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Throughout the last century, Buddhism has cultivated a peaceful image of meditation and pacifism. Buddhist temples and gardens filled with swirling incense evokes feelings of peace and zen throughout the world. However, Buddhism, like many other religions around the world, does not have a monopoly on peace. In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Buddhists comprise the majority of the national populations, yet some Buddhists feel they are under existential threat from Islam. As Islam struggles with their own violent extremists, some Buddhists are turning away from the peaceful tenets of their religion in favor of militant tribalism that portrays them as the protector of their religion. Monks in Sri Lanka are teaching that Muslims do not belong in their country and that the Buddhist Sinhalese majority must control the leadership of the country. The ethnic cleansing campaign against Muslims in Myanmar has forced the small percentage of Muslims to flee or face death and violence.
Theravada Buddhists, a branch of Buddhism, is the overwhelming majority in the five countries where their faith is practiced — Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand — so it might seem strange that they feel so at risk. But Buddhism, whose adherents make up only 7 percent of the global faithful, is the only major religion whose population is not expected to grow over the next few decades, according to the Pew Research Center. On the other hand, the number of Muslims, is growing quickly, and Pew projects by 2050 that there will be nearly as many Muslims in the world as there are Christians.
Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka and Myanmar know their global numbers are at risk and have turned to portraying their religion under existential threat. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the influential head of the Buddhist nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), called a meeting of up to 10,000 clergymen on Sunday. The gathering will decide who to back in the presidential elections later this year in the Indian Ocean island nation where Buddhists make up about 70 percent of the population. The rest include ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindus, and Muslims.
This rise of militant Buddhism is intimately tied with the rise of nationalism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. In a statement, Gnanasara said, “Today, the Sinhala ethnicity, which has developed this country historically, has become very weak … There is no leader who holds responsibility for Sinhalese… We will only turn back after creating a leader to the country and getting the power to Sinhalese. Trust us.” He then added that some people were trying to sabotage the convention by spreading fears of possible riots.“Buddhist monks will say that they would never condone violence,” said Mikael Gravers, an anthropologist at Aarhus University in Denmark who has studied the intersection of Buddhism and nationalism. “But at the same time, they will also say that Buddhism or Buddhist states have to be defended by any means.”
All nine Muslim ministers in Sri Lanka’s government and two Muslim provincial governors resigned last month as the country grappled further with the communal backlash of the Easter Sunday bombings by ISIS connected terror cells that killed as many as 250 people. The Buddhist monk, Athuraliye Rathana serves a member of Parliament and an advisor to the president, Maithripala Sirisena, and threatened to fast to death unless the president removed three senior Muslim officials that he accuses of having ties to the suicide bombers who targeted churches and hotels. The eight other Muslim ministers not accused by Mr. Rathana announced their resignations in what appeared to be solidarity with the three accused officials.
In Myanmar, more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled for Bangladesh. The cause? A campaign of ethnic cleansing by the army and its allies with Buddhist mobs and the country’s security forces subjecting Rohingya Muslims to slaughter, rape and the complete erasure of hundreds of their villages. “The day that the I.C.C. [International Criminal Court] comes here is the day I hold a gun,” Ashin Wirathu, a prominent monk who was once jailed for his hate speech, said in response to a decision by the International Criminal Court to pursue a case against Myanmar’s military for its treatment of Rohingya Muslims.
United Nations experts say top Myanmar generals should be tried for genocide. However, few members of Myanmar’s Buddhist clergy, who also serve as the nation’s moral conscience, have condemned the violence. To them, the Rohingya are invaders tainting a golden Buddhist land.One expert believes that the rise of social media has given monks a platform to grow their hate. Ms. Khin Mar Kyi of the University of Oxford said, “I’ve been interviewing so many monks, and it is clear that Facebook is what has been driving their hate. Monks learned that Islamophobia existed in the West, and they felt like it justified their feelings.”
The story on social media goes: Once, Buddhist empires dominated Asia. Then, in the 7th century, Muslim invaders began invading the continent and Buddhist rulers in present-day Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia succumbed to Islam.The indignities continued into this century when, in 2001, the Taliban blew up the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan and suicide bombers in 2019 linked to the Islamic State blew up churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. With these acts, Buddhist nationalists felt vindicated. “We have been warning for years that Muslim extremists are a danger to national security,” said Dilanthe Withanage, a senior administrator for Bodu Bala Sena, the largest of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist nationalist groups.
Before his imprisonment last year, the Buddhist monk Gnanasara Thero said, “We have been the guardians of Buddhism for 2,500 years. Now, it is our duty, just as it is the duty of monks in Myanmar to fight to protect our peaceful island from Islam.”
The rise of religious nationalism in Southeast Asia follows a global trend. Buddhist nationalism is no different than other rising nationalist sentiments around the world: the group in power paints a minority with little to no political or military power as “outsiders” and as “dangerous”. This trend has existed throughout histories as various ethnic, religious, and racial groups have all been targeted by groups that felt their national security, identity, and culture were at risk. History has shown how dangerous it is to paint an “us v.s. them” attitude, and the situation in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and other neighboring countries is no different.
The events happening in Sri Lanka and Myanmar also highlight the both good and bad influence the Western world has globally. No matter the problematic and violent way the Western world came into power, its influence is strong and it is global. The increasing Islamophobic sentiments coursing throughout the United States and Europe not only impact Muslims living in the Western world but globally as well. Whether we like it or not, it is hard for the world not to look towards the Western world and the United States in particular, so it is important for the president of the United States and the leaders of the European Union to set a moral tone for global attitudes.