Political Buddhism & violent extremism

Buddhism’s contemporary reputation for non-violence rests on its enormous capacity to bring both spiritual and physical peace to the individual, but as an organised religion it can be as prone to violent expression as any other faith.

From the fifth century warriors of the Shaolin temple to the modern day arming of Thai monks as undercover counter-insurgents, Buddhists’ use of violence for political ends over the last 100 years alone, in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Tibet and Vietnam, is just under-reported.

Buddhist anti-Muslim hostility in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and attacks on the Muslim Rohingya community is not new, just more evident, as long closed regions open up to observers and satellites track the destruction of homes and houseboats. Social media shared by mainstream news does the rest.

A ‘police video’ showed Buddhists attacking Muslims and looting their homes in Meikhtila, central Burma. More than forty were reported killed. The country has become a tinderbox, where the slightest of perceived offences can trigger violence. One died and nine were injured when Buddhist mobs attacked mosques and destroyed more than 70 homes in Oakkan, north of Yangon, after a Muslim girl cyclist collided with a monk.

Anti-Muslim mobs inspired by Buddhist monks also feature in Sri Lanka, where Therevada Buddhists are also in the overwhelming majority. There halal butchers are the flashpoint, exacerbated by extremist monks, members of the Bodu Bala Sena (the Buddhist Brigade), who stage provocative rallies, call for aggressive direct action and organise boycotts of Muslim businesses.

These tactics echo in Myanmar conflict politics, through the 969 group and its leader, the monk Ashin Wirathu, jailed in 2003 for inciting religious hatred and freed last year. Citing the religious significance of the number 786 to Asian Muslims, they add the three numbers to get 21 and claim this signifies a Muslim plan to conquer Myanmar in the 21st century. The use of 969 numbers the spiritual attributes of the Buddha (9), his teachings (6) and the Sangha, or priesthood (9).

“In both nations Theravada Buddhism is a vital political idea that has cemented the legitimacy of monarchs,” says Sri Lankan commentator Meghal Perera. “Both saw a Buddhist revival as a response to colonial occupation, a revival which has allowed Buddhism to fuse with nationalism as both countries achieved their independence.”

But it didn’t end there. Fundamentalists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka have manipulated tenets of moderation and non-violence into a contradictory and dogmatic religious identity, and equated that with national identity, she argues. “A violent fanatical Buddhist organisation should be a contradiction in terms. The terrifying truth is that these groups are impervious to this irony.”

Religious fundamentalism is said to have four qualities: a reliance on faith as source of identity; boundaries that separate the chosen from the other; mythologised enemies; dramatic ‘escatologies,’ stories that give meaning or drive political narratives.

Sri Lanka’s political Buddhist elites rely on the mytho-history of the Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle) for their escatology. An anthology of poetry in the Buddhist canonical language of Pali, first compiled in the fifth century and updated up to the nineteeth, the Mahavamsa traces the history of the Buddhist kings of Sri Lanka from the coming of King Vijaya of Bengal in 543 BC to the British takeover in 1815.

It has become an argument for ethno-religious supremacy, used by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority justify their claim on Sri Lanka as a Buddhist nation over two millenia and more. But the real mythology, writes the Sri Lankan scholar K.M. de Silva, is rooted in the Sinhalese sense of ethnic distinctiveness, identified through religion—Theravada Buddhism—and language—Sinhala.

As they see it, they are a lonely people, with few ethnic compatriots anywhere. As has been said, rather like the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia and the Jews in Israel, the Sinhalese are a demographic majority in their own country, burdened with with a minority’s sense of persecution.

Some of this lonely fear is shared with the Burmese Theravada Buddhist ‘story’, but it also better defines religion and state as distinct features of its own society. Forged during the 18-19th century Konbaung Dynasty, this relationship allowed the monarchy to limit dissidence and disabuse the Sangha from exercising their political power.

The pongyis, the monks mediating between the people and the ‘fair kings’ or Chakravartin, took responsibility for the collective good and in return for granting legitimacy to the royal court, won the people some protection from its tyranny.

The British, the post-independence socialist government and the military junta that overthrew it, paid scant respect to this religious détente. Yet the dynamic remained in place. Monks continued to play a critical role in protesting social injustice and recent years the refusal to perform rites for military officers still stood as a potent cultural and historic challenge to the junta’s legitimacy. In more than one standoff the junta leadership has had to publically beg forgiveness from the monks.

“The ability of the monastic order to use soft diplomacy through protests, criticism and demands for apology illustrate the entrenched position of the monks in the socio-political landscape of Burmese society,” writes Syed Mohammed Ad’ha Aljunied of Singapore’s Nanyang University.

So is the answer to the problem within the faith itself? As anti-Muslim violence spread, foreign Buddhist scholars wrote an open letter to Myanmar, pleading for mutual respect, harmony and tolerance: “Whether you are a Sayadaw (senior monk) or young monk or nun, or whether you are a lay Buddhist, please, speak out, stand up, reaffirm these Buddhist truths, and support all in Myanmar with the compassion, dignity and respect offered by the Buddha.”

In Sri Lanka, appeals to these kinds of traditional values can fall on deaf ears. Sinhalase nationalist Buddhists argue ‘Sinhala-Buddhism’ is just one of many kinds of the faith.

To argue that Buddhist nationalists are failing ‘true’ Buddhism takes you nowhere, warns academic Kalana Senaratne. “While reverting to the teachings of the Buddha, it is necessary not to delude oneself into imagining that there is an absolutely and pure form of Buddhism – and that once this ‘pure’ or ‘correct’ form of Buddhism is pointed out, everything will fall into place.”

The monks’ inflamatory rhetoric leaves some local free expression rights defenders wondering if Myanmar is ‘ready’ for free speech. But technology is already circumventing the proponents of ‘responsible media’, qualified controls on the press and strict laws against ‘hate speech’.

Arab and Asian Muslim social media is already awash with images, doctored or otherwise, ‘exposing’ Buddhist atrocities against Myanmar’s Muslims. Attacks allegedly led by Buddhist monks on the Muslim owned Fashion Bug store chain in Sri Lanka were driven not by bloggers or mainstream media, but by phone texts sent out by the Bodu Bala Sena.

The Bodu Bala Sena keeps a well tended website and Facebook page, but Myanmar’s low internet penetration forces activists to find other routes. A massive effort to grow its mobile phone pentration rate from six to 80 percent by 2016 is being driven by Peter Chou, the Myanmar-born CEO of the Indonesian smartphone giant HTC and corporates from as far apart as Ireland and China.

Mobile internet and SMS messaging, as the Bodu Bala Sena has found, offers a faster and more censorship-resistant means of distributing hate than web cafes could ever provide. In the meantime the 969’s ideology is shared through sermons on DVDs, anti-Muslim leaflets and the monastic schools relied on by poorer Burmese without access to state schools – a combination of content and audience targeting easily made receptive to new phone users.

If there is a short term answer for Myanmar it is in the immediate repudiation of anti-Muslim violence and the pseudo-religious rhetoric that accompanies it. The apparent reluctance of Nobel Peace prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, an ethnic Burman and a Buddhist, and her interlocutor with the military junta, President Thein Sein, to catagorically condemn the extremists has been noted.

In Sri Lanka the argument is already lost. Its alleged war criminal double act, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his defence minister brother Gotabaya, embrace the extremists. Opening the Bodhu Bala Sena’s new Leadership Academy in Galle in March, Gotabaya told the media that the clergy were engaged in a “nationally important task” and should not be “feared or doubted by anyone”.

Those seen to be protecting groups arousing ethnic and religious hatred, politicians and public officials included, need to be held accountable and responsible for the violence that results. These are fundamental human rights, not just Buddhist values at risk.

Buddhist moral relativism needs challenging in Myanmar, if it is not to become as devalued as Sri Lankan Buddhism, mocked for allowing believers an eternity of birth and rebirth to find the will to live decently by its tenets.

Originally published in March 2013

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