Rohingya and soul searching in Myanmar

Myanmar is making international headlines again and the news is not good. Tragedy for the thousands and thousands of people who are losing their homes, ancestral land, possessions and fleeing to neighboring country Bangladesh… hundreds are also losing their lives and their loved ones. The story of Rohingya ethnic minority has repeated through the years but the current crisis is a new low.

Myanmar (Burma) holds a special place in my heart. Peaceroads was inspired by my friends from this beautiful but broken country. We have spent many hours talking, working and praying for peace, freedom, restoration and reconciliation in this nation. Many are already experiencing peace and freedom but not everyone. Not yet … and it will take even longer now.

It is racism but this is not just about race. It is religious but this is not just about religion (most Rohingya are Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist country). Nationalism, economics, politics, military power, etc… It is complicated, yes, and long story. There are violent and angry people on all sides, yes, and someone’s freedom fighter is someone else’ terrorist. We don’t know all the facts, yes, and Myanmar government accuses international media of misinformation (while not allowing them access to the conflict area!). Still, many facts are too obvious, stories are real, pictures speak for themselves and there is suffering for the whole world to see.

This is why international community is reacting with such sadness, criticism and challenge to the current leaders of Myanmar. For decades and decades people and governments in democratic countries supported the long journey toward freedom, dignity and rights of the people of Burma, including demand to release Aung Sun Suu Kyi from house arrest and let her lead the nation. Now many of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates are challenging her to speak out, act fast and defend the rights of ALL people.

I deeply care about real and lasting reconciliation in Myanmar and right now it is facing a dangerous moment. There are plenty of evil forces that are ready to exploit this fault line and make it even more violent (Al Qaeda, ISIS and other such groups are looking at this as a new cause to support). It is like a perfect storm brewing if there is no immediate and courageous national leadership and brave decisions. It also requires a deep soul searching in the whole society – who is this country for, who is my neighbor?

I am no expert but I know enough about Myanmar’s pain of the past, the struggles of today and the hopes for the future. This is not just about human rights; this is about right human relationships. How will these communities live? What will happen to these displaced people? If they are allowed return, how do they rebuild their lives? What will make them feel safe, protected and wanted? What about justice? What about forgiveness?

I want to copy an open letter by Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, which expresses many of my own thoughts…

“My dear Aung San Su Kyi

I am now elderly, decrepit and formally retired, but breaking my vow to remain silent on public affairs out of profound sadness about the plight of the Muslim minority in your country, the Rohingya.

In my heart you are a dearly beloved younger sister. For years I had a photograph of you on my desk to remind me of the injustice and sacrifice you endured out of your love and commitment for Myanmar’s people. You symbolised righteousness. In 2010 we rejoiced at your freedom from house arrest, and in 2012 we celebrated your election as leader of the opposition.

Your emergence into public life allayed our concerns about violence being perpetrated against members of the Rohingya. But what some have called ‘ethnic cleansing’ and others ‘a slow genocide’ has persisted – and recently accelerated. The images we are seeing of the suffering of the Rohingya fill us with pain and dread.

We know that you know that human beings may look and worship differently – and some may have greater firepower than others – but none are superior and none inferior; that when you scratch the surface we are all the same, members of one family, the human family; that there are no natural differences between Buddhists and Muslims; and that whether we are Jews or Hindus, Christians or atheists, we are born to love, without prejudice. Discrimination doesn’t come naturally; it is taught.

My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep. A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country.

It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country; it is adding to our pain.

As we witness the unfolding horror we pray for you to be courageous and resilient again. We pray for you to speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of your people. We pray for you to intervene in the escalating crisis and guide your people back towards the path of righteousness again.

God bless you.

Love

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Hermanus, South Africa”

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photos from internet

 

“This Little Light Of Mine” in Charlottesville and elsewhere

I pondered this post for days. I was in the USA when the tragedy in Charlottesville took place. While many are discussing the statements and views of the current president, Donald Trump, and other political leaders, I have tried to find the ‘ordinary’ voices. The local people from this university town; the voices of faith communities; the family of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed.

People are shocked about the extent of incivility and division. Many have experienced real fear. I know the emotion of fear. While never facing a large crowd of young men shouting Nazi slogans, I have experienced groups who try to intimidate and bully. The tactics are always the same. Physical intimidation, verbal abuse and determination to make you go home and never bother.

More recent experiences were in Latvia when couple of years ago I participated in a very small rally to show support and solidarity with those who help refugees. The gathered group was young, quite reserved and calm until these buff men showed up and attempted to intimidate the small crowd. I would certainly label them as ‘white supremacists’ who clearly expressed racist views. All dressed in black, they tried to provoke a physical reaction like shouting, pushing, shoving or punching. They did not get the reaction they desired.

Another time in Riga I went to a lecture addressing Islamophobia. Again the audience was mostly young, curious minds who wanted to learn, to ask questions, to discuss and to express their opinions in a civilized way. Right away I spotted a group who scattered among the audience – some sitting in a front row, talking loudly, interrupting the lecture and some sitting in the back to shout over the crowd. One of the guys in the back  shouting things about Muslims and terrorists and immigrants had a very thundering voice and I was almost scared to turn around to see his face. I felt like he would punch me if I dared to stare at him. He did not punch anyone but did throw around some chairs before leaving the room and called the lecturer “damned idiot who will go to hell”.

After the lecture I turned around to greet my friends – two young girls – who looked absolutely horrified. They were shocked to experience this kind of behavior. It is one thing to see it on You Tube, right? Quite another to experience in a real life. This may seem trivial and naive when there is so much actual violence and wars around the world. Still we, Westerners, have grown so accustomed to peace and civility that we are shocked when we see such an erosion or absence of it. I know my American friends feel the same way – they are shocked at the current level of public incivility and disrespect.

What if Charlottesville was my home? (or Berlin where a small neo-Nazi rally took place today?) Knowing that these out-of-town people will come and turn my city in a spectacle of bigotry and division. Stay away? Stay in my church and pray? Or go to the Emancipation Park and lock arms with the clergy, people of faith and all those singing “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…

I recommend to watch the memorial service for Heather Heyer. Her father said with deep emotion: ” We need to stop all this stuff. We need to forgive each other. I think this is what the Lord would want us.”

Around the world we need to do many things and surely forgiveness is one of them. We are in a desperate need of humility, love in action, listening to each other, kindness and moral courage – in real life in real time. At the same time we need to have moral clarity about dangerous ideas. One friend posted on Facebook: “You don’t get to be both a Nazi and a proud American (added – or proud Latvian or proud German or proud Russian) We literally had a war about this.”

Rec Walk

Photos from personal archive

Earth Day and dimming the lights on our bright future

I want to write more about climate change and environmental problems but I often don’t know what to say. On one hand so much has been said and written already. On the other hand it feels like so many influential and powerful people who can decide and implement real solutions still live on planet Mars, not planet Earth. One very powerful and influential world leader recently said that he has an ‘open mind’ about it and then someone else commented that there is a thin line between an ‘open mind’ and ‘no mind’.

I don’t need any more convincing. Our beautiful home planet Earth is screaming for attention, begging for help and solidarity and shouting out warnings left and right. Who can count how many times we have heard the words  that “we are near the edge”, that “we need to act together now” and that “tomorrow will be too late to reverse many of the trends”.

This week I was in the mood for some intelligent conversation on economics, sustainable development and the changing world order. So I listened to Jeffrey Sachs (follow the link) who is known as one of the world’s leading experts on economic development and the fight against poverty. He also teaches in Columbia University, USA and has been a special advisor to the UN Secretary General for almost two decades. People like him speak with knowledge but also with hope and vision because human beings have never been smarter and more technologically advanced to address these problems and actually solve them.

We listen to the science and we know that there are some conflicting views but there is an overwhelming consensus that we, the people, are bringing some of the systems to irreversible breaking point. Previous generations procrastinated but we cannot afford to. Just ask the Chinese government if they have an ‘open mind’ about it. I think it is high on the list of their priorities because 1,3 billion people will let them know how unhappy they are if these disasters are not averted.

I don’t need the scientists when I live in Thailand and see the effects of fast development. The city is growing, the shopping malls and centers are popping up like mushrooms (I think of all the air conditioning needed in this hot climate), the water canals are so full of chemicals and the drainage stinks like there is pure poison running under the ground, Then there is the ever-worsening smog because of cars and slash-and-burn practices. The forests are getting cleared for quick money and the fastest way is to simply burn it. There were days when I was sweeping ashes in our apartment. And don’t get me started about the plastic on the ground and in the waters!

Few months ago we had the Taize ecumenical gathering of Christians from many traditions and European nations in Riga, Latvia. There was a seminar titled “What can we do for our common home, the earth? Reflection on urgent environmental questions based on Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si” (follow the link to download). There was lots of facts and good research, lots of good discussions and practical ideas on personal level. What can I as an individual do in my own life to lessen the ecological impact on our systems – water, biodiversity, non-renewable resources, etc?

I will admit I have not read Pope Francis’ encyclical yet but intend to. I have heard much about it but not enough in the church circles. Actually to those of us who attend church regularly I want to ask, “how many sermons have you heard on creation care and environment?” I think many of us would reply, “None!” I have hear one sermon and that was a few years ago in Wales. I still remember all the points and stories and the Bible verses because it got my attention.

“For most of us and most of the time, we can’t know what will happen. But what we can know is what should happen and that is a “should” from a moral point of view. We can know what’s important to happen. With technical knowledge, we can know what is possible to happen. And then our responsibility as moral agents is to make what is possible to happen.” (Jeffrey Sachs)

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(photos from personal archive)