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”

tutu

photos from internet

 

The suffering of ‘unwanted’ people

This week I returned to my current home in Thailand and to the news headlines about the human tragedy in the Andaman Sea. This tragedy has been going on for many years since I have lived here. The story of suffering starts in Burma (official name – Myanmar) and it affects the whole region of Southeast Asia.

If you watch the news or read the headlines, you will see the boats crowded with starving, desperate people who nobody wants. Nations send their navy ships to pull them back out to sea. Thailand does not want them, Malaysia does not want them, Indonesia does not want them… but the source of tragedy is that their home does not want them. The Rohingya people are a large ethnic group, living in the western state of Rakhine. Most of them live in Burma and their religion is Islam.

International human rights groups describe them as one of the most persecuted people in the world. Since 1982 they are denied citizenship in Burma and the current government continues denying them citizen’s rights. They are not allowed to travel without a permission. There were even previous restrictions on marriage and children – allowed to have only two children, even though not strictly enforced. There has been communal violence in previous years, based on ethnicity and religion and a widespread sentiment in Burma, fueled by a few very nationalistic Buddhist monks, that these people do not belong there.

Thousands of them are forced to live in camps in terrible conditions they are not allowed to leave. In their own country! So, in desperation they attempt to make the dangerous journey across the sea. This becomes another huge tragedy of human trafficking, abuse, corruption and suffering. I will not go into all the details as you can read about it in any major international news source.

The challenges in Burma are complicated but one issue is very simple and clear. As I see the photos of these beautiful people… yes, poor… yes, uneducated… yes, Muslim and not Buddhist or Christian… yes, dark skinned… Rohingya are our neighbors. Human beings created in God’s image with exactly the same value as a Latvian, a German, a Thai, a Karen, a Chinese, a Barman, an Australian, etc.

Who is my neighbor? And do I love my neighbor as myself? Firstly, this is the difficult and important question for the communities in Burma. Secondly, this is a question for the neighboring nations and thirdly, this is a question for all of us. For me as a European, I think of our governments who are willing to ‘close their eyes’ and not bring up these questions in favor of economic trade since Burma is so rich with resources.

Many of my friends in Burma are wrestling with this most important question God asks of us. Also, to help Rohingya people can mean to become persecuted. Even big international NGO’s have been told by Burma government to stay away and not get involved.

This is time for serious and deep soul searching and time for brave and real neighborly love…

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Photo from news headlines