By Muhammad Lila | ABC News
DHARAMSHALA, India, 22 April 2013
Amid a damning new report showing official Myanmar complicity in ethnically cleansing entire Muslim towns and villages, the world’s foremost Buddhist leader has a message to the Buddhist monks accused of spearheading the violence.
The recent remarks, made by the Dalai Lama during an exclusive interview with ABC News from his home-in-exile in Dharamshala, India, represent his most public condemnation of the Buddhist-led violence that has left hundreds dead and an estimated hundreds of thousands homeless.
“It’s very sad,” the Dalai Lama said.
“All the major religions teach us the practice of love, compassion and forgiveness. So a genuine practitioner among these different religious traditions would not indulge in such violence and bullying of other people.”
When asked what he would say if he could speak directly with Buddhist monks in Myanmar, who stand accused of exhorting followers to attack Myanmar’s minority Muslims, the Tibetan leader made a personal plea.
“We are religious people,” he said earlier this month, gesturing to his Saffron colored robes.
“Buddha always teaches us about forgiveness, tolerance, compassion.
“If from one corner of your mind, some emotion makes you want to hit, or want to kill, then please remember Buddha’s faith. We are followers of Buddha.”
It’s unclear how much weight the Dalai Lama’s words will carry in violence-stricken areas of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), where a new report accuses Buddhist monks, political party operatives, and ordinary Myanmar residents of committing brutal acts of violence against the country’s tiny Rohingya minority.
The report, issued by Human Rights Watch, shows a pre-planned pattern of violence in the Southeast Asian country, including entire villages razed to the ground and the bodies of men, women and children buried in mass graves, some with their hands bound behind their backs. In another village, 70 people, including 28 children, were allegedly hacked to death.
It’s unclear whether Myanmar has responded to the report.
The violence, which began during the summer of 2012 as a series of small skirmishes between Buddhists and Muslims in central Myanmar, has spread considerably. Nearly all the violence has been directed toward Myanmar’s minority Rohingya Muslims, a small ethnic group that represents no more than 3 to 5 percent of Myanmar’s total population.
The Myanmar government classifies the Rohingyas as Bangladeshi immigrants, denying them official citizenship. Burmese laws prevent them from travelling without permission and owning land.
Recent satellite photos released by Human Rights Watch show a huge scale of destruction: During a three-day period in March, more than 800 buildings in a single Burmese village, mostly in Rohingya neighbourhoods, were completely destroyed.
Several residences were also reduced to ash, suggesting arson as a widespread tactic. Many of those who fled now live in overcrowded camps where they lack sufficient access to water, food, shelter and medicine.
Human Rights Watch accuses Burmese authorities of turning a blind eye, and in some cases participating in the violence. It accuses the government of “systematically restricting humanitarian aid” and “imposing discriminatory policies” on its Muslim minority, warning of a humanitarian crisis if the violence isn’t brought to an end.
During his interview with ABC News, the Dalai Lama’s tone and mood noticeably changed when the issue of Myanmar’s ongoing violence was raised. While parts of the interview were jovial and filled with laughter, the Dalai Lama’s tone became slow and somber when discussing Buddhist violence.
“We’re in the 21st century” the Dalai Lama, 77, said.
“All problems must be solved through dialogue, through talk. The use of violence is outdated, and never solves problems.”
Born Tenzin Gyatso in China’s Qinghai province in 1935, the Dalai Lama has millions of followers spread primarily throughout China, Mongolia, India and the Himalayan mountain range. He does not have official contact with Burmese authorities, and unlike other religious leaders, does not have the power to issue an edict, or fatwa, demanding the violence come to an end.
Tibetan Buddhism flows from the Theravada school of Buddhism, the same denomination that is widely practiced in Myanmar, Thailand and much of Southeast Asia, though many of the rituals are different.
The Dalai Lama revealed that at the outset of the violence, he had spoken directly to Burmese pro-democracy activist and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, asking her to intervene to help quell the violence.
Suu Kyi has been harshly criticised for failing to speak out on behalf of the Rohingyas. In April, critics pounced after she told a conference in Japan, “we must learn to accommodate those with different views from ours,” saying the words amounted to lip service that were, in effect, too little too late.
Despite the criticism, the Dalai Lama remains hopeful that Suu Kyi can still intervene to solve the crisis.
“As a fellow Nobel laureate, I’m quite sure that behind the scenes, she can help,” he said.
“I’m quite sure.”