You may have never heard of the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar (formerly Burma) before this month, but it’s been in the news lately for some significant human rights violations. Rohingya Muslims–one of the most persecuted minorities in the world–have been fleeing the country by the hundreds of thousands since the military began systematically targeting them with acts of fatal violence. This batch of attacks began August 25, and has caught the attention of the entire world with the U.N. commissioner calling them a ‘textbook example of ethnic cleansing.’
You may be surprised to learn that Myanmar is a Buddhist country, meaning that those carrying out these violent acts on the Rohingya are Buddhist. Buddhism is generally regarded in the West as one of the most peaceful religions, yet in Myanmar, they are reportedly targeting this minority group with the intention of eliminating them. What’s more, the State Counselor of Myanmar is 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi is being accused of being complicit in the violence that is occurring in her country. Her position does not afford her any power over the military so technically she doesn’t have the power to stop the genocide, but she has not spoken out against it, and she has been using a Trump-esque ‘both sides’ rhetoric when pressed about the conflict.
Canada has an interesting connection to this too. In 2011, the Canadian government bestowed honorary Canadian citizenship on Suu Kyi as recognition of her global humanitarian work. At the beginning of September, Justin Trudeau actually met with Myanmar’s leader and asked her to ‘raise her voice’ for the Muslims being persecuted in her country. Canadians, however, seem to want to see more action from the government. Over the weekend, hundreds of protesters across Canada called for the government to revoke Suu Kyi’s citizenship and to commit to taking in more refugees from the country.
The conflict between the Buddhists and the Rohingya in Myanmar dates back as far as the Second World War when the country (then called Burma) was occupied by the British. When they were invaded by the Japanese during the war, the Buddhists sided with the invaders and the Rohingya remained on the side of the British. At the end of the war, the Buddhists in the country became resentful of the Rohingya which led to a whole host of other conflicts, especially once the country became independent of British rule in 1948 (you can read more about it here).
Another thing to note is that the Buddhism practiced in Myanmar is not the type of Buddhism we tend to be familiar with in the West. Theravada Buddhism does not recognize the Dalai Lama, and is militant in its effort to keep other ideologies and religions in check.
Aung San Suu Kyi did not attend the United Nations General Assembly held this week, at which the crisis in her country was a key topic. A spokesperson for the Counselor has said that she will address the conflict in a speech tomorrow, though it is unclear if this will be a condemnation of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ or more ‘both sides’ talk.