Sister Chan Khong Appeals for an End to Rohingya Oppression in Open Letter to Aung San Suu Kyi
Sister Chan Khong, the eldest monastic member of the Plum Village community established by the influential Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and one of his closest collaborators and students, has written an open letter to Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, appealing for compassionate action to halt the violent oppression of Rohingya Muslims in the country.
Religious tensions between Buddhists and Muslims have simmered in Myanmar for almost half a century, but came to a head with violent clashes in 2012 that killed more than 100 people. Rakhine State is one of the most sensitive and conflict-prone regions in Myanmar, particularly since outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence in 2012 and 2013, following which 140,000 people, most of them Rohingya Muslims, were displaced. Most Rohingya remain in squalid resettlement camps where they are subject to severe restrictions, with limited access to education, healthcare, or employment opportunities.
More recently, security forces in Myanmar’s strife-torn northern Rakhine State launched an aggressive crackdown in response to deadly attacks on 9 October 2016 on border guard posts in Maungdaw township, near the border with Bangladesh, in which nine police were killed. Myanmar’s military has reportedly killed hundreds of people and arrested many more in their hunt for the perpetrators, who the government says are Rohingya militants. The United Nations reports that the action has been accompanied by widespread human rights abuses and that tens of thousands of people have been displaced, however humanitarian workers and journalists have been banned from entering the area.
In her heartfelt plea, Sister Chan Khong appealed to Myanmar’s state counselor for compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation to bring an end to the oppression and grave atrocities perpetrated against the Rohingya people:
In this very moment the Rohingya people in your country are undergoing great suffering and oppression. We know that you, too, must also be suffering a great deal, knowing that such cruelty is being inflicted upon them. You are their mother, you are their sister.
“We know that your deepest wish is for harmony, stability, and prosperity in Myanmar. Thanks to your parents, ancestors, and your spiritual practice, the energy of compassion and wisdom in you is very great. We know that you have the capacity to embrace the suffering of the Rohingya people in your heart and that you are not indifferent to their pain. We know that you can cry with them, cry for them, and take action to protect them. (Plum Village)
Sister Chan Khong wrote her letter from neighboring Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima Province, where she is accompanying Thich Nhat Hanh, who arrived there in December last year while recovering from a severe stroke.* She concluded her message with an offer to personally travel to Myanmar to meet Suu Kyi and discuss the Rohingya issue in greater detail.
Myanmar classifies Rohingya Muslims as stateless foreign migrants even though they have lived in Myanmar for generations. The country’s population also includes Muslims from other ethnic groups. According to the Washington, DC-based Pew Research Center, Buddhists make up about 80 per cent of Myanmar’s population of some 52 million, and Muslims just 4 per cent. The radical nationalist Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion (Ma Ba Tha), a collective of hardline Buddhist abbots and influential monks founded in 2013, has previously stoked religious division by asserting that Myanmar’s Buddhist population and culture is under threat from Islam. Major figures from Myanmar’s mainstream political and religious communities have publically spoken out against Ma Ba Tha, saying the group’s policies are not representative of the country’s Buddhist sangha, which has some 250,000 members according to a government estimate, and do not reflect the essence of Buddhism.
Born in 1938, Sister Chan Khong is a Vietnamese Buddhist nun and peace activist. Since her teens, she has devoted her life to the development and practice of non-violence, grounded in the Buddhist precepts of non-killing and compassionate action, first working in the slums of Saigon, distributing food, working with the sick, and teaching children. After the war in Vietnam, she worked closely with Thich Nhat Hanh in the creation of the Plum Village Buddhist center in France, in the transmission of Buddhism to the West, and has helped to conduct spiritual retreats internationally. In 1993, she wrote her autobiography, Learning True Love: Practicing Buddhism in a Time of War.
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