Connecting the Dots on Buddhist Fundamentalism

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Connecting the Dots on Buddhist Fundamentalism

There has been a rise in Buddhist extremism in several Asian countries recently. Is there a link?

Connecting the Dots on Buddhist Fundamentalism
Credit: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Buddhist fundamentalism seems to be fast spreading its tentacles in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, as newspapers report violent attacks on religious minorities and shrill demands to ban “blasphemy” against Buddhism.

Sri Lanka’s Muslim legislators this month urged President Mahinda Rajapaksa to protect their minority community from “Buddhist extremist elements,” with hundreds of attacks on Muslims and Christians reported over the last two years.

Last month, a British woman was deported from Sri Lanka for sporting a Buddha tattoo. Meanwhile, the country’s Religious Affairs Ministry has proposed a new law banning religious defamation. The draft bill provides for a Buddhist Publications Regulatory Board to check for any violation of Buddhism, its philosophy or traditions.

In Myanmar, “concerns persist regarding ongoing conflict and human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas, particularly in Rakhine State,” U.S. President Barack Obama recently said while extending some economic sanctions against that nation for another year.

In Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the ongoing violence against Rohingya Muslims, whose ancestors were migrants from Bangladesh, has resulted in the killing of hundreds allegedly by ethnic Arakanese Buddhists. More than 180,000 Rohingyas remain internally displaced while many others have fled the country.

In addition, a coalition of Buddhist monks and laypersons in Myanmar has proposed a law against inter-faith marriage, known as the Emergency Provisions on Marriage Act for Burmese Buddhist Women, which would strip Buddhist women of the right to freely choose whom they marry.

In Thailand, where tensions between Malay Muslims and Buddhist residents have existed in the south since 2004, a Buddhist group called the Knowing Buddha Foundation has identified another “threat” to Buddhism. This group is running campaigns to teach the world certain do’s and don’ts on the treatment of the Buddha and his images. “For example, in a movie, a dog’s name is ‘Buddha.’ There is an ice cream shop named ‘Buddhi Belly’ and a bar called ‘Buddha Bar,’” it complains on its website, demanding a law to protect Buddhism and declaration of Buddhism as the country’s state religion.

‘Theravada Buddhist World’

One might say that the growth of Buddhist fundamentalism is limited to just three countries. But there are only four nations in the world where Theravada Buddhism is accorded a special constitutional status. So it can be said that fundamentalism has pervaded almost the entire “Theravada Buddhist world.”

Cambodia, where Buddhism is the state religion, is the only exception, perhaps because Buddhists and Cham Muslims sympathize with each other, as they were both persecuted under the communist Khmer Rouge. Besides, the Cambodian national identity is rooted mainly in ethnicity, and the government imposes civil and political restrictions leaving little room for Buddhist clergy to participate in political activities.

The other Buddhist countries, Laos, Bhutan and Mongolia, do not share an affinity with Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia.

For example, Theravada Buddhists form the majority in Laos, but it’s a communist country and Buddhist clergy can make no significant impact on society or politics independent of the government.

Bhutan is also a Buddhist-majority country, but most of its citizens follow Mahayana Buddhism. Similarly, Mongolia has a substantial number of Mahayana Buddhists. While there is no major tension visible between adherents of the Theravada and Mahayana sects, interaction between the two is limited.

Local Context?

To some extent, local contexts can explain the animosity against minorities that exists in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand.

In Sri Lanka, the resurgence of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism began after end of the final phase of the military’s war against Tamil Tigers in 2009, which had resulted in the death of tens of thousands of civilians. The military victory led to contemplations on the nation’s identity, allowing the regime to promote ethno-religious nationalism to gain legitimacy for actions that were otherwise contrary to democracy and international law. The war was portrayed as a struggle against Tamil nationalism and the victory as a victory for Buddhism.

Muslims became the prime target of Buddhist groups, perhaps because Sri Lanka had witnessed tensions and mistrust between Sinhalese Buddhists and the Muslim community in the past. For example, sectarian killings took place in 1915 after a dispute over a Buddhist procession in the town of Kandy.

Myanmar, too, had witnessed anti-Muslim violence in Mandalay in 1997 and in Taungoo in 2001.

One of the most vulnerable and marginalized minorities in Burma, Rohingyas have been stateless since the nation adopted its citizenship law in 1982. Rohingyas have had few sympathizers. The government allegedly did little to stop the 2012 violence, perhaps in an attempt to appease the Buddhist majority. After all, an electoral race between the President Thein Sen regime and the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – who also has been criticized for not being sufficiently vocal in condemning the violence – is anticipated in the near future.

In Thailand, conflict between Malay Muslim insurgents and local Buddhist residents, which reignited along the Malaysian border in 2004, forms part of the theory of authors Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer in their book, Buddhist Warfare. The authors claim that ordained Buddhist monks have been involved in secret missions to kill Muslim insurgents.

It is believed that Thai Buddhism became politicized and nationalistic particularly after the death of Bhuddadhasa Bhikkhu, an influential Buddhist philosopher, in 1993. His successor, Prayudh Payutto, was known as a right-wing intellectual.

Therefore, although the Knowing Buddha Foundation is not an extremist group, at least its fundamentalist agenda doesn’t seem to be out of place in Thailand.

Or Nexus?

Yet these local reasons do not explain how fundamentalist and extremist groups emerged in the three Theravada Buddhist nations almost simultaneously in mid-2012. The contexts merely indicate that latent ingredients of fundamentalism were possibly exploited.

In Sri Lanka, a group of monks formed the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS or the Buddhist Power Force) in May 2012 to “protect” the country’s Sinhala-Buddhist culture. The BBS is believed to be behind the numerous attacks on Muslims and Christians in the country. A month later, tensions between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims turned violent in Myanmar, and quickly spread. Also in June 2012, the Knowing Buddha Foundation in Thailand filed a request with the National Office of Buddhism to introduce a law against insulting Buddhism. It held its first rally against disrespectful acts towards the Buddha also in June 2012 in Bangkok. The group was formed in April 2012.

There’s also a common thread among the three groups: portrayal of a threat to the majority religion, and linking of Buddhism to the national identity – both are against true Buddhist principles.

Moreover, Buddhist extremist groups are now seeking to form an international alliance of “likeminded” organizations to address their “concerns.”

A BBS delegation visited Thailand and Burma early March to discuss issues related to Muslims as well as to plan a global Buddhist convention. It has also invited Ashin Wirathu Thera, a monk in Myanmar who describes himself as the “bin Laden” of Buddhism, to visit Sri Lanka. He was released from jail in January 2012 under a general amnesty, after spending seven years in prison for stoking religious violence. The monk is believed to be behind the violence against Rohingyas.

“Buddhist countries in the Asiatic region are facing difficulties and even violence from the Muslims and other religions in the region,” a BBS leader, Chamila Liyanage, says. “We will definitely be starting an international network with global reach with likeminded Buddhist civil society institutions, Buddhist scholars and Buddhist activist organizations in these countries [Myanmar and Thailand]. With Ven. Wirathu Thera we will be discussing strategic plans for at least a regional network for the time being …”

Worrying Future 

These unprecedented developments raise many concerns. Not least among them are a further rise in attacks on Muslim minorities, threat to international security and tarnishing of the reputation of Buddhism as a religion of peace.

In Thailand, the Buddhist-Muslim conflict has thus far been confined to the south, but it’s not hard to foresee it expanding to other parts of the country if extremist Buddhist groups from Sri Lanka and Myanmar are allowed to influence local Buddhist groups.

Nor can Cambodia be taken for granted. Prime Minister Hun Sen has on occasions portrayed the Cham Muslim minority as a possible threat to national and international security. This positioning could potentially be used as fodder to create tensions.

Islamist militants have been waging war against Shias, Ahmadis, Jews, Christians, and secular governments across the world, but now their list of “enemies” could well include Buddhists, as suggested by the recent bombings at the Ekayana Buddhist Centre in western Jakarta, Indonesia and in Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India.

The international media now seems to have no reservations against using strong terms such as “Buddhist terror” about a religion that the world has always associated with peace. Buddhist nations and international organizations would ignore the gathering storm at their own risk.

Vishal Arora is a New Delhi-based journalist. His articles on politics, culture, religion, foreign affairs and human rights have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and many other outlets.