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Buddhists, Traffickers Trigger Tragedy at Sea

26/05/2015 14:50 BST | Updated 23/05/2016 10:59 BST

In sharp contrast to attacks by Burma's Buddhists, poor fishermen are pulling

the victims to safety

Most people think Buddhists are harmless. They practice compassion, eat vegetables and wouldn't harm a fly. And they certainly wouldn't force tens of thousands of their neighbours to flee for their lives.

This idealized image has been shattered by the rise of violent Buddhist extremism in South and Southeast Asia.

This unsettling development has not received much attention in the news media, perhaps because it was unthinkable. But now it is in the headlines as thousands of the Buddhists' victims - who have fallen into the hands of human traffickers - are being rescued from inhumane conditions in overcrowded boats at sea.

Possibly as many as 140,000 people, known as the Rohingya - a Muslim minority in the westernmost state of Myanmar (formerly Burma) - have fled the communal violence unleashed by Buddhist mobs. The rioters, often led by saffron-robed monks, have attacked the Muslim's villages, destroying homes, businesses and mosques, leaving hundreds dead.

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The Buddhist clergy who have fuelled the violence with anti-Muslim hate speeches have been unapologetic.

The face of terror

In Myanmar, the leader of the extremist 969 Movement, Bhikkhu Wirathu, was described by Time magazine, when he was featured on its cover in 2012, as the Face of Buddhist Terror. It said he had styled himself "the Buddhist bin Laden".

Last year I was in another Asian Buddhist nation, Sri Lanka, at the time of the country's worst intercommunal rioting in more than 30 years. Extremist Buddhists attacked long-standing Muslim communities in the south of the island. In a speech before the assault, the leader of the self-styled "Buddhist Power Force", the monk Gnanasara Thero, was filmed making an inflammatory speech. Telling the crowd that they had been accused of being racists, he shouted, "Yes we are!" His supporters, estimated at 7,000, roared their approval.

In both countries, the traditional hierarchy of the Buddhist clergy has remained largely and disturbingly silent. Notable exceptions have expressed compassion and courage. I have spoken to many people - monastics and lay Buddhists -- who abhor the violence, but say they fear reprisals if they speak out. A recent change in government in Sri Lanka has led to a lull in the attacks, but Muslims remain wary of the deep-seated and terrifying prejudice that was unleashed.

World Buddhist leaders and anti-genocide campaigners appeal for action

The world Buddhist community is raising its voice. Earler this month I was at the White House in Washington DC for a meeting of Buddhist leaders with key staff in the Obama administration.

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Jack Kornfield, among the best-known Buddhist teachers in America, himself a witness to the violence in Myanmar, urged the government to respond to the suffering. He was among those instrumental in presenting President Obama last year with a letter signed by more than 380 Buddhist teachers. They expressed their concern about what they called "a growing wave of anti-Muslim violence throughout Asia", and sent an appeal to Buddhists in Myanmar.

The global campaign, United to End Genocide, has also swung into action. The campaign grew out of the Save Darfur Coalition when more than 300,000 Darfuri men, women and children lost their lives and millions were driven from their homes. It now seeks to prevent genocide worldwide.

Describing the crisis in Myanmar, United to End Genocide says "the 1.3 million Rohingya have been denied citizenship and stripped of all rights. They are forced to live in Apartheid conditions where they cannot travel, work or even marry without permission." Launching an urgent appeal for action, they paint a grim picture: "the precursors to genocide are loud and clear."

The shadow of a global spectre

There is an even larger shadow that has fallen over these people, and those who attack them. It has fallen over countless people in many nations. It is the spectre of Islamophobia.

I recall vividly a conversation last year with one of Sri Lanka's most senior monks, who was not a violent extremist by any means. Nonetheless, when I raised this issue, he immediately told me: "Islam is the greatest threat to the world."

This generalized demonization of Islam is now widespread. Attacks on mosques and their associated graveyards take place in dozens of countries. Muslims routinely face discrimination in business, education and public places like airports. And, of course, with each attack and threat by the fighters of Islamic State, and others responsible for terrorist attacks, the fear and hatred that fuel Islamophobia intensify.

This is an epidemic to which the Islamic world, with all the challenges it faces, cannot be abandoned to face on its own.

As a Buddhist, I have extended myself to Islamic leaders to apologize on behalf of the Buddhist tradition for the violence to which their people have been subjected. But more than that, I believe the time has come when people of all faiths - or none -

must stand shoulder to shoulder, go deeply into the spectre that threatens Muslims in our midst and around the world, understand it, confront it, and raise our voices in their defence.

If there is anything we have learned from the lessons of history - and in particular the horrors of the 20th century - it is that we cannot stand by and do nothing.

All this is further complicated by the complicity of governments in the region. In the case of both Myanmar and Sri Lanka, the police, military and security forces have often failed to respond to violent incidents. In its latest report, Amnesty International has cited government failures to investigate attacks on Rohingya and other Muslims. "The authorities also failed to address incitement to violence based on national, racial and religious hatred," it says.

Under the previous government in Sri Lanka, whose president was voted out of office in January, the same criticisms were made. Indeed many critics alleged that senior figures in the administration supported the extremists.

The failure of other governments in the region to respond appropriately to the atrocities and to the stream of refugees trying to reach their shores by land or sea has contributed to the crisis now screaming itself, however briefly, across our TV screens. When hundreds of people, many of them in dire need of medical help, were turned away from the shores of neighboring countries, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called it "incomprehensible and inhumane".

"Just like me"

While governments in Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia failed to act last week - as an estimated 6 - 8,000 refugees drifted at sea unable to find anyone willing to accept them - it was the poor fishermen of one of the most economically depressed areas of Southeast Asia who were among the first to respond. They live on the coast of Aceh in western Indonesia. They have endured years of war and the area was devastated by the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004.

The local fishermen have been using their small boats to rescue people trapped on sinking boats in the water. On Wednesday, they rescued a further 430. One of the fishermen, Razali Puteh, was interviewed by journalists. He said he saw an overcrowded vessel about 60 km (37 miles) off the coast.

"When coming close, I was very surprised with what I saw on the boat,'' he told AP news agency.

"It was crammed with people ... I was speechless and breaking down into tears when watching them screaming, waving hands and cloth."

There are unconfirmed reports that the fishermen are picking these victims from the sea despite orders from the authorities not to rescue them up even if they are dying.

"I could not have let them die," said Razali, "because they are also human beings, just like me. I am grateful to be able to save hundreds of lives."

The Buddha would be proud of him.