The Rohingya – a Muslim people in a deeply Buddhist country

Every now and again a crisis boils up which brings into the headlines a group which are not widely known about, but who have deep historical roots. When the Islamic State was on the rise a few years ago, we suddenly heard of the Yazidis, a heterodox religious group with a history stretching back to pre-Islamic times. And now, another group whom most of us haven’t heard of is in the news: the Rohingya of Myanmar (or Burma, as it was formerly called).

The Rohingya of Myanmar

For those of you who have not kept abreast of the Rohingya crisis, in summary it goes something like this. The Rohingya are an ethnic group who live in western Myanmar, near the border with Bangladesh. They are Muslims by religion, as are the people of Bangladesh. The great majority of people of Myanmar, however, are Buddhists. The Rohingya’s origins are in what is now Bangladesh, which, when it was part of India, used to be called Bengal. Indeed, the Burmese still call the Rohingya “Bengalis”.

According to Wikipedia, Bengali people were recorded in Arakan (where the modern-day Rakhine state in western Myanmar) in the 15th century, so the Rohingya community has a history going back many centuries.

Back to the present, the Myanmar army seems to have been carrying out what is now called “ethnic cleansing” on the Rohingya people, trying to move them out of their Burmese homeland and across the border into Bangladesh. Since there were over a million of them, this is quite a task, and by all accounts has been carried out with a fair degree of brutality.

That’s the situation in a nutshell. If you want to find out more,there’s plenty of stuff on the internet (for example the Wikipedia article I mentioned).

buddhist-temples-burma
Buddhist temples in Myanmar (Wikemedia commons)

A deeply Buddhist nation

However, what you won’t find much about is one of the deeper causes of the crisis. This is that the Burmese are a deeply Buddhist nation. Throughout history, for the best part of two thousand years, to be Burmese has been to be Buddhist. If you visit the country (which I haven’t, but I’ve got friends who have), or seen photos of Bagan and other ancient Burmese cities, you can’t miss it. Buddhist temples rise up everywhere one looks. Their beautiful shapes dominate city skylines. Buddhist monks are ubiquitous. The culture, the world-view, the self-identity of Burmese is Buddhist. The Burmese regard their country as almost a holy nation, a champion of their great religion. And to have a large minority within their borders which does not belong to their religion, indeed rejects it comprehensively (as of course orthodox Islam does), is something they find difficult to live with.

We live in a crazy, mixed up world where people of different religions and cultures and races and mindsets have all been thrown together to live cheek by jowl with one another. Personally, I think that this enriches this small planet no end. But all too frequently this leads to tension and violence and tragedy. In this instance, there is a terrible irony in the fact that communal violence is being carried out in the name of a religion which, at its very core, preaches compassion, tolerance and peace.

By Peter Britton