Note to readers: As with all reports written prior to September 2017, this was originally published as a summary on my homepage with link to a .pdf. I've been gradually moving two+ years of backlist reports to this blog for easier reader navigation, beginning with my most recent reports and working backward. Because of the spotlight on this issue, I'm moving this report out of order. Thanks for reading. -- JE Higgins
With all the attention focused on the religious extremism deriving from the Islamic world, the violence being carried out by Buddhist radicals has been largely overlooked. Over the past year in parts of Asia friction between Buddhism and Islam has killed hundreds, mostly Muslims. The violence is being fanned by extremist Buddhist monks, who preach a dangerous form of religious chauvinism to their followers (world.time.com).
At the heart of this violent movement are two prime organizations. In Myanmar the 969 Movement is led by Buddhist nationalists, in particular a Buddhist Burmese monk, Ashin Wirathu. According to many observers, he is fomenting--or, at the very least, supporting--a broad range of anti-Muslim activities, including violent ones, across much of Myanmar (worldaffairsjournal.org).
The second organization, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS - translated as the Buddhist Power Force), is a radical Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organization based in Colombo, Sri Lank. Like its counterpart, the Burmese 969 organization, the BBS seeks the enforcement of Buddhist predominance within the country of Sri Lanka (trackingterrorism.org).
Largely centered directly against Muslims, this violent wave has lashed out in some of the worst ways. In Myanmar a warped and violent version of Buddhism has grasped hold of many monasteries with hate-speeches directed against Muslims across the country; particularly, the Rohingya. As a result Mosques have been attacked, villages set on fire, and thousands chased from their homes. Massacres have leapt from village to village in Rakhine State, with machetes the weapon of choice. A Buddhist mob rampaged through the town's Muslim quarter, killing dozens, most of them women and children. Buddhists attacked the Islamic boarding school of Mingalar Zayone dragging students and teachers out onto the street and hacking 32 to death as the security services looked on (gq-magazine.co.uk).
On June 15 a mob stirred up by and composed of Buddhists, acting on allegedly Buddhist sentiments, ripped through three neighboring towns in southwestern Sri Lanka. The horde explicitly targeted Muslims, slinging Molotov cocktails, burning bikes, and looting homes and businesses. Riots, violence, and personal threats aren’t unheard of in Sri Lanka, but this riot caught the world’s attention. It was one of the largest and most deadly in recent years, wounding over 50 and killing four Muslims. Originally, these groups focused their ire on Christian pastors accused of converting Buddhists. As of this February a crowd led by prominent Buddhist leadership went to the home of a pastor in the Kandy District, demanding he end his worship (vice.com).
The complications of this arising Buddhist fundamentalism that western observers need to understand is that it is developing along both religious and nationalistic lines. The movement fostered by the BBS in Sri Lanka was founded on a platform calling for many things including a definition of Sri Lanka as a definitively Buddhist, Sinhalese nation (www.vice.com). It has organized various campaigns against the country's minority Muslim and Christian communities which, according to the organization, poses a threat to Sri Lanka's Sinhalese- Buddhist identity. The BBS engages in hate speech and attacks against minority religions (trackingterrorism.org).
In Myanmar, the 969 movement has been the most prominent in the upsurge of radicalism. The movement’s message gained powerful momentum chiefly among the Bamar, the principal ethnic group in Myanmar, accounting for about two-thirds of the country’s population, and especially prominent in the lowlands of the Irrawaddy Basin. The vast majority of the Bamar are Theravada Buddhists. The main message of 969 was (and is) Burma for Buddhists, particularly for Buddhists who are Bamar rather than members of other ethnic groups. The movement’s ideology combined Buddhist religious fanaticism with intense Burmese nationalism and more than a tinge of ethnic chauvinism (worldaffairsjournal.org).
Ashin Wirathu, the monk who dubs himself the "Burmese bin Laden," leads the viciously anti-Muslim 969 Movement. Wirathu had recently visited Rakhine State, giving hate-filled speeches to crowds of thousands about the wickedness of the Muslims and the need for Rakhine Buddhists to defend themselves at all costs (gq- magazine.co.uk).
Additional Considerations: In many of these countries the close relationship between temple and state is further dividing this already anxious region (world.time.com). Far too often governments in Buddhist dominated countries tend to either sympathize or flatly support rather than counter the radical religious elements. In mid-2012, communal violence took a turn for the worse when riots broke out in the western state of Rakhine killing hundreds and displacing over 140,000 Rohingya Muslims. The government simply refused to step in and, even when it did, the authorities blatantly sided with the extremists and essentially rendered the Rohingya people helpless. This action showed that anti-Rohingya activities in Myanmar were (and still are) nothing more than planned religious pogrom being conducted by the Buddhist terror outfits in assonance with the government of Myanmar. More details about the ill-effects of the riots can be found here (globalresearch.ca).
As with the BBS there are signs that the state itself may condone its ideology and actions. Sri Lanka’s government, though not totally unified, largely consists of pro-Buddhist advocates and laws. In the last few months alone the government has prevented monks from attaining driver’s licenses in a bid to control the identity and image of Buddhism and deported western tourists with “blasphemous” Buddha tattoos. More directly, the brother of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been sighted at BBS rallies, hinting at the implicit support of Sri Lanka’s notably pro-Buddhist, pro-Sinhala ruling family. TRAC has recorded other rumors of governmental involvement (vice.com). In a rare show of unity, local media condemned Sri Lankan police for failing to control Buddhist extremists behind deadly anti-Muslim riots (timesofindia.indiatimes.com).
Generally the concern of Buddhist fundamentalism can largely be relegated to the region of Southeast Asia. However, this wave of radical violence and terrorism constitutes two major concerns in the position of the United States if not the western world.
On a strictly political level there is the moral credibility that is threatened. Pundits and politicians can decry the violence visited against Christians in places like Syria at the hands of Islamic zealots and chastise the Islamic world for not condemning these actions. The fact that the wholesale violence and displacement being carried out on such a large scale against Muslims has not received the same degree of outcry only serves to lose the western world serious credibility especially in the views of the Muslim world. To the contrary Barack Obama has held up Burma as an avatar of global democratic meliorism. He speaks of offering the "hand of friendship" to President Thein Sein and was swift to remove most of the U.S. sanctions against the regime in the wake of 2011's reforms. Obama and the majority of the Western world want to put their faith in a narrative that sees Burma - previously lumped with North Korea and Iran as an "outpost of tyranny" - as a rehabilitated pupil, won over to the benefits of political and economic liberalism. The truth, alas, is far murkier and much more sinister (gq-magazine.co.uk).
The other concern is the unseen Islamic threat looming in the distance. Growing evidence suggests that the influence of the Islamic State organization has reached the South Asian, Muslim-majority country of Bangladesh. The country has long been home to small but significant numbers of radicals from both local militant groups, such as the Jama’at ul- Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), the country’s most significant local jihadist group, and those linked to transnational jihadist formations, such as al-Qaeda (jamestown.org).
Many Rohingya Muslims live in western Burma, also known as Myanmar. The majority reside in the northern part of Rakhine state, which borders Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal. Estimates for how many Rohingya Muslims live there vary, but most hover between one million and 1.5 million. Another several hundred thousand have fled Burma in favor of Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Thailand or Malaysia (www.cbc.ca). Not only is this giving legitimacy to Islamic movements such as al-Qaeda, it also has the potential to spill over back into Myanmar and neighboring countries creating an entirely new front in the current terror war.
Two actions must be taken (from the perspective of the western world).
1. The west must denounce the actions being carried out in the Buddhist world, particularly Myanmar and Sri Lanka, just as vehemently as they have the actions being done by Islamic radicals in Africa and the Middle-East. This would serve to eliminate any sign of a double standard that might be perceived by the Muslim world.
2. Considering Buddhist fundamentalism is likely to gain momentum as more countries with sizable Buddhist populations continue to feel threatened and with support from the host government, the U.S. needs to begin developing a strategy for engaging this possible new front of terror conflict in the form of both diplomatic actions and an intelligence/military response.
No matter how one views it, Buddhist fundamentalism is a threat that must be addressed, at the very least, on a grand political level of condemnation in order to erode any momentum and legitimacy that al-Qaeda and like organizations intending to expand would be inclined to capitalize on. At a more strategic level, the long term agenda these Buddhist fundamentalists are working to obtain a purged theocratic state in the countries they dominate. That said, it is an inevitability that eventually something will happen that will put the U.S. in the path of these radicals. It would be better to begin developing a military and intelligence strategy now.