Recent incidents of anti-Muslim religious nationalism in Sri Lanka and Burma, ostensibly in defense of the Theravada Buddhist faith held by the majority, have opened fresh wounds.
Growing violence appears in danger of spinning completely out of control in Burma, most lately in the town of Okkan on the outskirts of Rangoon, where a Buddhist mob burned as many as a dozen homes and ransacked a shop shouting “Let’s destroy the property of Muslims.” Two mosques were desecrated and Qurans were torn to pieces.
Some of these are violent events with alleged government or Buddhist monastic (sangha) backing. Others appear spontaneous, beyond the control of state and Buddhist hierarchy. Either way, they are destructive and troubling. Buddhism is revered as a faith of healing and mercy, but like all religions, it can promote contradictory elements of triumphalism and intolerance.
Both countries are newly emerged from recent politically traumatic experiences: the release from a decades-long military autocracy (Burma) and the ravages of a civil war (Sri Lanka). Both are spectacularly ill-served by this latest outburst of jingoism in the name of a faith that in both instances appears to be manipulated to meet political ends.
Turning first to Burma, the state has a long record of relations between the majority Buddhists (90 percent) and minority religions, notably Muslims (5 percent) and Hindus (3 percent). Muslims from a variety of Middle Eastern and Central Asian ethnic backgrounds were at one time a welcome part of historical Burmese kingdoms, traders for the most part, but even serving in the infantry of the great king Mindon Min in the mid-19th century.
Others, particularly the Rohingya in Arakan State bordering on present-day Bangladesh, filtered across porous borders over decades. More controversial were thousands of Indian Muslims brought in by British colonial officials for their commercial skills and hard work.
Anti-Muslim outbreaks associated with Burmese Buddhist economic resentment occurred periodically prior to independence. But Muslim fortunes in Burma were virtually ruined by the 1962 military takeover of the state. The Rohingya in particular were held back by the 1982 Citizenship Law, which required proof of ancestry in Burma for three generations.
Elsewhere, in 1997 the government allegedly provoked a violent anti-Muslim riot as a diversion over the disappearance of a precious, mystically powerful ruby rumored to have been stolen by superstitious generals from the famous Maha Myat Muni Buddha image in Mandalay.
Further attacks in 2001 in Taungoo and Pyinmana were precursors of the vicious 2012 pogrom on Rohingya communities in western Arakan State. This sometimes featured Buddhist monks in the vanguard of activism organizing and encouraging forcible relocation of the Muslim population. More recently in March of this year, a minor altercation in a Muslim-owned gold shop in the small mid-country city of Meikhtila was suddenly compounded by the murder of a Buddhist monk.
This provoked a week-long rampage. Dozens of pro-Burmese motorcyclists suddenly appeared. Photos of a Buddhist monk manhandling a bulldozer, and of police standing by while Muslim buildings burned, lent credibility to the suggestion that military parliamentarians disgruntled over the reforms of the government of President Thein Sein were behind the incident, perhaps a circuitous appeal for a return to military rule.
Though Muslims are only a fragment of Burma’s population, a recent avalanche of rumors about rising Muslim economic and demographic dominance is further spurred on by widespread circulation of inflammatory Islamophobic DVDs. These are complemented by the infamous and relentless hate-filled sermons of the maverick Buddhist monk Wirathu of Mandalay’s otherwise prestigious Masoeyein Monastery.
The vitriol spills over into street-level social and commercial relations, with Buddhist businesses demarcating their premises with a special number (969) purporting a spiritual significance, and Muslims adopting something of the same strategy with their own sacred numerals (786).
Left unresolved, these unsavory activities are serious harbingers of a possible failure of Burma’s three-year experiment with reform and democracy.
Second, Sri Lanka is an example of how sectarian conflict can ruin an otherwise fortunate country. Despite the end of the long civil war in 2009, inter-community relations have sharply deteriorated, and minority vulnerability is high.
This has provided space for a new, anti-Muslim ethnic fault line. Lankan Muslims make up only 9 percent of the population and have a centuries-old historical lineage with the Middle East. Many Muslims have been caught by surprise at the recent turn of events, believing themselves to be well integrated, loyal to the state during the civil war, and with longstanding senior appointments in government.
But the roots of Buddhist resentment and suspicion about Muslim presence in Lanka emerged a century ago with the introduction of the “Aryan myth” into Sinhala politics, which claimed that all minorities live in Lanka by the grace of Sinhalese supremacy and must know their secondary place.
This was the background to the infamous 1915 anti-Muslim riots. Nowhere was motivation for an activist Sinhala Buddhist role more clearly articulated than in Ven. Walpola Rahula’s 1946 ground-breaking “Bhiksuvage Urumaya” (The Heritage of the Bhikkhu).
An intense religio-ethnic struggle had come to characterize the nation, and Buddhism played a critical role in fostering a tough, uncompromising ethnocentric faith, characterized by the 1956 and 1983 riots, this time focused on Ceylon Tamils. An appeal to neo-traditionalism, rather than a needed reappraisal of the role of the sangha and Buddhism in public life, became commonplace.
The situation in 2013 is really not much different in this matter. Just as even an educated Sinhala middle class was persuaded that the Tamils were taking over commercial, educational and professional opportunity in Lanka in the 1980s, now there is renewed antipathy toward the longstanding indigenous Muslim community, an attitude that thrives under the present government, feeling vindicated by the victorious Eelam war.
Anti-Muslim actions have involved attacks on mosques with little or no effective police response, claims that national examination results are distorted to favor Muslims, demands for repeal of Halal certification with the claim that its fees go toward mosque construction, ludicrous conspiracy theories (e.g., that certain sanitary napkins sold in Muslim stores to Buddhist women lead to sterilization), claims that Muslim families are too large, and malicious spreading of rumors of rape and coercion. Within the last year there have been attacks on Muslim mosques or businesses in Dambulla, Gampola, Peliliyana and Colombo, some involving stone-throwing Buddhist monks.
This is accompanied by the sudden rise of the Bodhu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force), a relatively new expression of Sinhala ultra-nationalistic patriotism. The organization uses crude language to describe, for instance, Muslim imams, and is also actively anti-Christian.
It has top-level patronage support, with its new leadership academy in Galle opened by Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who recently intoned, “It is the monks who protect our country, religion and race. No one should doubt these clergy.”
Buddhism is not a monolithic organization in Sri Lanka. The sangha is comprised of approximately 30,000 monks (bhikkhus) belonging to three principal nikayas, in turn divided into many smaller groups. Each monastery is virtually an autonomous unit.
This indicates that centralized authority over the conduct of sangha members is almost non-existent. Buddhism’s many nuances, structural and ideological, make it impossible for senior monks to dictate an alternative official Buddhist position or to propose any one sweeping commentary on its participation in the political destiny of the country.
This is compounded by a current climate of fear and helplessness, with people silent or unable to speak out against rampant injustice, intimidation and violence. The government appears indifferent to alternative opinions and is obsessed with majoritarianism, not with unity in diversity, or equality and justice in a pluralistic state.
Lankan moderates, of which there are many, have failed to sustain or act on inter-religious friendships and to speak out and protect each other. Regrettably there is no key internal pressure from the electorate to challenge the slide into communalism, despite the horrors this stance has visited upon Lanka since independence in 1948.
Muslim leaders have not been confrontational, and remain largely conciliatory. But there is the risk of Sri Lanka losing any political and economic goodwill the government might have built up with Middle East countries, many of which are huge sources of employment for Sri Lanka domestics and their important economic remittances.
No government representing a majority Buddhist population should tolerate such anti-Muslim activism. As Ven. Arriya Wuthu Bewuntha, abbot of the Myawaddy Sayadaw Monastery in Mandalay has put it, “This is not what the Buddha taught.” But in both Burma and Sri Lanka, this is an ongoing uncomfortable reality. It remains to be seen what further deleterious consequences these events will have for these nations.
Bruce Matthews is a professor emeritus of comparative religion at Acadia University in Nova Scotia.