold ads tailored to “Jew haters.” Days earlier, The Daily Beast reported that Russian front groups used Facebook to organize anti-refugee rallies.

Facebook is an essential platform in Burma; since the country’s infrastructure is underdeveloped, people rely on it the way Westerners rely on email. Experts often say that in Burma, Facebook is the internet—so having your account disabled can be devastating.

Laura Haigh, Amnesty International’s Burma researcher, told The Daily Beast there appears to be a targeted campaign in Burma to report Rohingya accounts to Facebook and get them shut down.

Mohammad Anwar, a Kuala Lumpur-based Rohingya activist and journalist with the site RohingyaBlogger.com, told The Daily Beast that Facebook has repeatedly deleted his posts about violence in Rakhine State, and has threatened to disable his account.

He shared screenshots with The Daily Beast of posts that Facebook removed.

One screenshot shows a post from Anwar about military activity in Burma’s Rakhine State, where most of the country’s Rohingya people live. It’s also where the Burmese military focuses its attacks.

The post, which Anwar published on Aug. 28, noted that Burmese military helicopters were flying over Rohingya villages in the Maungdaw District of Rakhine State.

“We removed the post below because it doesn’t follow the Facebook Community Standards,” read a message from Facebook over the post, which alerted him it had been deleted.

The same day, Anwar posted about members of the Burmese military burning down a Rohingya Hamlet in the Maungdaw District. That post was also removed, with the same message from Facebook citing Community Standards.

The social networking site says it will pull down posts or disable accounts that make direct threats to users; encourage suicide or self-harm; or promote terrorist organizations or organized hate groups. But beyond that, the company is vague about what kind of speech it bans; in a blog post it published on May 23 of this year, Facebook’s head of global policy management Monika Bickert said company standards “change over time” and involve cases that are “often in a grey area where people disagree.”

In another post, Anwar detailed military atrocities.

“#Rohingya homes in the downtown of #Maungdaw are still being set ablaze by the #Myanmar military & #Rakhine extremists,” he wrote.

The post was removed. Facebook later temporarily froze his account and threatened to permanently disable it.

“I have deactivated my account in frustration,” Anwar told The Daily Beast.

He now uses Twitter, under the handle @mdskar. Twitter has a much smaller reach in Burma than Facebook does.

Another Rohingya man living in Burma, who asked to be identified only as Rahim for safety reasons, told The Daily Beast that one major problem for Rohingya people using the social network is that Facebook requires people to use their real names.

“As I am a person who writes mostly about Rohingya who are under ethnic cleansing of Myanmar, I have been closely monitored by the government,” he said in a text sent over WhatsApp. “Therefore I fear using my real name and picture on Facebook.”

As usual, CounterPunch makes interesting observations from left field. The perpetrators are Buddhists, and that doesn’t process for Western normal people, either:

Academia is in fact rife with examples of scholarship that touts the tolerance and inclusiveness of Buddhists and the general argument is nothing new. According to Thomas A. Tweed, Professor of History at Notre Dame University, increasing awareness of religious diversity due to colonial expansion and Christian missionizing led Euro-American Enlightenment intellectuals repelled by Christian sectarianism to consider Buddhism to fit the bill of the “natural religion” (or “perennial philosophy”) they sought, one that exuded “tolerance” toward people of different faiths and was amenable to scientific progress. So convinced were they that some, such as the nineteenth century German-American scholar Paul Carus, even chastised Asian Buddhists when they launched polemical assaults on Christian missionaries, accusing the Asians of using language the “Buddha certainly would not…” So was born the pervasive myth, characteristically articulated by the early twentieth century Swedish-American Theosophist Herman Vetterling, that Buddhism is “a religion of noble tolerance, of universal brotherhood, of righteousness and justice,” and that in its growth as the religion of a global community it had not “caused the spilling of a drop of blood.”

Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Michael Jerryson, picks up where Tweed signs off to show that the tendency to associate Buddhism with tolerance did not die in the early twentieth century or remain bound in an ivory tower. In the wake of World War II, it found its way into the writings of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, marching further forward in time with such works as Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and by the 1980s assumed political dimensions in the form of the Free Tibet Movement. And finally, who can forget (even if you want to) Keanu Reeves in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha…

“No religion has a monopoly on ‘violent people’,” Jerryson astutely concludes, “nor does any one religion have a greater propensity for violence.” All religions are vast complexes of thought and institutions and devotees of each can always find legitimacy for hostility or hospitality toward the other depending on mundane needs or wants. It is for this very reason that the apparent disconnect between historical Buddhism and the sustained Euro-American myth of its tolerance is as malignant as the perpetual dehumanization of Islam and Muslims is cancerous. These Buddhists have long been the good guys and those Muslims the bad in this lore. Each is a necessary fiber in the liberal fabric of Euro-American imagination that veils the gaze of international law when it comes to the murder and displacement of the Rohingya.

My interest in Buddhism had a lot to do with Alan Watts and reading about psychedelics. Perennial philosophy stuff. Before that, it had to do with martial arts movies about Shaolin monks. It’s not true, but Bodhidharma is said to be the originator of kung fu.

I get the point this passage is making about lecturing people about their own religion, but hypocrisy isn’t limited to Western people. I think it’s absolutely acceptable for people of any religion to observe that American evangelical Christianity is a destructive cult that would make the baby Jesus cry. The Klan is very serious about its Kristianity.

It’s always fair game to hold people accountable for things that they say themselves. Burning down all the Muslim villages contradicts any reasonable-minded interpretation of Buddhism, and anyone in the world can say so.

Another thing that contributes to perceptions of tolerance is the fact that East Asian religions stress “non-dualism,” and they aren’t thought of as mutually exclusive creeds. People might do Buddhist, Shinto, Confucian, and Taoist stuff at different times on different days for different reasons. The ultimate truth is considered to be nonverbal, so intellectual disagreements are beside the point if you’re in a good mood.

If Buddhism is a practice, it doesn’t matter if you also go to church (except that church promotes suffering).

On paper, it’s true that Buddhism is more tolerant. In practice, it isn’t necessarily. Western perceptions of Eastern religions mostly come from paper. Most Buddhists don’t meditate, didn’t you hear? I’m curious how many Western people into Buddhism know about “merit”, or the thing where Japanese monasteries pray for the emperor?

It’s been a theological point of contention whether or not it’s bad to kill icchantikas, which someone who’s sticking to their Islam surely must be.

Buddhism holds that most people aren’t enlightened, so unenlightened behavior by Buddhists is less surprising than un-Christian behavior by Christians, in a sense.

Also note that inflicting the fate of the Rohingya on America’s Muslim and Spanish-speaking communities is the goal of conservative Christians, who have the border enforcement apparatus at their disposal.