Page 1 of 2 The axis of Buddhist extremism
By Tom Farrell
The images posted to YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet could hardly be more discordant. Sitting or reclining, stone or bronze, the serene features on images of the Buddha are strikingly at odds with the taut, anger-charged faces of the shaven-headed men who have recently emerged from various monasteries and shrines to do battle in his name.
Their message is straightforward. Nearly a millennium ago, gigantic representations of the Enlightened One smiled down on peoples from Afghanistan to the Pacific. Begotten on the Himalayan foothills during the sixth century BC, two main schools
of the faith, Mahayana and Theravada, branched out and were embraced by a multitude of races across a wide Asian geography.
In northeast Asia, Mahayana Buddhism (Greater Vehicle) was eventually diluted by local customs and philosophies. Centuries later, as Islam spread east and Hinduism revived on the Indian subcontinent, Theravada (Lesser Vehicle) worship shrunk back to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, with its legacy in much of the rest of Asia reduced to a few abandoned stupas and statues.
Jump forward to the 21st century and certain monks are calling for a fight against what is possibly the terminal phase of this long-term decline. In Sri Lanka, the most visible of these "religio-nationalist" Buddhist groups is known as the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Strike Force), which was officially inaugurated in July 2012. In Myanmar, there is the comparably extremist 969 Movement, so called because it claims to represent the numbers of attributes associated with the Buddha, his teachings and the clergy.
The triggers for both groups' sometimes violent attacks are usually rumors of a Buddhist being raped or murdered by Muslims. Or sometimes a new mosque or church is under construction in a Buddhist majority area with a growing minority presence. From there, fighting often escalates into hours of vandalism and intimidation; in worst cases, the initial spark results in days of arson and mass killing.
Separated by race, language and the vastness of the Bay of Bengal, there is a striking convergence in the rhetoric of Myanmar's and Sri Lanka's Buddhist fundamentalist groups. Both fizz with triumphalism, belligerence and a fierce persecution complex. The BBS and 969 Movement have similarly cast Muslims as their main villains, although their hostility towards Christians and Hindus is also palpable in certain areas.
Sri Lanka is emerging from decades of ruinous civil war; Myanmar from decades of sclerotic military rule. Already resented by the majority Buddhist population during each country's colonial period, Muslims in both nations bore the brunt of government or insurgent-led excesses after independence.
In Myanmar, alone out of the nation's 135 officially recognized ethnicities, the Rohingya Muslim minority were stripped of their citizenship by General Ne Win's ruling junta. Military operations in 1978 and 1991 sent hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fleeing into neighboring Bangladesh.
In Sri Lanka, Tamil insurgents expelled 60,000 Muslims from the rebel mini-state they established in the country's north after 1990. Ironically, Islamism has made far fewer inroads into the Muslim communities of either nation in comparison to their neighboring countries.
Yet BBS general secretary Golagoda Gnanasara Thera and 969 spiritual leader Ashin Wirathu both consistently harp on about high Muslim birth rates, regardless of how the children may grow up to behave in their respective communities, leading to what both radical leaders have claimed is causing the slow eradication of Buddhist culture.
The Rohingyas, in particular, are officially denigrated as kalar , a racist epithet, and dismissed as "Bengali" migrants who should "return" west to Bangladesh. Wirathu's speeches, easily accessed online or on DVDs available in most Myanmar markets, call for boycotts on all Muslim-run stores and
"If you buy from Muslim shops, your money doesn't just stop there," said Wirathu in a speech last year. "It will eventually go towards destroying your religion and race."
Encroachment by the Crescent and Star has long been a preoccupation of Sri Lankan nationalists. Until the elimination of the Tamil Tiger rebel group in May 2009, that fear was largely displaced by the more immediate bogey of Tamil separatism.
A mostly Hindu minority in the island's north with historic links to Sri Lanka's vast Indian neighbor, they replaced the perceived menace of the western Christian missionary. But in Sri Lanka's East Province, where Tamil militants carried out a string of particularly brutal mosque massacres in the early 1990s, the Muslim proportion of the population nudged slightly ahead between the 1981 and 2012 censuses.
On August 10 last year, a mob led by bikkhus (monks) from the Sinhala Ravaya (Roar of the Lion) converged on the Molawatte Mosque in the Grandpass area of the capital Colombo. Three hours of vandalism and intimidation ensued, leaving five Muslims injured amid an insipid police response. When the original mosque's wooden structure that was scheduled for expansion was built in 1966, it ministered to about 20 Muslim families; now there are 430 families there.
Other incidents have mobilized around similar calls to Buddhist supremacism. During a meeting that presaged an attack on a Muslim-owned store-cum-warehouse in Colombo called Fashion Bug some months earlier, the crowds were exhorted by Buddhist fundamentalists towards the santana (struggle) to rata jathiya agama bera ganna (save country, race and religion).
Anti-Muslim violence is nothing new to Myanmar or Sri Lanka. The economic strains imposed by the Great War and the Great Depression catalyzed into violence that permanently stunted Buddhist-Muslim relations, just as the colonial order was fissuring in both countries. The April-May 1915 riots in the central highlands of Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) left dozens of Muslims dead at the hands of Sinhalese Buddhist extremists.
Many Sinhalese nationalists gained considerable local kudos and legitimacy after being jailed in the subsequent clampdown by the colonial British. During the 1930s, anti-British sentiment in Myanmar, then known as Burma, was frequently intertwined with resentment towards Muslims and on several occasions erupted into riots.
National identity awoke in many Asian nations in the aftermath of the reform-minded modernist or "Protestant" Buddhism of the 19th century. Like its Christian namesake, this represented an assertion of individualism, and in then Ceylon and Burma the movement came to be associated with Western notions of race and nationhood.
It is grimly ironic that the part of Asia today most readily associated with "militant" or "violent" Buddhism is Myanmar's Rakhine (Arakan) State. In the capital of Sittwe, empty, vegetation-choked mosques have been guarded by the police since the Buddhist-on-Muslim violence that erupted there in mid-2012. Now ghettoized Rohingyas are regularly denied assistance of international aid agencies.
Yet Sittwe district was the birthplace of Sayadaw U Ottama (1879-1939), an anti-colonial monk but also a pacifist and admirer of Mahatma Gandhi. He founded the She Zedi Kyaung monastery in 1903, which is considered the birthplace of "politicized" Buddhism in Myanmar.
Of course "Protestantism" in Christianity or Buddhism has manifested divergent interpretations of the original doctrine. To some extent, groups like BBS and the 969 Movement also represent a reassertion of the importance of the monks' role within the sangha (monastic order).
Sri Lanka and Myanmar differ from Thailand and Cambodia (or Laos pre-1975) in that for centuries the sangha has not deferred to a devarajah (divine king), or even a constitutional monarch. This might explain why Thai Buddhism has not spawned an equivalent movement - at least not yet.
That said, the escalation of the Malay-Muslim insurgency in the south of Thailand, the ongoing struggle for national power in Bangkok and the recent military coup may yet have a radicalizing effect. Already, a non-violent organization called the "Knowing Buddha Foundation" is calling for a "blasphemy" law and the extension of Buddhist concepts of morality into Thai society.
Monasticism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar has been broken into several orders for centuries. In common with fundamentalists in other faiths, a preoccupation of the new religio-nationalists is "purification", that is, vigilance against rival interpretations of the faith.