There are innumerable accounts in the international media and academia on aggression against religious minorities, especially the Muslims, in the Buddhist majority countries in South and Southeast Asia. They report incitement of violence by ‘militant’ Buddhist monks of the the MaBaTha and the 969 Movement against the Rohingyas in Burma, Thai monks against Muslims in Southern Thailand and the Bodu Bala Sena against Muslims in Sri Lanka. Human rights groups are calling for international responses to Buddhist ‘fundamentalism’, ‘ethnic violence’, and ‘neo-Nazi’ religious nationalism. Western and international Buddhist leaders are urging Buddhists in Theravada Buddhist countries, especially Burma, where there is widespread violence and displacement of Rohingya Muslims, to uphold social pluralism and Buddhist principles of non-violence, mutual respect and compassion.
Indeed, aggression and violence of any individual or group towards another must be condemned and stopped. However, one-sided, dualistic depictions of majority aggression and minority victimization further polarization and conflict rather than peace and harmony. The vast majority of monks and lay people in the Buddhist majority countries abhor violence and have lived in mutual harmony and with respect towards other ethnic and religious communities for centuries. A deeper perspective on the religious conflicts in Asian Buddhist countries calls for a balanced investigation of the historical challenges Buddhists have faced and continue to face in maintaining their religious identity and culture.
Buddhism which had its origin in 5 BC in India disappeared from the country of its origin due to internal dissension, revival of Brahmanism and Islamic invasions. The destruction of the great Buddhist University at Nalanda by Muslim invaders in 12 AD signified the demise of Buddhism in India. Other Buddhist societies like the Maldives and Indonesia also experienced decimation of their Buddhist cultures due to Islamic conquest. The process of violent Islamization continues to date as in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh where the Buddhist tribal communities are facing religious persecution and cultural destruction. The destruction of the Bamian Buddha statutes in Afghanistan in 2001 received international condemnation but the bombings in Bodh Gaya at the seat of the Buddha’s enlightenment in July 2013 by Muslim extremists allegedly revenging for the violence against the Rohingyas in Burma, received scarce attention.
As Buddhism began to be wiped out of India the challenge of safeguarding the Buddha’s teaching and Buddhist culture was taken up by the neighboring countries. Support from the state and the monarchy was crucial for the peaceful acceptance, spread and survival of Buddhism in these lands. Buddhist monks made great sacrifices to preserve the Buddha’s teachings for posterity and safeguard Buddhist cultures against internal and external forces of destruction. The Tripitaka, the Pali Canon, was first written down by Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka in 1 BC. The vinaya monastic disciplinary code, vipassana insight meditation and other aspects of Buddhist teaching were passed down with difficulty from teacher to teacher in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and other Asian countries. These sacrifices have made the Buddha’s universal teachings readily available to the international community today.
The arrival of European colonizers since the 15th century halted the Islamization of India and the Buddhist countries of Asia. However, during British colonial rule and Christian proselytization, Buddhist monastic education and Buddhist culture lost their traditional state patronage in Sri Lanka and Burma (Thailand escaped western colonization). With the arrival of Hindu and Muslim immigrant groups from India into Burma and Sri Lanka during the colonial period, Buddhist communities became further marginalized economically and politically. Many monks, like many lay people who participated in nationalist resistance and struggles for democracy including the recent ‘Saffron Revolution’ in 2007 against the military regime in Burma, lost their lives in the process. These divergent developments laid the basis for the emergence of current grievances and ethno-religious conflicts.
Buddhist societies today feel threatened by a confluence of political, economic and cultural forces beyond their control. Globalization and the capitalist consumerist culture which amount to a form of ‘economic fundamentalism’ drive people away from the simple, ecological and harmonious way of life associated with the Buddha’s teaching. Evangelical Christian proselytization, relying on economic incentives to convert poor Buddhist, Hindu and animist groups create tension and aggravate inter-group relations. So do alleged efforts by Islamic groups to establish Muslim settlements within Buddhist and other religious communities. The absence of international financial networks of aid and mutual support, such as, those of Christian evangelicals and the Wahabi Muslims make many Buddhists feel relatively powerless in their own countries despite their numerical majority. The higher fertility and population growth rates among Muslims exacerbate fears of Buddhists (as well as Hindus in India and Christians in the west) over their numerical majority status and the cultural identity of their countries. There is a growing feeling that compared to the more authoritarian Islamic countries which are closed to outside cultural influences, the relative openness of Buddhist societies make their cultural survival precarious. There is concern that the Buddhist identity in South and South East Asia may finally be wiped out by the internationally powerful universalizing religions of Islam and Christianity. While aggression or violence of Buddhists or others should never be condoned, the rise of current conflicts need to be understood in relation to these broader realities.
The constitutions of Burma, Sri Lanka and Burma give special place to Buddhism as the religion of the great majority of their country’s citizens while simultaneously upholding religious freedom and the rights of other religions. However, given increasing fears over the continued majority status of Buddhism, the Burmese government has recently passed several controversial laws restricting religious conversions, marriage between Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men and criminalizing extra-marital affairs. Thailand’s 2007 constitution which provides for freedom of speech prohibits speech likely to insult Buddhism. In Sri Lanka, Buddhist groups are battling internationally backed efforts promoting pluralism and secularism to change the foremost place given to Buddhism in the country’s constitution.
The seemingly local and religious conflicts in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand are far more complex than suggested by simplistic assertions of primordial hatred and majority-versus-minority violence. The so-called Buddhist-Muslim conflicts in Southeast Asia are enmeshed in the broader geopolitical struggle over control of the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. As Asian analysts point out, in order to curb the growing influence of China in these regions and across Asia, the United States may well be employing the divide and conquer strategy playing local ethno-religious groups, such as, the Buddhists and Muslims, against each other.
To find lasting solutions, these conflicts need to be viewed in a broader global as well as a humanist perspective rather than as isolated ‘Buddhist’ violence or extremism. There is a great contradiction in expecting Buddhist countries to uphold ‘Western Buddhist visions of a pluralistic society’ while the western countries themselves are exhibiting tremendous fear and antipathy towards immigrant Islamic populations as well as ethno-religious violence, fundamentalism, neo-Nazi tendencies and militarism towards Islamic countries. There is a double standard in the promotion of secular constitutions in Buddhist countries while the Islamic countries and some western Christian countries advocating secularism and pluralism themselves uphold the religions of their majority populations as their state religions. International human rights NGOs, western Buddhist leaders and others calling for pluralism, peace and compassion in Theravada Buddhist countries must also call on the governments, corporations and community leaders of western and Islamic countries to uphold the same. Ethno-religious pluralism, non-violence and compassion are not uniquely Buddhist and should not be required only of Buddhist majority countries. They are universal principles and must be respected by all of humanity.
Asoka Bandarage, Ph.D. is the author of Sustainability and Well-Being: The Middle Path to Environment, Society and the Economy (Palgrave MacMillan) and many other publications. www.bandarage.com