21/09/2017 11:30 BST | Updated 21/09/2017 11:30 BST

Buddhists Appeal To Myanmar Monks: End Ethnic Cleansing

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

"The Buddha would have helped those poor Muslims," said His Holiness the Dalai Lama this past week as the world witnessed with horror the latest eruption of communal violence, terror and ethnic cleansing. This time it is in Myanmar (Burma).

Yet again a civilian population is bearing the brunt of the suffering. More that 400,000 people, mainly women and children, have fled killings and the burning of their villages. Another 150,000 are reported trapped in the mountains. They have been without food for two weeks and the pass they need to cross to freedom has been mined by the military.

Photo: Channel 4 TV - "Exodus of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar"

The vast majority are members of the Muslim Rohingya community, described by the United Nations as "the most heavily persecuted ethnic group in the world." Others, from the country's Buddhist majority, are fleeing for shelter in the regional capital Sittwe.

A startling feature

A startling feature of this tragedy has been the inflammatory speeches of some of the Buddhist monks in the country. As in so many other conflicts those inciting violence have been a small, but vociferous, minority.

Their leader, the monk Ashin Wirathu, was imprisoned for inciting racial hatred in 2003, then released under a general amnesty in 2012. That same year communal riots between Buddhists and Muslims erupted in the state of Rakine, where the current crisis is unfolding.

This weekend an international Buddhist appeal was launched calling on the country's Buddhist monastic leaders to take "a strong stand against hate speech and ethnic cleansing."

So far signed by more than 100 teachers and leaders from all major schools of Buddhism, the appeal says, "We are greatly disturbed by what many in the world see as slander and distortion of the Buddha's teachings. In the Dhamma [Buddhist teachings] there is no justification for hatred and violence. Mean-spirited words and direct provocation . . . stand in stark contradiction to monastic precepts and Buddha's teachings on universal morality, peace, and tolerance."

Photo: Lion's Roar

The appeal is addressed to Myanmar's top Buddhist monastic council. The council has already banned Wirathu from giving sermons for a year, saying he would face "action under the rule of law" for any breach of the order. It has also ordered his nationalist organisation to cease its activities.

Wirathu and his followers have insisted that they will not be silenced either by the Buddhist leadership or state authorities. Just before the latest upsurge of violence, they called on the government to resign, saying it is their nationalist movement alone that can now "protect the state".

Although the extremist faction is said to have intimidated many Buddhists from speaking out, individual monks in various parts of the country have publicly demonstrated the courage of their convictions, stepping into the midst of riots to stop outbreaks of fighting.

This weekend's appeal urges the monastic council to "uphold Buddhism by further enforcing [the council's] recent rulings, taking a strong stand against hate speech and ethnic cleansing."

This humanitarian catastrophe

This humanitarian catastophe has not come out of nowhere. The Rohingya people, who have lived in Myanmar for generations, were stripped of their citizenship in 1974 by the military government. Several hundred thousand have fled the country since.

By 2016 what many predicted came to pass. An armed insurgent group now calling itself the Rohingya "Salvation Army" has been formed. It is reportedly led by a committee of Rohingya émigrés in Saudi Arabia, with supporters also in Pakistan. It is commanded on the ground by Rohingya with international training and experience in guerrilla warfare.

On 25 August they launched their largest attack so far on police posts and an army base. In response the government said it needed to "wipe out the threat of terrorism". The security forces announced "cleansing operations." Within two weeks after the announcement, the government said that nearly 40 percent of Rohingya villages had been targeted by the army , with 176 out of 471 villages empty of people, and an additional 34 villages "partially abandoned."

"Collective punishment is a war crime"

The government has severely restricted access to the area, criticized aid organizations trying to help the victims, and refused to accept a high-level UN mission of inquiry. This makes it hard to come to anything like a definitive assessment of what is happening on the ground. While no one disputes the right of the government to protect itself and the security of its people, it does not have the right to carry out indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population. Under the Geneva Conventions, if proved, this would constitute "collective punishment" which is a war crime.

This humanitarian crisis is taking place within a complex of regional tensions involving multiple ethnic and religious communities in several countries, attacks by different armed groups and mobs, terror tactics on all sides, and widespread social, economic and political injustice. It is also affecting the prospects for peace and justice in the country as a whole, and beyond.

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has called on Myanmar's civilian and military authorities to put an end to what he described as a "humanitarian catastrophe with implications for peace and security that could continue to expand beyond Myanmar's borders."

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is on the border where the refugees are flooding into Bangladesh.

Photo: AP 28 August 2017, Daily Sabah, Asia Pacific

This weekend's appeal urges people to "give generously to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other international humanitarian organisations providing aid to Rohingya communities. As Buddhists, we are channeling funds through the UNHCR. Our dana [compassionate giving] can say to Rohingya peoples and to the world that the rain of Buddha's compassion falls on all beings equally."

Perhaps Myanmar's most outstanding global statesman would be pleased by these words. The first non-European UN Secretary General was the Burmese Buddhist, U Thant. In one of his rare public statements about his tradition, he said: "Buddhism teaches, above all, a universal compassion to be extended to all living beings, irrespective of their status, race or creed."