Despite efforts to undermine the group’s public platform, militant Buddhist nationalists have used social media to their advantage, and MaBaTha’s online influence remains pervasive. During the brutal military crackdown on the Rohingya in 2017, there was widespread support among Myanmar’s Buddhists for the military’s actions, writes Niranjan Jose
Buddhists make up the vast majority of the population in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, 70% in Sri Lanka and 88% in Myanmar, two nations at the frontline of a radical religious-nationalist wave. Those who follow the purist Theravada school of thought are becoming increasingly persuaded that they are fighting for survival, primarily against Islam plagued by its own radical fringe. The militant monks believe that Buddhism is under threat and that it is on the verge of being wiped out. Buddhist mobs have carried out deadly violence on marginalised. Muslim minorities. Given the overwhelming majority of Theravada Buddhists in the five nations where their religion is practiced — Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar — it may appear odd that they feel so threatened.
According to the Pew Research Center- Buddhism has just 7% of the global community as adherents. It is the only major religion whose membership is not projected to rise over the
next few decades. On the other hand, Muslims, who account for just under a quarter of the
global population, are steadily expanding, buoyed by the young population and high fertility
rates. Pew estimates that by 2050, there will be about as many Muslims as Christians on the
planet. Buddhist monks have used this storyline in their propaganda, depicting their religion
as being on the verge of extinction.
Religious scriptures are read politically, and political narratives are filled with religious doctrine, which conveniently – however dangerously – fits into the framework of nation-building. In this multi-religious and multi-ethnic region, virulent Buddhist nationalism has developed as a significant societal problem and a danger to peaceful coexistence. In this article, I contend that political parties deliberately use Buddhist concerns and hate speech against religious minorities to gain votes among religious majorities. There are strong connections between authoritarian regimes and radical Buddhist groups. This violence benefits authoritarian regimes by giving them an excuse for curfews or even military intervention.
Sinhalese-Buddhist Nationalism in Post-Colonial Sri Lanka
The days of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist kings and their monk advisers came to an end in the early 1800s when the British defeated them and ruled until 1948. Though Buddhism was given precedence in Sri Lanka’s post-independence constitution, other religions were also protected. Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has led to a nationalist ideology that has been used to spread and maintain Sinhalese Buddhist superiority within a unitary Sri Lankan state; establish laws, regulations, and institutions that institutionalise such authority; and label those who disagree with this policy as state enemies. Sinhalese Buddhist mytho-history was used by monks and leaders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to argue that Sri Lanka is a designated sanctuary for Theravada Buddhism, and that it belongs to Sinhalese Buddhists.Anagarika Dharmapala founded the Buddhism revivalism movement in Sri Lanka. Dharmapala, known as the “Father of Buddhist Protestantism” in Sri Lanka, was anti-imperialist and pro-nationalist. Dharmapala worked on establishing Buddhist institutions and improving the Sinhala language and Buddhism in Sri Lanka’s public domain, in addition to combating the British.
Buddhist nationalism has been on the rise in Sri Lanka, and it was pushed to the forefront of the country’s politics after local militants carried out Islamic State-inspired suicide attacks on churches and hotels on Easter Sunday 2019, killing 269 civilians. Following the Easter bombings, Athuraliye Rathana, a vocal Buddhist monk and Member of Parliament, started a fast in front of the Sacred Tooth temple, calling for the resignation of a Muslim Cabinet minister in then-President Maithripala Sirisena’s administration, as well as two Muslim governors he suspected of being involved in the attacks. Buddhist nationalist group BoduBalaSena, have bolstered nationalist narratives and perceptions of a global Islamist terrorist threat, as well as approval of defensive violence. Given the rise of global Islam, Myanmar nationalist views that the Muslim minority is the true aggressor have shades of Sinhalese characterisations of the “Tamil threat.” In today’s Sri Lanka, the BoduBalaSena has changed its emphasis from the Tamil threat to global Islam, with disturbing attempts to form anti-Muslim alliances with regional nationalist parties.
Justifying violence in Myanmar
During the period of European colonialism, both Myanmar and Sri Lanka were under British rule. When the British occupied these countries, they disrupted a historically supported state-Sangha (Buddhist community) relationship. Traditional state funding for monasteries was withdrawn, secular education was facilitated, Buddhist traditions were suppressed, and Christian missionary activity was supported by the colonial government. Local inhabitants were often relocated by the British under colonial rule, and colonists took in Hindu and Muslim Indians to work in the colonial administration. As a result, Indian businesses dominated many segments of the economy. Migrant labor was also favored by the British to boost crop production and income. The Muslim population tripled between 1871 and 1911. These factors led to a great deal of discontent among the Buddhist majority. Conflict exploded between Burmese and people of Indian origin in the 1930s, and Muslims were portrayed as a danger to the local way of life.
Myanmar gained independence from British occupation in 1948. However, the country faced armed ethnic tensions and political unrest for the next 14 years. Gen. Ne Win, who led a 1962 coup that resulted in five decades of military rule, was not a devout Buddhist, but he was inspired by colonial-era Buddhist nationalism. Most of the considerable ethnic Indian merchant elite went out of business as a result of his nationalisation of private corporations. In 1977, he was also responsible for unleashing armed forces on the Rohingya, initiating a hunt for illegal immigrants that resulted in the first significant migration to Bangladesh of 200,000 refugees. His most heinous achievement was a 1982 citizenship bill that gave full citizenship rights only to ethnic groups who had lived in Myanmar before 1823. The Rohingya were not among the 135 ethnic groups that were formally identified as meeting this historical deadline. This official denial of Rohingya citizenship also serves as the reason for their statelessness and social exclusion in Myanmar today. More than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims have left Myanmar for Bangladesh since August 2017. It was all part of an ethnic cleansing effort by the military and its partners, the Buddhist mobs slaughtering Rohingya Muslims and destroying hundreds of their settlements. Militant monks see their neighborhoods as targets of a never-ending “holy war,” and they believe it is their responsibility to answer with their own version of “holy war.”
In 2007, 80,000 Buddhist monks in Myanmar protested against the military government’s policy to eliminate fuel subsidies. The “Saffron Revolution” was put down by the military government, but analysts say it may have ushered in the process of democratisation that started in 2011. Between 2011 and 2016, the military-appointed government that led the democratic process scrapped prohibitions on speech and assembly, enabling Buddhist monks to influence public policy. The Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, or MaBaTha in Burmese, was the most popular of the nationalist organisations, headed by Buddhist monks. Buddhist extremists from the MaBaTha party pushed reforms into Myanmar’s Parliament in 2015 to protect Buddhism and the dominant ethnic Bamar group. The laws were opposed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s faction, which sparked a backlash from a disgruntled and united MaBaTha. When the National League for Democracy came to power in 2016, it officially disbanded MaBaTha, but the party was quickly resurrected under a new name, Buddha Dhamma Philanthropy Foundation. Despite efforts to undermine the group’s public platform, militant Buddhist nationalists have used social media to their advantage, and MaBaTha’s online influence remains pervasive. During the brutal military crackdown on the Rohingya in 2017, there was widespread support among Myanmar’s Buddhists for the military’s actions. Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy are not blameless when it comes to encouraging a certain form of Buddhist nationalism. In the run-up to the 2015 elections, neither the ruling party nor the opposition had a Muslim candidate on the ballot. The National League for Democracy was a key player in initiatives to refute allegations of atrocities against Rohingya Muslims. Despite this, many Myanmar nationalists say Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy are “weak” Buddhist defenders.
Many in Myanmar claim that the relationship between the Sangha (community of Buddhist monks) and the state should be symbiotic. This does not imply that the state and the Sangha will work together. Rather, if the Sangha becomes tainted in any manner, the secular authority may move to purge them, and the Sangha may interfere in secular affairs if the government becomes inefficient, powerless, or violent. These leaders may excuse the use of violence when they believe Buddhism is under attack. Buddhism has been an ally of new ethno nationalism due to its strong links with the establishment. Buddhism is so closely associated with the dominant ethnic community that religious minorities’ cultures are often portrayed as non-national. The possible exclusion of racial and religious minorities, and therefore the likelihood of greater insecurity, is thus the dark side of Buddhist political paradigms. The rising tide of religious intolerance poses a major danger to local communities, which, in turn, can pose a threat to the nation. Today’s radical Buddhist organisations tell a story of an underlying Buddhist-Muslim dispute that ignores stories of interdependence, peace, and acceptance.
Myanmar’s inter-religious divisions may be one of the nation’s most significant barriers to complete democratisation, not only because of skewed electoral representation but also because of the horrific humanitarian effects of religious nationalism on the nation’s marginalised minorities. Myanmar’s perceived homology of nation-state and religion has been disrupted. Burma’s national identity should represent the country’s unique multi-ethnic and multi-cultural features. Myanmar should strive for religious and ethnic reconciliation as well as addressing the nation’s many urgent problems, rather than instilling hate and terror and attempting to legitimise still prevalent discrimination. Insecurity breeds radicalism, and if minorities feel threatened, they will resort to violence. Sri Lanka’s Tamil community has already experienced this.
* The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.