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Buddhist monks and the Holocaust: small steps in Myanmar

We hoped that by spreading messages of peace and justice to these young men we could help embolden small steps in a bottom-up human rights movement.

Christie Nicoson and Nicholas James Webb with monks at the monastery.
Courtesy of the authors

Over the winter holiday we took a break from law school (Nick) and work and graduate school (Christie) to visit Burma, also known as Myanmar. We went to teach English to Buddhist monks at a monastery. We brought some books to use in our classrooms, including 30 copies of “Six Chairs: A Holocaust Survivor’s Story,” by Rowan Pope, about survivor Joe Grosnacht’s experience during the Holocaust. Recently, the Star Tribune had a lengthy article about this book and about Grosnacht. 

We were at the monastery not only to teach English, but also to teach about human rights, which is why we took this wonderful book. The students were young Buddhist monks who were between 20 and 30 years old, like us. These rising leaders hope to become teachers in their villages; they will inspire and provide direction for members of their communities. We hoped that by spreading messages of peace and justice to these young men we could help embolden small steps in a bottom-up human rights movement.

The monks were deeply moved by Grosnacht’s experiences of survival and liberation from Auschwitz. They learned that 11 million people were killed during the Holocaust, 6 million of them Jews, 1.1 million of whom perished at Auschwitz. Grosnacht, who now lives in Minnesota, was one of few people to survive the extermination camp. The monks talked passionately about what it means to target innocent, vulnerable people and the dangers of prejudice, discrimination and hate. They also found great hope in Grosnacht’s story. The monks praised freedom of religion, voiced their hopes for all people to live in peace, and marveled at the indomitable perseverance of the human spirit.

A complicated political backdrop

Yet these conversations took place against a complicated political backdrop in Burma. In 2012, President Barack Obama became the first sitting American president to visit that country. It was a momentous sign of hope for what had been a violent and repressive place. In the past few years, citizens have gradually been granted greater political freedoms and Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and pro-democracy advocate, was recently released from more than 15 years of house arrest.

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In November 2014, Obama returned to Burma with a clear message: Burma’s government needed to amend its constitution and take significant steps to eliminate human rights abuses against minority groups, including the Rohingya Muslims.

The Rohingya are among the most persecuted people in the world. They are denied citizenship; they are barred from many professions; there are limits on the number of children they can have; and they are increasingly the targets of torture, rape, forced labor, containment in camps with deplorable conditions, and killings.  At this visit, Burma’s President Thein Sein assured President Obama that the situation would improve, saying, “We’re in the process of addressing these concerns. We definitely need to address these concerns.”

The inhumane treatment of the Rohingya is reminiscent of early actions Nazis took against the Jews of Europe: removing them from social, economic, and political life; seizing Jewish property; segregating them in ghettos; and denying them citizenship. As we know, these early steps were later followed by forced labor, starvation, deportations, and mass executions, the experience told so vividly in “Six Chairs:  A Holocaust Survivor’s Story.”

One step forward, one step back

Earlier this month, the Burmese government took a promising step by granting the Rohingya the right to vote in upcoming elections. In response to this move toward political inclusion, however, hundreds of people, including at least 70 extremist Buddhist monks, flooded city streets in protest. The president quickly bowed to this pressure and canceled the promised voting rights.

While recent events in Burma are deeply discouraging, there are also promising signs of development. The United States is one of several countries to have improved military relations and increased foreign investment in Burma. In the last decade, the U.S. has pledged millions of dollars to help expand human rights protections, the economy, the legal system, health services and technology. Government assistance has been accompanied by more than 20 partnerships with academic institutions, businesses and private foundations. Reformed trade agreements now allow Burmese imports to the United States for the first time in almost a decade and encourage responsible investment in the country. These investments affirm that Burma is taking positive steps toward improved democracy and transparency.

Many communities in America are also welcoming new neighbors from the country. More than 7,000 refugees from Burma have come to Minnesota, fleeing political repression and violence of the past decades. We now have the highest number of Karen people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Burma, outside of Southeast Asia. With such close ties to Burma, Minnesotans are in a unique position to urge the U.S. to increase pressure on Burma’s government and to encourage the protection of human rights abuses.  We not only have a moral obligation to advocate for the people of Burma, but also great potential economic and political interests.

Many of the monks reflected on “Six Chairs: A Holocaust Survivor’s Story” by envisioning a world where all people might live in peace and happiness. We share this vision. We hope that through our lessons about the Holocaust and encouragement of human rights, we played a small role in building a more peaceful tomorrow in Myanmar. Through these small steps, we hope to build a world where there are no more stories like Grosnacht’s.

Christie Nicoson is the program and operations director at World Without Genocide, a human rights organization at William Mitchell College of Law. Nicholas James Webb is a law student at William Mitchell and a Benjamin B. Ferencz Fellow in Human Rights and Law at World Without Genocide.


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