When Buddhists Turn Nasty
Image Credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

When Buddhists Turn Nasty


As a religion synonymous with compassion and defined by non-violence, Buddhism has always been seen as a gentle way of life. It is for this reason that developments in Burma and Sri Lanka appear all the more mystifying.

Since mid-2012 in Burma, a country which is slowly liberalizing after decades of military rule, there are credible charges that rampaging Buddhists have killed more than 200 Muslims and forcibly evicted over 100,000.

Nearly a thousand miles away, in Sri Lanka, which four years ago witnessed a gruesome end to a 26-year conflict between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Buddhist mobs recently set fire to a Muslim-owned shop and a militant group known as the Bodu Bala Sena (the Buddhist Brigade) came up with strident anti-Muslim slogans.

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Attacks on a perceived or real Islamist militant threat are common throughout Asia. But what is bewildering in these two countries is that neither is facing a radicalized Muslim population. Muslims in Sri Lanka and Burma are a peaceful, small minority, in the main removed from national politics.

In Burma’s Arakan state, local Buddhists have long resented the one million stateless Muslims known as Rohingya, whom they view as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Since June 2012, clashes with the Rohingya in western Burma agitated the Buddhist community and appear to have played a role in later outbreaks of violence.

In Sri Lanka, throughout the armed conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the government, the island’s Muslims, though Tamil-speaking, supported the government. This was in part a result of thousands of Muslims being ejected from Jaffna by the Tamil Tigers in the early 1990s. During the course of the conflict, the government wooed the island’s Muslims, with members of this community rising to prominent bureaucratic positions and able to control trade, particularly in eastern Sri Lanka.

What then turned Buddhists in both countries against Muslims? Simply speaking, the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka and the opening up of Burma from decades of authoritarianism created the space for new social fissures.

With the defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the subsequent political subjugation of the Tamil community, a dominant section of the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community in Sri Lanka stood in danger of losing the unity it had sustained by building its identity in opposition to a smaller, ethnic group. The Sinhalese Buddhists therefore needed to create and sustain another weaker group of ‘others’. Buddhists have since led a public outcry on halal slaughter and the size of Muslim families and called for a boycott of Muslim businesses.

The Burmese situation is more serious. The origins of the anti-Muslim “969 campaign” in Burma which encourages Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and shun inter-faith marriages, are hazy but Ashin Wirathu, one of its leaders, argues that they are merely encouraging Buddhists to fervently practise and defend their religion against the rising strength of Islam. Wirathu, who was jailed for eight years by the military regime for anti-Muslim rhetoric, has denied any role in the recent killings of Muslims but his vituperative sermons, according to critics, have played a role in inspiring violence. While the continuing presence of the Rohingya community has been the trigger for most recent violence, the anxiety about demographic pressures is only the tip of the iceberg.

The uncomfortable truth behind these developments is that Buddhism and nationalism have historically been intertwined in both countries. Burma and Sri Lanka are both struggling to build a democratic nation and to define the role of religion in this process. Both governments are yet to deliver governance, the rule of law or power to their people; and in both countries a religious minority is being used as a target to vent the frustrated aspirations of the majorities.

Defining the role of religion in either country is not going to be straightforward given the legacy of Buddhist monks in politics. The 2nd century chronicle of King Dutugamunu’s defeat of a non-Buddhist king in Sri Lanka with the help of Buddhist monks, and the role of Burmese monks in the embryonic independence movement against British colonialism in the 1930s, have perpetuated the perception in both countries that Buddhism is integral to their national identity.

In 2007, Buddhist monks challenged the military regime in Burma and marched for democracy. Will the official council of higher-ranking monks in Burma now raise its voice against the senseless violence and start to wield greater moral authority?

Charu Lata Hogg is an Associate Fellow with the Chatham House Asia Programme. This article originally appeared in The World Today, Chatham House’s bi-monthly magazine.

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