Buddhism and Human Rights
SALLIE B. KING
In the early 1990s, a number of non-Buddhist Asian political leaders, prominently including Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, ignited the “Asian values” debate with their claim that human rights are a part of Western culture and therefore excessively individualistic; human rights, they claimed, did not suit Asian culture, which was inherently communitarian. These claims notwithstanding, already by that time a number of important contemporary Buddhist social and political activists, known as “Engaged Buddhists,” had deeply incorporated the language of human rights into their campaigns to bring about fundamental political changes in their home countries. While there is debate among Buddhist intellectuals about the extent to which the concept of human rights is compatible with Buddhist culture, Buddhist activists continue to rely heavily upon the language of human rights as an integral part of their work.1
The most significant examples of Buddhist usage of human rights language can be found in Burma, Tibet, and Cambodia. Since the 1960s, Burma/Myanmar has been ruled by a brutal military dictatorship. Systemic human rights violations documented in Burma by Human Rights Watch include: summary executions; the killing of civilians by the military; forced labor; forced portage; predation of the military upon civilians; condoned military rape of women and children; destruction of the villages of ethnic minorities; the forcible recruitment of children into the military; and severe restrictions on movement, assembly, and speech. The struggle against this dictatorship is led by the National League for Democracy, which describes itself as a movement for democracy and human rights. This movement is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, students, and Buddhist monastics. In 1988, during the first popular uprising against the ruling junta, the Burmese people (who are almost all Buddhists) filled the streets, singing, “I am not among the rice-eating robots…. Everyone but everyone should be entitled to human rights.”2 In 2007, during the so-called “Saffron Revolution” (named after the color of Buddhist monastics’ robes), the streets of Burma were again filled with Buddhist monks and nuns, calling upon the government to respect human rights or step down.
Since 1959, the Chinese annexation and occupation of Tibet has resulted in the deaths of an estimated one-million Tibetans, about one-sixth of the population, from both direct causes (executions, reprisals, torture, and harsh conditions in prisons and labor camps) and indirect causes (largely famine resulting from Chinese agricultural policies). The International Commission of Jurists announced