Rohingya and Burma: some Buddhist reflections on solidarity

1. Acknowledgement

I write this piece from my apartment home on Wurundjeri Country, the lands of the Kulin Nations, in inner Melbourne. I honour Elders and Ancestors, whose sovereign relations with this place have never been and will never be severed. I express my deepest gratitude for Elders of Wurundjeri and Bunwurrung lineages who have welcomed me and so many others to your Country, this Country, upon which I have been given this precious opportunity to reflect on a living Dharma, to unfold a dialogue on solidarity under the guidance and protection of their ancestors. May all our ceremonies support our Dreaming and our Awakening, in kindness and in mutuality.

Deep bow.

2. Preface

I need to be clear from the onset, so as not to disappoint.

I will not be reflecting only or even primarily on the Rohingya people or Burma. I am neither a trained journalist nor a scholarly expert on either. I am clear that I speak only from my own experience, and this is the passing snapshot of the inquiries in one particular person’s mind.

My primary intentions are rather more ‘Buddhist-ic’, in addition to being activistic. I want to engage in ‘Buddhist reflections’; that is, reflections which may liberate us from complicity and participation in the cycles of activity that feed political violence and suffering.

I want to reflect on the multiple conditions, historical and personal, that would influence anything that I could either Encounter or Think about the Rohingya people and Burma.

None of this is to be glib.

I am reflecting on how we reflect on the Rohingya people and Burma. How any and all the information I can access (and generate) about these subjects are always already media-ted by innumerable vested interests, differing in goodwill, neutrality or nefarious intent. All with diverse and complex logics and loyalties between one another.

That I have my own biases and conditioning which limit and delimit what I can either encounter or comprehend of what is going on.

The fine line between suspension of belief (because we need more information), and cynical disbelief (because of privileged recalcitrance).

That these complexities themselves can fractal out into infinity, and in turn influence the situation on the ground in Burma, for the Rohingya people, the degree of brutality they experience, and of refuge they are or are not given.

So how, I reflect, should we reflect (and therefore act) on Rohingya and Burma?

3. Buddhism and Violence

In July 2013, the Mahabodhi temple complex (a pilgrimage site said to be where the Buddha first attained Bodhi [‘Enlightenment’ or ‘Awakening’] in Bodh Gaya, India) was targeted by a series of bomb attacks, with five injured (including two monks), and fortunately no fatalities. Culpability was assumed and assigned to the Indian Mujahideen, with speculation that this was retaliatory revenge for the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Burma.

What happens to the mind which encounters this information so close to the start of an article professing solidarity with the Rohingya people?

Perhaps in the first instance, a visceral reaction to the information on its own terms. The experience of shock and pain in the body about a sacred Buddhist site that looks to have been deliberately targeted by violence.

Perhaps it is numbness, for far too often we have read about these kinds of sordid, ideological and religiously-motivated attacks performed by those who claimed to have been inspired by Islam. Who see that while it is Muslims who are disproportionately targeted by terroristic violence around the world, they are also being disproportionately profiled as terrorists. Muslims (again) typified as instigators of violence, rarely held and heard and grieved as also some of the most victimised by violence, of far too many forms.


a suspicion that I am being disingenuous about my solidarity with Rohingya, that this piece is really about advocating Buddhist victimhood, or Buddhist superiority.


a suspicion that by expressing solidarity with Rohingya I am a traitor to Buddhism, because you can clearly see that I am cheering on these (allegedly Mujahideen) murderers and terrorists.


that I am expressing a terrible terrible melancholy about the way mourning has become competitive. That our hearts, my very own heart – human, all-too-human – is not big or wide enough to encompass and hold all of humanity as it manifests in our particular struggles, the radical specificity of our stories.

That I have not known often how to hold more than one pain at a time.

And even when I have, that it has been difficult not to compare nor contrast, but to simply hold, as complexity, paradox, nuance and specificity, both the entirety of the pain of all who are suffering, and of even just this one particular specific struggle:

To survive and make meaning without having to live chronically in fear for one’s life.

To engage in any public discussion on violence in general (let alone as it is enacted at the intersection between Buddhist and Burmese ethno-nationalism in particular on the Muslim Rohingya minority, mostly in Rakhine state) is to necessarily be already subject to defensive and retaliatory terms of engagement, which demand allegiances, demand declarations of condemnation, demand responsibility and action… and then, what else is obfuscated?

It is telling that I discuss Burmese Buddhist-majority and allegedly state-sanctioned violence toward the Muslim Rohingya minority in Burma via reference to Islamically-inspired violence, even if the primary point is to call out media hypocrisy and double standards around how violence is reported (or not reported), which perpetrators are held to account (or even understood to be perpetrators), and who get to constitute legitimate victims, in the theatrics of media-ted violence.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s famously said, in his 1968 address to Grosse Pointe High School,

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

So similarly, we might consider that resorting to terrorism as a tactic potentially indicates something about the “contingent, intolerable conditions” that we have been “morally irresponsible” not to equally condemn in the production of this terror. That all violence that threatens and undermines life and is intended to serve the purpose of rising ideology (religiously languaged or otherwise) can be considered ‘terroristic’. That in some ways, to the extent we continue to benefit, unquestioningly, from any and all ideologies contingent on violence, then we are already necessarily implicated in the production of terror.

4. Languaging the Unheard

When I first learned about the bomb attacks on Bodh Gaya in 2013, I felt my whole body seize with the gasp of my sudden in-breath. My heart broke and my mind was consumed by a thought: “Please, don’t let this have been…”

And sure enough, as soon as I speculated, I encountered the internet equally abuzz with speculation.

Having not yet even found its time to rest in shock or grief or fear, my mind went to the place of looking for culpability. Isn’t the looking for culpability itself part of the dynamic of how shock and grief and fear express themselves?

What of the conditions that had become so intolerable for some in the region, that they might resort to this language of symbolic and terroristic violence?

Why Mahabodhi (the ‘Great Awakening Temple’), where the Buddha was said to have become enlightened? Why a site so many Buddhists around the world – but particularly those of the Theravada sects that constitute the vast majority of Burmese Buddhists (and of Thai, Lao, Cambodian, and Sri Lankan Buddhists as well) – consider sacred?

This is the point: to not hinge my understandings of symbolic terror strictly through a single lens, but to attend to the cyclic nature not only of retaliatory violence, but also of my understandings of retaliatory violence.

So it goes:

If I am to talk about so-called Islamically-inspired violence, how can I not also talk about the fact that the Muslim Rohingya are arguably the world’s most persecuted people?

And if I were to talk about the Rohingya people in terms of their persecution, how can I not also mention that their persecutors are claiming to be protecting the Dhamma?

And if I am to talk about my grief about Burmese Buddhist-majority violence toward the Rohingya people, how can I not also talk about my grief about violence toward Buddhist minorities in Bangladesh?

And if I do that, how can I not talk about gaslighting?

And so on.

Part of the problem in all of this, from a Buddhist perspective, is that I have too readily accepted the terms of engagement of this conditioned, obsessional mind, habituated to seek certainty and stability of a singular moral position – rooted especially in a will to find an ethno-religiously distinct group with whom I may find myself aligned in shared language, belief, practice and identity. Yet, truthfully, at any point in my cycle of rhetorical questions above, I could have simply stopped myself and asked,

“What else might it be possible to speak about?”

5. Dignifying the Previously Unspoken

I will not hold all Muslims accountable to the violence being committed by self-professed/self-appointed martyrs of Islam. I will keep myself curious about how Muslims articulate the grievances that they/you understand to be the psycho-spiritual, religious and political contexts and conditions within which some may choose violence.

So similarly, I do not think Buddhists should see ourselves (/themselves) as necessarily bound to reflect on the struggle and plight of the Rohingya people strictly on the basis of some obligation to explain the actions of other Buddhists. As if what other people do in the name of Buddhism is necessarily a reflection of who I am as someone who ostensibly shares the use of a word (“Buddhist”) to describe connection to existential lineage.

“Buddhist” is not even, strictly speaking, a Buddhist word. It is a term that European explorers and colonisers have used to describe the mish-mash of perspectives, philosophies, practices & spiritualties of extremely diverse peoples from across huge swathes of civilisational ‘Asia’ (East-worlds), over generations of contact, exploitation and cultural exchange.

These ‘Buddhisms’ have family resemblances to one another but may not, pre-European contact and encounters with technological modernity, have historically either known of one another’s existence in any meaningful or nuanced way, nor constructed themselves as being of “the same religion” necessarily. After all, we must not forget linguistic diversity existed far before English became dominant.

Even the word “religion” is a Latin-derived word that has no real equivalent in many non-European Buddhist languages, and that “Buddhism”, broadly speaking, kind of ‘queers’ categorisation, as a foundational principle within its own teachings.

I do feel ethically bound, as a Buddhist, to reflect on how violence in all its forms comes into being as a result of the karma (actions) of individual and collective histories, intentions, acculturations, habits, invented necessities, etc. And how violence may be best addressed so that it may be prevented, with my general predisposition being toward aspirational non-violence. In other words, I can neither demand non-violence nor prescribe it for others whose contexts and experience I can only ever fractionally be exposed to or understand.

Non-violence is, in this sense, orientational rather than ideological.

I work on my karma. Attend non-violently where I can, nourish the personal, interpersonal and political conditions that minimise the likelihood that violence could occur in the future. Relinquish, where possible, old grudges that bind me to the violences of memory. Where relinquishing them feels impossible, work on the conditions for transforming these into creative resilience and alternative modes of existence.

Non-violence is non-ideological; I practice attending, non-violently. Non-violence as practice, not as ideology. If I have ‘failed’ in my ability to do it, if I or if ‘my people’ resort to violence aside from the consequences of the law of karma, there is otherwise no need for extraneous moralising admonitions. Start again. Practice.

Practice attending with equanimity (while remaining ever-alert and discerning) in encounters with others’ recourse to violence. Practice a baseline curiosity of asking “Why?” before making declarations (if I do at all) on others’ recourse to violent means.

To the extent that this ethical bind applies to ‘All Violence’, I personally then also do have a stake in investigating how some Buddhists have come to be caught up in “protecting the Dhamma” as justification for violence. This also seems part of a general pattern: the ethno-nationalisation (and concurrent racialisation) of religion. This has been true of Islam as it is true and has been true also of Buddhism. The investments in more ‘muscularly’ Buddhist-identified nation-states, in direct response to the perceived growth of a problematic Islam.

The Rohingya are a people already disenfranchised without any rights of citizenship or political participation in Burma, so I am curious about reasoning the Defence of Buddha Dharma as a justification of violence.

Nowhere in any of the early Pali canon, accepted as standard texts by the Burmese Theravada Sangha (monastic institutions) does the historical Buddha ever come remotely close to justifying physical harm against another living being, except when monks are asked to willingly accept any food offered generously by laypeople as alms (i.e. including meat). And even then, not if any animal was killed specifically for the Sangha (i.e. the monks will accept meat as leftovers, but not as anything intentionally prepared for them)

These recent cycles of violence seem, rather, to be maintained by recourse to what Ghassan Hage has referred to as a “permanent state of exception”

(i.e. “ordinarily, we Buddhists are a peaceful people… but this situation is exceptional, because of very very extraordinary exceptional circumstances, and so…”)

But why am I apologising anyway? Why am I looking for textual evidence for Buddhist teachings on non-harming? Why should I need textual scholarship to inform me of the non-virtue of violence, and the non-virtue of inattention to the karmic conditions for cycles of ongoing violence?

Because for the Theravada in particular, textual teachings from the Pali Canon have been especially central to the philosophical lives of the monastic, male Sangha (Theravada Buddhist monks), who curate the dignity of the tradition at this particular foundational level of meditational and expositional narrative teachings.

I note also the complexity of historical relations between Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy struggle and her rise to power in ongoing collaboration with / dependence on the military that has, until recently, held authoritarian junta reign over Burma and that still wields significant political influence. When Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and rose to political power on a pro-democracy platform that she had been building already for years, I had felt hopeful for the emergence of another democratic country in Asia… At the moment, I am brought down to Earth, sobered, profoundly sad, disappointed, and angry and fraught in a strange ego-ic self about the entanglement between my own identification with Buddhism and the urge to call in and work with the heartbreaking complicity of particular parts of the monastic Sangha in this.

Why all this defensive parochialism?

Burma is the birthplace of the modern Vipassana Insight meditation movement, that has spread all around the world, one of the fastest increasing Buddhist-lineage movements in the world today. This movement had begun in the 1800s as an impetus to democratise access to meditation, and as an anticolonial movement for a people who had become humiliated under British colonisation, and disillusioned by the petty squabbles of a fragmented Sangha (i.e. between subtle differences in doctrine/practice between monasteries).

Vipassana Insight became, as a movement driven by a few charismatic leaders, a unifying force for Burmese Buddhists, by touting itself as a modern revival of a universal teaching whose lineage can be traced directly to the words of historical Buddha, as canonically recorded in the Pali texts, and universally praised by all the schools within Burma. In part because even their British colonisers themselves conceded its sophistication (as a ‘universal’ or ‘universalisable’ teaching), this cemented further the association of Burmese Buddhism with the success of ethno-nationalist, anti-colonial resistance.

It is this which breaks the heart: Where the very energy of this anti-colonial move in Burmese history has come to be co-opted, as nationalist ‘unification’ under Buddhism, by this will-to-violence.

If I am able to identify a system and its attendant ideologies that create monsters of humans (e.g. neoliberal political economy, endemic, multigenerational colonial/imperial state violence on ‘wretchifying’ whole peoples, condemning people into cycles of racialised poverty, violence and terror)… That is to say, if I can identify these processes that create unnecessary monsters out of humans, processes that unnecessarily ‘monster-ify’…

…then I believe it is also incumbent on me to note how this very same system and its attendant ideologies and apparatuses (e.g. the state, the media, broad left discourse, etc.) can actually also serve up shadow blocks to progress, masquerading as genuine political resistance.

The cycle of narcissistic victimhood, a proliferation of endless categories of ‘distressed damsels’, i.e. a creation of a bodypolitik of distress, and ‘damselisation’ of the polity (that is, a privileged and entitled victimisation, with intentional use here of pathologised, feminised metaphor to drive home the point about Masculinised Perpetrators vs Feminised Victims)…

To refuse co-optation into the brutalisation of the Monster-Damsel, Perpetrator-Victim cycle of distress-making.

Buddhist non-violence as orientational, non-ideological. Solidarity as about showing up to support the conditions within which violence cannot occur, where neither Monster nor Damsel will ever anymore be made out of humans who understand and respect one another’s wishes to live in dignity. To make meaning and connection throughout old age, sickness, and death. To recognise the limitations of an identity-politic that relinquishes curiosity out of an insatiable lust for Monsters-and-Damsels. The pain and struggle of living a politicised community that continues to be scarred by intergenerational violence and trauma…  

To be only able to demand (and then not even properly hear) only those stories which do not confront our fragile moral universe.

6. Dedications 

Part of Buddhist ritual, meditational and interpretive teachings include the practice of radical simplicity in attending, moment-to-moment, to the flow of experience (thoughts-forms, sensations, perceptions, impulses, etc.), as a condition of mutual liberation.

More radically, in the broad Mahayana schools that I roughly situate my practice within (Chan/Zen Buddhism), that there is no such thing as liberation at all, except in mutuality.

That there may sometimes be delight in spontaneous action, balancing both righteousness and efficacy, that can emerge when complex moral, political and religious questions, qualities and bodily yearnings, have been given their spacious due… without having to rush to reactive loyalties. I share this partially as an express invitation to all who might make themselves available to practice the challenges of #MakingRefuge, and the paradox of radical peace and radical accountability, in addressing all our complicities in the cycles of greed, hatred and delusion, which have always been breeding grounds for violence and oppression.

In consideration of this particular coming together of the terrible conditions that have led to this suffering for the Rohingya people at the hands of some who claim to be protecting Dhamma, in a region alreadyfraught with inter-sectarian tensions across multiple lines of ethno-religious, political and ideological difference woven over long and complex histories–

May my piece offered here be in the service of reconstructive justice, liberation, dignity and refuge for the Rohingya people, for Burma, and for all peoples around the world who experience the suffering of chronic violence, conflict and displacement.

The author payment for this piece was donated in its entirety to RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees. RISE is managed, developed and run by people from refugee and asylum seeker backgrounds. Please consider supporting RISE in the crucial work they do in our community:

For more information:
Australian Burmese Rohingya Organisation
RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees

Cover image via Steve Gumaer, Flickr

Shinen Wong
Melbourne-based, MalaysianChineseAustralian heritage, via Sydney, San Francisco, New Hampshire, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Scholar of Buddhist Studies and practitioner of Chan/Zen. Educator and public health professional. A love of dance and martial arts, people and country, Eucalypt and skinned knees.

About Author

Melbourne-based, MalaysianChineseAustralian heritage, via Sydney, San Francisco, New Hampshire, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Scholar of Buddhist Studies and practitioner of Chan/Zen. Educator and public health professional. A love of dance and martial arts, people and country, Eucalypt and skinned knees.

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