July 20, 20014. With today’s headlines about civilian casualties in Gaza, the incoming tide of desperate children along the U.S. borders, the obscenity of the deaths of 80 children on the Malaysian Airlines plane shot down in Ukraine, forced conversion and extortion of Iraqi Christians by ISIS, heightened violence against women in South Asia, it is hard to know what to say and to do.
Before writing her poem “Starvation Camp Near Jaslo,” Wislawa Szymborska questioned how she could write about the horror of thousands of Jews crammed by the Nazis into a small enclosure near the prison in Jaslo, Poland. In some cases as many as ten were pushed into a lavatory stall. All were denied food. One-fifth died within the first two weeks.
There are no answers so she just opens with a simple command to herself.
Write it down. Write it. With ordinary ink
on ordinary paper; they weren’t given food,
they all died of hunger. All. How many?
Having forced herself to write about evil, Szymborska recognizes the evasion implicit in that question “How many?”
History rounds off skeletons to zero.
A thousand and one is still only a thousand.
That one seems never to have existed.
a fictitious fetus, an empty cradle,
a primer opened for no one,
air that laughs, cries, and grows,
stairs for a void bounding out to the garden,
no one’s spot in the ranks.
If Auschwitz survivor Charlotte Delbo teaches us anything, it is the importance of that one who “seems never to have existed”. In her case the group did not number 1,000, but 230 French women sent to Auschwitz for Resistance activities. Before she published her memoir, Auschwitz and After, Delbo researched, wrote and published the story of each individual who went to Auschwitz with her in the book Convoy to Auschwitz: Women of the French Resistance..
That we are constantly making our selves does not mean that each of us does not matter. That things fall apart all the time, that nothing stays the same, does not mean that what is happening in the world today does not matter. That we all suffer one way or another as we pass through this life does not mean that suffering does not matter, particularly the suffering of others. Someone the Buddhists call a “bodhisattva” realizes these three ways in which existing, living manifests itself. The bodhisattva does not wake up into another world, but rather opens compassionately to help all in this world.
I wrestled with that word “all” when it came to showing compassion for an individual sufferer whom I loved. It is not an easy task to respect how unique and incomparable each person becomes while staying open to all.
We cannot compare our suffering with the suffering of others, especially not to use our suffering to justify inflicting suffering on others. The past suffering of the Jews in Jaslo does not justify killing Palestinian non-combatants. Or currently, Hamas may present the state of Israel with the evil choice between self-defense and killing the children among whom Hamas is hiding. But Israel cannot pass off ownership of making that choice any more than Sophie Zawistowski could evade the shame for her choice of her daughter Eva to the Nazi doctor von Niemann. Just because you’re not guilty doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be ashamed.
Not comparing, not measuring means not dismissing the suffering others are talking about with charges that they’re forgetting about x, y or z. Dr. Maung Zarni says that the plight of the Rohingya is of central concern to him as a Burmese Buddhist. His website, however, addresses his concern for the suffering of others around the world.
Nevertheless, I do want to recommend his background report on how long the efforts to eradicate the Rohingya have been going on.
The Slow-Burning Genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya By Maung Zarni and Alice Cowley
” Abstract: Since 1978, the Rohingya, a Muslim minority of Western Burma, have been subject to a state-sponsored process of destruction. The Rohingya have deep historical roots in the borderlands of Rakhine State, Myanmar, and were recognized officially both as citizens and as an ethnic group by three successive governments of post-independence Burma. In 1978, General Ne Win’s socialist military dictatorship launched the first large-scale campaign against the Rohingya in Rakhine State with the intent first of expelling them en masse from Western Burma and subsequently legalizing the systematic erasure of Rohingya group identity and legitimizing their physical destruction. This on-going process has continued to the present day under the civilian-military rule of President Thein Sein’s government. Since 2012, the Rohingya have been subject to renewed waves of hate campaigns and accompanying violence, killings and ostracization that aim both to destroy the Rohingya and to permanently remove them from their ancestral homes in Rakhine State. Findings from the authors’ three-year research on the plight of the Rohingya lead us to conclude that Rohingya have been subject to a process of slow-burning genocide over the past thirty-five years. The destruction of the Rohingya is carried out both by civilian populations backed by the state and perpetrated directly by state actors and state institutions. Both the State in Burma and the local community have committed four out of five acts of genocide as spelled out by the 1948 Convention on the Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide. Despite growing evidence of genocide, the international community has so far avoided calling this large scale human suffering genocide because no powerful member states of the UN Security Council have any appetite to forego their commercial and strategic interests in Burma to address the slow-burning Rohingya genocide.”
Dr. Zarni does not temper his language when it comes to describing the monks who preach racism.