Buddhist fundamentalism and the accompanying nationalistic violence has been fermenting for several years in the Asian South Pacific. 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). This violence has largely been confined to eruptions of violent riots and political demagoguery. However, many factors point to the notion that this may gradually expand.
Buddhist militancy appears to be the next wave of terrorism in Asia — and it could go global. It’s been recurrently in Sri Lanka since the end of the ethnic civil war in 2009, with Buddhist monks attacking minority Muslims as well as Christians. Similarly, in Myanmar since 2012, Buddhist monks have been openly attacking minority Muslim groups, including the ethnically ostracized Rohingya people. Now, extremist monks in both countries have formally linked up to form a global anti-Islamist pact (fairobserver.com). This presumes the rise of an international network of Buddhist fundamentalist groups developing into a mold similar to present day Islamic terror networks.
In the years leading into the twenty-first century, fear in the Asian world over the real or perceived rising influence of Islam has led to the rise of religious extremism from the Asiatic Buddhist communities. Over the past few years in Buddhist-majority Burma, scores, if not hundreds, have been killed in communal clashes with Muslims suffering the most casualties. Burmese monks were seen goading Buddhist mobs, while some suspect the authorities of having stoked the violence — a charge the country’s new quasi-civilian government denies.
In Sri Lanka, where a conservative, pro-Buddhist government reigns, Buddhist nationalist groups are operating with apparent impunity ─ looting Muslim and Christian establishments and calling for restrictions to be placed on the 9% of the country that is Muslim. Meanwhile in Thailand’s deep south, where a Muslim insurgency has claimed some 5,000 lives since 2004, desperate Buddhist clerics are retreating into their temples with Thai soldiers at their side. Their fear is understandable. But the close relationship between temple and state is further dividing this already anxious region (world.time.com). Various movements, organizations and leaders have emerged from this.
One of the most prominent figures is Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, who was credited with inciting angry Buddhists in Myanmar to riot against the Muslim minority, burning mosques and Muslim-owned shops and houses and attacking Muslims who dared to challenge them. He has been featured in newspaper accounts as the Face of Buddhist Terrorism. In 2013 and 2014, scores were killed and thousands were displaced from their homes. In the town of Meiktila, a Buddhist mob surrounded a Muslim man and set him on fire.
The United Nations’ Commission on Human Rights have identified Wirathu as one of the main figures in Myanmar’s pattern of human rights abuse against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya, who live in the northern portion of Rakhine province adjacent to Bangladesh. Wirathu justifies his actions under the cover that he is protecting the cultural purity of Buddhism.
His accusations include the suspicion that all Muslims living in Myanmar are sympathetic to extremist groups such as Al Qaeda. That Muslim men who marry Buddhist women force their wives to convert to Islam. He also argues of Islamic conspiracies at a global level. According to Wirathu, rich Muslim countries have bought off the UN, and its human rights accusations were part of a Muslim plot. He expands this conspiracy belief to include the mainstream news media, which he claims is also under control of Islamic extremists (religiondispatches.org).
Such religious movements are not relegated to Myanmar. Recently, in Sri Lanka, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Theron, General Secretary of Body Bali Sena (BBS) and Buddhist monk, (thesundayleader.lk) has been inciting hysteria with his firebrand sermons. His organization, the BBS, is a Buddhist organization many have called Right or Ultra-Right that emerged as a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka in 2013. Since then, this new group has slowly grown in stature and popular support in the country’s Buddhist-dominated areas. The BBS essentially talks about protecting the Buddhist culture of the country from foreign religions. So far, the issues raked up by the BBS are worthy of active and sympathetic consideration. BBS is able to capture the attention of the Buddhist population of Sri Lanka (samvada.org).
In 2016, Gnanasara reignited anti-Muslim sentiments with numerous speeches and public attacks against the country’s Muslims. He stated that Muslims cannot teach monks about reconciliation or co-existence, and if they confront Buddhists, then Buddhists are ready to respond accordingly. The monk later made an even more blasphemous comment on social media where he told the Muslim Council to send the letter they sent to the IGP to Prophet Muhammad.
His rhetoric has gone beyond abusive speech. As pointed out by the Muslim Council. On 15 June 2014, Ven. Gnanasara Theron incited the people of Kalu Tara district to cause violence, death and destruction to the Muslims of Aluthgama and Beruwela. The rioting caused the death of two persons, destroyed houses and property and inflicted damages to businesses worth billions of rupees. The repeated calls by the Muslim community for a commission of inquiry and punishment of the perpetrators have fallen on deaf ears. Two years on, Ven. Gnanasara there is proudly claiming that he will repeat Aluthgama in Marianna (thesundayleader.lk).
On 16 June 2014, addressing the cheering crowd in the tension-stricken town, the monk threatened that if any Muslim set hands on any Sinhalese, let alone Buddhist monks, it would be the end of all the Muslims. The monk has publicly claimed that he was a racist and a religious extremist (colombopage.com). These movements have gained significant momentum among the local Buddhist population and have had severe influence on the local government and its policies.
Wirathu’s movement has worked to the greater detriment of the Muslim minority. The transition to democracy in Myanmar has allowed popular prejudices to influence how the new government rules, and has amplified a dangerous narrative that casts Muslims as an alien presence in a Buddhist-majority. Muslims of all ethnicities have been refused national identification cards, while access to Islamic places of worship has been blocked in some places.
At least 21 villages around Myanmar have declared themselves “no-go zones” for Muslims, backed by the authorities. Some of the places had erected signs saying that Muslims could not stay overnight, buy or rent property, and local people were prohibited from marrying a Muslim. In Rakhine state, the report highlighted growing segregation between Buddhists and Muslim communities and severe travel restrictions for the Muslim Rohingya which limited their access to health care and education (atimes.com).
At the time of this writing, more than 370,000 Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh amid a mass-scale scorched-earth campaign across the border in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State. Myanmar security forces and vigilante mobs are burning down entire Rohingya villages and shooting people at random as they try to flee. According to a report from Amnesty International, Myanmar’s security forces have planted internationally banned antipersonnel landmines along its border with Bangladesh. These have seriously injured at least four civilians, including two children, and reportedly killed one man (amnesty.org).
On Wednesday, Sept. 13, the UN Security Council expressed deep concern over the situation in the Rakhine State of Myanmar and called for an end to violence against the Rohingya, a mostly Muslim ethnic minority group (news.xinhuanet.com). In Sri Lanka the situation is similar.
The Bodu Bala Sena came into prominence due to its public opposition to the Halal mark on all products marketed in Sri Lanka. This was the demand made and achieved by the less than 10% population of the Muslims of the island. The Halal mark has been made mandatory on all products in Sri Lanka due to the pressure of the Muslim leadership, although a large population of the country – Buddhists, Hindus and Christians – who constitute around 90% of the population, don’t need it at all. All producers of food products have been forced to manufacture Halal products and approach a Muslim council for Halal certification.
BBS’s opposition to this issue had led to the Ulema council withdrawing the mandatory demand for Halal certification. Since then, the BBS has turned its attention to, what they perceive as the growing Islamization and Christianization of the Island nation. The BBS essentially talks about protecting the Buddhist culture of the country from foreign religions. By this it also means the Christian missionaries who are trying to convert people. They see their mission is to curtail any such efforts. The BBS has maintained that Hindus and Buddhists of the country should work together on these issues (samvada.org).
The rise of Buddhist fundamentalism has gained series momentum in just a few years, with leadership intent on creating a global movement.
In September 2014, Buddhist monks in Myanmar, including Ashin Wirathu, flew to Sri Lanka to officially launch the global Buddhist alliance against Islamist militants. At the time, they said the goal was to get more Buddhist groups to join their cause against Islamist militants.
While the current wave of religious extremism seems largely relegated to Myanmar and Sri Lanka, historically there are accounts of Buddhist violence in Thailand, Japan and Tibet. Other countries, such as Cambodia, Bhutan, Laos and Vietnam have a significant Buddhist population. Some have speculated that the populations of these countries could be exploited to extend radical networks and look for potential recruitment pools for the extremist Buddhist alliance.
Outside of Asia, there are particular Buddhist centers in Europe or the United States that might be targeted by these militant monks (fairobserver.com). The Buddhist fundamentalist movement is indeed growing; however, the question is to what end?
While radical Buddhism is definitely growing and gaining momentum in the countries of Myanmar and Sri Lanka, where it has reached high popularity amongst the domestic Buddhist population, similar movements in other Buddhist dominated countries have so far failed to materialize. A search for information on Buddhist radical groups or movements outside of the aforementioned countries yielded no results. From this, one could conclude that certain forecasts about a global movement emerging are exaggerated.
The meeting held in 2015 between movement leaders from Myanmar and Sri Lanka has so far not seemed to coalesce into something of great significance. Still, where the movement is popular, it has resulted in extreme violence and persecution of those practicing other religions. Since, radical Buddhism has not received the attention of radical Islam or Hinduism, it is also difficult to be completely sure of this movement’s reach.
Furthermore, the leadership of the radical Buddhist movement has characterized their intentions as existing to fight Islamic extremists threatening their religion. With the possibility of Islamic retaliations for the violence in South East Asia, the concern could be that Buddhists globally could start to define the movement in that context. This could play into the strategy of the extremists as a way to build their movement’s international reach. It also helps to legitimize their actions in the eyes of the western world, who would be more apt to excuse a movement purporting to work against radical Islam.
Even if the movement doesn’t reach beyond its current state, the outcry from the Muslim community has been profound over the persecution of Muslims in this region. It has become a rallying cry for many radical Islamic groups looking to justify their cause and build support among Muslim communities.
In the early stages of this movement, it’s too early to draw any hard conclusions. However, the western governments should not wait until this situation becomes an organized global threat. Intelligence resources should be allocated to collect intelligence on this movement and focus efforts to curtail their growth globally as well as influence within the regional borders where they currently reside.
Actions to combat Buddhist extremist must be public and well publicized to show the Islamic world that the governments of the world are combating religious extremism in general, not simply targeting Islam while ignoring everyone else. Ultimately, the war against terrorism must be more broadly focused. Countries cannot become so preoccupied with one form of religious extremism that they become blind to other growing movements. If they fall into that trap, then by the time the world becomes threatened by this new force, if it does, it will be against a well-organized network hosting global support with vast resources. Intelligence communities of the world will once again be playing catch up.