Richard Reoch reports from the refugee camps in Bangladesh.
The Buddha was no stranger to genocide. His own people, the Sakyas, were the victims of mass slaughter. One of the final acts of his life, recounted in the opening verses of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, was to refuse a request to give his blessing to an act of genocide.
I held the Buddha in my heart as I entered the Rohingya refugee camps on the Myanmar–Bangladesh border. These people are fleeing what they call the “Buddhist Terror.”
After decades of discrimination — including being stripped of their citizenship in Myanmar, a majority Buddhist nation — the Rohingya minority has been subjected to an overwhelming military assault. Their villages have been burned to the ground. Thousands are reported killed. Possibly up to a million have fled into neighboring Bangladesh.
A senior United Nations official dealing with the crisis says it “bears all the hallmarks of genocide”.
I was in the refugee camps with an international delegation of religious leaders — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist — to bear witness to this humanitarian catastrophe.
An old man, with a stray wispy beard and sunken eyes, grabbed my hand. In the silence between us, he enacted the plight of his people with his other hand. He made wild gestures, frantically jabbing at the air around him and up towards the sky.
My eyes filled with tears as I looked these people in the eye and said the most difficult thing I could ever have imagined saying: “I am a Buddhist.”
Two questions were always in my mind, as they would be in the mind of any practitioner: What would the Buddha do? and What can we, as Buddhists, do to help?
It seemed, at the outset, that the most obvious answer was for everyone — regardless of faith — to do their best to be fully present. That was important for our delegation and also, as we quickly realized, for the Rohingya themselves.
We had meetings with survivors who described the almost unimaginable cruelty to which they, and the many who died, had been subjected. Again and again, they said they wanted the world to know.
When I asked to speak, I could barely find the words. I pressed my palm against my chest as if to squeeze them out.
“The Buddha did not teach this,” I said. They looked at me, waiting for the translator. “There are Buddhists all over the world who are horrified by this. We know what has happened to you and we are deeply, deeply saddened.”
Each one of them took me by the hand. Several were Muslim imams. “Assalamu Alaykum,” I said. It is their greeting: “Peace be upon you.”
Then I saw an old Hindu priest standing in the corner of the improvised shelter. (The Rohingya are predominantly Muslim, but there are also Christian Baptists and Hindus among them.) I went over, folded my hands together and said “Namaste.” This astonished him and for a moment he acted like he had forgotten how to do this himself. Then he slowly smiled, showing his red, rotting teeth, put his hands together and quietly offered me his “Namaste.”
Six months ago, the world’s media was here as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya began the fastest movement of forcibly displaced people since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Now the cameras have moved on, leaving behind one of the most intractable and complex human disasters imaginable.
Buddhists around the world have been stunned by the horrific scenes of these victims who now face the threat of the monsoon rains turning their makeshift camp into a sea of mud.
An international Buddhist Humanitarian Project is now underway, attracting signatures and donations to support the Rohingya people. It went live online during our mission to the camps.
Our delegation included specialists in trauma. We divided up into small teams to meet and question survivors. One was a woman with horrific scars on her face. She said that when the Myanmar army attacked her village she was forced into a house with other women. Once they were inside, the troops set fire to it, killing all of them but one. She was the sole survivor.
“I hid out in the forest with a burned body for four days without any food or water,” she said. “A group of people was passing by. They saw me and they carried me to a safe place and finally gave me some food.”
The testimonies we recorded and the medical accounts of injuries are too appalling to print, as are the descriptions of rape, gang-rape and sexual mutilation.
The scale of this is almost beyond comprehension. By the beginning of this year, UNICEF said there were more than 250,000 Rohingya children living in and around the overcrowded camps. It is now estimated that 60% of them have lost either one or both parents. Most have been eyewitnesses to the slaughter.
There was another question in my mind, one that many have asked me: How could Buddhists do this?
How could these atrocities be the work of the military of a majority Buddhist nation? How could the flames of hatred have been fanned by monks — even a minority of monks — wearing sacred saffron robes?
How could one of the world’s great wisdom traditions — renowned