October 30, 2013 - As violence against the Muslim minority within parts of Burma (Myanmar) has persisted and intensified over the past year, we have been approached by a number of people asking our perspective on the situation since Vipassana Hawai‘i has numerous long-standing personal, social, and project-based relationships in Burma. Throughout the years of these relationships there have been countless atrocities within the country that we have not made public statements about: certainly in Burma and only cautiously in the west. Our Burmese friends' lives were extremely vulnerable to the regime’s authority and we did not want their association with us to be a threat to their wellbeing. Instead, our 17 years of quiet humanitarian work was our way of responding.
Times are changing and since many of our friends and students are deeply troubled and want to know more about the response within the country, we feel that a formal response on the part of MettaDana and Vipassana Hawai‘i is appropriate. We feel unequivocal that mental, verbal, or physical acts of violence are inherently unethical and are antithetical to the teachings of the Buddha. We stand deeply opposed to the atrocities being enacted upon the Muslim people of Burma under a banner of nationalism and the religion of Buddhism.
We are now seeing the very beginnings of freedom of press and speech, which is how and why we learn of recent acts of violence fomented by Buddhist monastic fanatics and perpetrated by people in their Buddhist identities. Still, there is hesitancy among Burmese politicians, civil society, and lay and monastic sangha groups to speak out. Why?
This question is being asked by many inside and outside Burma. The answers are hidden an uncertainty of what proximate causes and what deeper underpinnings are behind these acts of hatred. We do not know. In our investigations and connections, no one has sufficient answers.
As within Western societies where small factions of hateful nationalistic elements can gain power and prominence, so the Burmese proponents of the anti-Muslim movement are a very small faction of the larger religious and lay communities. It is continually evident that no people or group are exempt from the fires of greed, hatred, and ignorance and there is always a calling in the world for the forces of kindness, compassion, and wisdom.
We do know the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee recently ordered a ban on the creation of organizations based around the “969” ideology espoused by proponents of the recent hate-mongering. There very well may be other internal efforts underway to marginalize these radical leaders that we do not, and may never, know about. Monastics do not have a history of making big public pronouncements about any of the most controversial issues within Burma: their internal dynamics taking place largely out of the public eye. They are renunciates and their responsibility is to the contemplative life and the perpetuation of the Dhamma.
Public outcry is not yet part of the civil-society either. With the free-press in its infancy and 50% of the legislature in Burma still mandated to be representatives of the military, the country can barely be considered even a "fledgling democracy." Rather, it is a place where critical thinking and speaking out against injustice 3 years ago would have gotten one tortured, imprisoned, and very likely killed.
One of the priorities for our team headed to Burma this year is explore these issues with our monastic relations. MettaDana is currently in conversation with our colleagues in the region about how we may be supportive to the work of tolerance and understanding within the country. As of now we have not encountered a relevant program that feels like a meaningful match for our work.
While we look for ways to be engaged with this issue, the vast majority of MettaDana work happens in the small village of Wachet (far away from the current violence) and is very concrete: we help provide education for many local children, we help make available a range of medical services to the area, and we financially support a number of nuns. The value of these endeavors - and their neediness - has not diminished since these recent issues of violence with the larger Muslim people or the minority Rohingya Muslims have arisen.
Our experience has shown us that it takes time: not months, not years, but decades of patience, care, and intensive connection for people, their institutions and their way of life to change. The sustainability of our work rests on friendships. Our path has been the trust of long-term relationship . The fruits of the path is seeing the deep and influential way our small and humble efforts take hold of others' hearts; and slowly, on the larger Burmese culture through this intimate work.
We hope this letter has connected with your concerns about the current situation in Burma. There are many positive changes happening in the country and this violence is a deeply troubling challenge in a system that is trying to getting healthier.
Thanks for your care and concern.
Metta and Aloha,
The Vipassana Hawai‘i and MettaDana team
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