It’s known as a peaceful faith. But in Buddhist countries across Asia, radical monks are inciting a rising tide of Islamaphobia
A shin Wirathu Thero sits primly beneath a flashing neon Buddha at his Mandalay monastery, a few dozen saffron-robed novice monks at his feet. The walls of the classroom from which he delivers hate-filled lectures are plastered with images of the two most dominant Buddhists in this part of the world: Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha, who founded the religion 2600 years ago), and Venerable Wirathu himself, the self-styled Buddhist defender at the helm of an extremist nationalist movement that threatens to destabilise Myanmar’s democratic transition.
Outside the colonial-era building, the heart of Mandalay’s notorious Ma Soe Yein monastery complex, a cluster of billboards displays gruesome images of Islamic terrorism: crucifixions, murder and rape victims, and the aftermath of terror bombings, all captioned with doomsday warnings about Islamic expansionism. Next to them are poems glorifying Wirathu as a warrior defender of the faith. “The biggest challenge to Buddhism is Islam,” the diminutive 47-year-old sometimes referred to as the Buddhist bin Laden says through a translator, as he offers up a collection of CDs and pamphlets containing testimonies of wives battered by Muslim husbands.
“Afghanistan, Malaysia, Indonesia … these countries which are nowadays Muslim used to be Buddhist. Now they are working so hard to make Burma an Islamic state also,” he says.
“The essence of the Buddhist religion is to see everyone as a human being. But it is necessary to protect this precious religion.” In doing so, human rights – and even loving kindness, one of Buddhism’s central tenets – must come a distant second, he says. “I don’t want my fellow monks to feel hate towards Muslims,” he continues evenly. “I want them to feel gross about them, like they feel gross about human excrement.”
Myanmar has seen a rise in Islamaphobia since the country’s military junta was replaced with a quasi-civilian administration in 2011, much of it stoked by extremist Buddhist monks such as Wirathu, his nationalist 969 group and its political offshoot, the Ma Ba Tha. Pardoned in 2010 after eight years in jail for hate crimes, Wirathu has since been blamed for fanning deadly inter-religious violence following the 2012 rape and murder of a Buddhist woman by three Muslim men in western Rakhine state.
Some 200 people were killed in the riots, and 140,000 Rohingya Muslims interned in refugee camps where they remain today. In 2013, 20 Muslim schoolchildren were among 40 people massacred by a Buddhist mob in Meiktila, south of Mandalay, after an argument broke out in a Muslim-owned gold shop. In 2014, more rape allegations circulated by Wirathu, later proven to be false, incited further religious violence.
By April this year, thousands of desperate Rohingya were boarding boats to flee the organised violence. Despite appeals for tolerance from western allies and Nobel Peace Laureates Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, who expressed dismay at Myanmar’s democracy champion and fellow laureate Aung San Suu Kyi‘s failure to speak out against the bloodletting, Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar has gained popularity and political traction.
A measure of its influence is that of 2000 candidates fielded by Myanmar’s two major parties, President Thein Sein‘s USDP and Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in recent general elections – the first serious democratic test for the former military-ruled nation – none was Muslim. That is largely seen as a reaction to the Ma Ba Tha’s threat to boycott any party which “didn’t support Buddhism”.
Ultimately only 28 Muslims of a total 6074 candidates contested the November 8 elections.
None won a seat, leaving an estimated 2.5 million Muslims, some 4 per cent of Myanmar’s population, with no voice in parliament.
Ma Ba Tha’s blatant campaigning for the ruling USDP largely failed to sway Myanmar voters, who handed Suu Kyi’s NLD a landslide victory. Myanmar’s Muslims – those still allowed to vote – voted overwhelmingly for the NLD, contributing to its massive victory. Human Rights Watch South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly says the incoming NLD-led government has a responsibility to protect the rights of all ethnic minorities, but most particularly “to end the discrimination and disenfranchisement that Muslims have been facing in Myanmar”.
“Aung San Suu Kyi has said repeatedly since her victory that there is no space in Myanmar for prejudice and that the new government will try to lead its people towards consensus,” Ganguly said. How she will achieve that, given the entrenched prejudices within Myanmar society, is not yet clear.
Rising religious intolerance has Myanmar’s western allies worried. Nine foreign embassies, including those of Australia, Britain and the US, issued a joint statement in September warning of the “prospect of religion being used as a tool of division and conflict during the campaign season”. That same month the country’s parliament and outgoing president Thein Sein signed into law the last of four discriminatory bills championed by the 969 group and Ma Ba Tha; the laws outlaw polygamy (a Muslim tradition), require Buddhist women to seek state permission to marry outside their religion, restrict religious conversions, and limit the Muslim birth rate by empowering officials to impose a 36-month gap between the birth of one child and the next.
By rekindling historical resentments over immigration, and contemporary fears that Muslims are trying to populate their way into power, Wirathu’s scaremongering has tapped a collective nerve in Myanmar. And the fear that Buddhism is under siege here is linked to other nationalist movements across Asia, which are now seeking strength in alliances.
The faithful have formed a serpentine queue under India’s hot morning sun by the time Buddhism’s most famous monk shuffles beneath a yellow umbrella to the steps of his office. For an hour the octogenarian receives his visiting flock in groups of 20 or more, posing for photographs and administering blessings. Many are Nepali, seeking pastoral comfort after the catastrophic April earthquake. There is a smattering of westerners, and some elderly women in unseasonally thick wool tunics from India’s Himalayan Ladakh region – another area of ongoing communal unrest between Muslim and Buddhist communities.
At least three times in recent years the 14th Dalai Lama has made public appeals to fellow Buddhists, singling out those in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, to “remember the face of Buddha” when tempted to use violence against Muslims.
On this occasion too he expresses dismay at Buddhist persecution of the Rohingya, and the indifference shown to their plight both in Myanmar and other Asian nations. But he treads a fine line when beseeching other Buddhist leaders not to incite religious hatred.
Wirathu is scathing of the Tibetan spiritual leader’s warnings that the 969 group is harming Buddhism’s reputation. “Our morality is higher than the Dalai Lama. There are pictures of him standing among women wearing bikinis, and of him kissing women,” he says with a tight smile.
“These things are prohibited by the Buddha. So he might be the hero of his own country but he is zero in Burma.”
The Dalai Lama, awarded the Nobel for his non-violent opposition to China’s occupation of his homeland, concedes there is precedent for violence in protection of the faith, or “if there is no other way to stop something which is harmful for people”. “That is violence but essentially not violence because it is motivated by a sense of love and concern in combination with wisdom,” he says. “If there is any angry feeling involved then you cannot justify it. It must come completely out of a sense of concern, compassion. And there must be no other choice.
Then we can say there is an exception.”
Neither the modern-day Buddhist nationalist movements of Myanmar nor Sri Lanka fit that bill. “Though,” he admits with a laugh, he sometimes jokes with Indian friends that “before Buddhism flourished in Tibet we, like other Mongol tribes, were quite tough. Then once Buddhism was introduced to Tibet it became a more peaceful, compassionate. So then we lost our freedom because Buddhism [came] into Tibet.”
Certainly his Middle Way, advocating Tibetan autonomy within greater China rather than a separate state, faces opposition from some younger Tibetans who say their religion and history are being subsumed by China.
A similar argument led Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan Buddhist nation sandwiched between China and India, in 1992 to expel close to 100,000 Lhotshampa, Hindus of Nepalese origin, many of whom could trace their roots in Bhutan back to the mid-19th century.
The former kingdom, which recently transitioned to a constitutional democracy, is often feted in the West for its Gross National Happiness Index emphasising spiritual, physical and environmental health over material development.
But those exiled thousands, some still living in refugee camps in Nepal, say they are victims of an ethnic cleansing that has been largely ignored by the international community.
The former king’s rationale for the expulsion was a fear of “demographic inundation”, echoing the position of Buddhist conservatives who say their religion has lost more territory in the past millennia than any other, and must now hold its ground. Are they wrong? “I think we have to make a distinction between Buddhist nations and Buddhists,” the Dalai Lama responds. “Since last century Buddhism has had wider contact which has triggered greater interest [in Buddhism] in the West, so today I think the Buddhist population has increased more than even 30 or 50 years ago. In China also, many communists deep inside are now looking at the Buddhist faith,” he adds, citing figures that suggest some 300 million Chinese identify as Buddhist.
It is an extraordinary idea. Beijing’s determination to appoint the Dalai Lama‘s successor has led the spiritual leader to consider ending the Lama tradition entirely, or at least its traditional succession plan in which the soul of a senior Lama is reincarnated in a child. Yet the Sino Buddhist revival may be the best counterweight to fears over the religion’s shrinking footprint.
In September 2014, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, Colombo, played host to an ugly conference of Buddhist chauvinists, hosted by the country’s own ultra-nationalist Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or Buddhist Power Force. Key guest at the gathering was Wirathu, who stood beside the BBS’s burly chief monk Gnanasara Thero to announce the two groups together would fight the “serious threat from jihadist groups”. The loose alliance has expanded to include Thai Buddhists fighting a Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand.
Wirathu pledged 969′s full support to the BBS in its “struggle to protect Buddhism in Asia” – a promise with ominous overtones for Sri Lanka’s Muslim and Christian minorities.
Where the Dalai Lama has been denied entry to Sri Lanka for fear of offending Bejing, Wirathu secured a visa, despite a criminal record for inciting religious hatred.
“I know I am not a terrorist and I know Wirathu is not a terrorist, though unfortunately the western media has categorised him as such,” says Gnanasara Thero when we meet at his Colombo temple. “We don’t believe in arms and violence. Our struggle is to protect an innocent society from a violent group. We have been living with Muslims for centuries but the problem now is Wahhabism is a global phenomenon,” he says, referring to the ultra-austere branch of Sunni Islam. “We want to create an Asian alliance to protect Buddhism and keep the region peaceful. People think Buddhists are very innocent, that even if you hit them from behind or shoot them in the head they should keep quiet and accept.” He narrows his eyes. “Is that what the world is expecting from us?”
BBS spokesman Dilanthe Withanage insists Sri Lankan Buddhists are under threat from Muslim growth, even though Muslims comprise just seven per cent of the population. “The rate things are moving we fear in 20 years’ time we will no longer be in the majority,” he says, referring to the Muslim birth rate, which is higher than the national average.
Christians are also in the BBS’s sights. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka says attacks on churches, threats to priests, disruptions of funeral processions and prayer services have doubled in the three years since the BBS was formed. “We all agree on freedom of religion,” Withanage insists. “But there are some pastors, when you convert to Christianity, who will make you put your foot on the Buddha’s head, or even urinate on it.” How would the Buddha have reacted to such provocation? “He would have turned the other cheek,” he concedes.
“But if Sri Lankan leaders had not fought to protect Buddhism when Europeans came, I don’t think we’d have this temple here today.”
Western admirers of Buddhism might struggle to reconcile the popular notion of this religion of peace with such hard-line views. But the Buddha himself allowed that violence could be justified as a last-resort defence of the innocent, and historical precedents for that have been documented throughout the religion’s long history. Hard-line Sri Lankan monks use such precedents to justify their participation in civilian politics, as monks and politicians did to mount a “just war” argument during the long and bloody civil conflict with Hindu Tamil separatists. Since the Tamil Tigers‘ defeat in May 2009, the Muslim community has become the main target. Attacks on mosques, Muslim businesses and a deadly inter-religious riot near Colombo last year have seen Sri Lanka lumped in with Myanmar as a battleground for Buddhist supremacy.
The country has since elected a new president, Maithripala Sirisena, who insists his administration will not tolerate such aggression, and has promised legislation empowering Buddhist prelates to discipline errant monks.
But Michael Jerryson, a religious studies professor at Ohio’s Youngstown State University and a keen observer of Buddhist nationalism, says there has been no concerted attempt in either Myanmar or Sri Lanka to rein in the mavericks and he suspects that is “because the sanghas [monastic communities] are largely in line with these views”.
Jerryson says many westerners fundamentally misunderstand Buddhism, assuming it can be “known” through its texts just as Christianity is learnt through the Bible. “Most Asian Buddhists are not working to become ‘enlightened’,” he says. “They don’t spend hours in meditation either. In countries like Myanmar, Buddhists don’t hold primacy in texts but in rituals.” For Asian Buddhists, a monk’s authority far outweighs that of any text. Which means disputing the word of a dissident such as Wirathu by citing peace-loving texts won’t work; powerful dissenting voices are needed to counter his message.
Jerryson believes Myanmar’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence has “rippled” across Buddhist Asia, compounding localised resentments and piggybacking them onto transnational concerns over Islamic terrorism, to the point where “people are slowly seeing patterns and beginning to question the implicit association of Buddhism and peace”.
“My fear is that when the 14th Dalai Lama dies, much of the justification for remaining non-violent is going to recede. I think his absence will play into [Buddhism's] changing narrative.”
Buddhism is not an infinite theology but one defined by impermanence. Siddhartha Gautama predicted an end date – albeit a generous one of 5000 years – when the core teachings (dharma) of this cycle of Buddhism would be forgotten. In the meantime, he insisted all followers should critically examine the religion’s teachings, not blindly follow them. Unlike Abrahamic religions, which require obedience and warn of divine consequences for apostasy, Buddhism contains no conversion imperative or penalties for leaving the religion. Some scholars believe it is that very fragility – a perpetual source of Buddhist anxiety and motivation that has helped fuel the resurgence of religious nationalism by those who would intervene, or have the state do so, to protect a religion they say will not protect itself.
In Myanmar, a country undergoing dramatic social and economic changes; in Thailand, which has waged a decades-long conflict with a Muslim insurgency; and in Sri Lanka, a nation still recovering from a bloody and divisive war, groups such as Ma Ba Tha, 969 and BBS have found fertile ground among populations anxious about the future and seeking solace in tradition.
Many Buddhists may instinctively reject the extremes of these movements while embracing their commitment to reviving Buddhist culture.
Much like Hinduism’s current Kali Yuga (age of vice), some Buddhists believe their own foretold dark age – marked by a hedonistic decline in the monkhood, neglect of Buddhist teachings and rituals and extreme natural disasters – is already upon them.
Conservative and liberal Buddhist leaders alike concede signs of moral decay. But it is on whether that constitutes an early end of days and the beginning of a new Buddhist cycle that their two paths diverge. The Dalai Lama laments that “some Tibetan and Buddhist lamas [monks] are disgracing Buddhism, seeking sex and money”, and that for some the religion has become more a “social habit” than a spiritual commitment. But then he says, “Buddhism is over 2000 years old.
Some stupid people come from time to time, but Buddha dharma will not be damaged.”
Men such as Wirathu, however, are unequivocal:
the threat to Buddhism is external and so great that without a counteroffensive the religion won’t survive long enough to “naturally decay”.
High on a hill overlooking the city of Kandy, an ancient Sri Lankan Buddhist capital famed as the repository for a great religious relic – one of the Buddha’s teeth – Watareka Vijitha Thero glances nervously at the man serving him tea.
His anxiety is not unfounded. The senior monk spends his days in hiding and his arrival at a famed tourist hotel, after a gruelling five-hour rickshaw trip from his mountain temple, has provoked unrest among Buddhist staff.
Vijitha Thero is famous in Sri Lanka as the outspoken BBS critic who was found dumped naked on a roadside outside Colombo last year, hands tied behind his back and bleeding heavily from the groin. The last thing he remembers is eating a quick meal in a restaurant in Colombo. He believes he was drugged and then inexpertly circumcised – by fellow Buddhists – as a humiliation for defending Sri Lanka’s Muslims. Two days after his attack, Gnanasara led a march that led to the riots near Colombo. Vijitha believes that Gnanasara – who weeks earlier had threatened to cut off his arm for betraying Buddhists – had a part in his assault. Gnanasara denies it.
For Vijitha, groups such as BBS are as much a reflection as they are a reaction to what he sees as a moral decline within the Buddhist clergy; driving, drinking, fornicating, hoarding wealth.
He ticks off the sins with obvious distaste.
“Buddhism has not degenerated because of [groups such as BBS], but people now feel differently about Buddhism because of them.
The robe is 2600 years old,” he says, smoothing his own care-worn garment. “People when they see this robe have always thought of compassion, patience, sincerity.” How is it possible that it should now incite fear?