Militant Buddhism is on the march in South-East Asia; Why Now?

By Peter Lehr | (The Conversation) | – –

Even ten years on, the first mental image that comes to mind with regard to Theravāda Buddhism is that of Myanmar’s Saffron Revolution of August-September 2007: thousands of Buddhist monks peacefully demonstrating in the streets of Yangon, Mandalay, Pakokku, Sittwe and other towns against the ruling military junta. These peaceful monks still exist, although many of them went into hiding, or fled abroad. But the Burmese monks in the headlines today are preaching violence instead of peace, and “firm action” instead of meditation.

It’s not just in Myanmar that this militant Buddhism is on the rise: it’s also surfacing in the other two leading Theravādin countries: Sri Lanka and Thailand. In all three countries, Buddhists make up the vast majority of the population: 70% in Sri Lanka, 88% in Myanmar, and 93% in Thailand. One could be excused for thinking that there is nothing to worry about: with such towering demographic majorities, Buddhists are surely to some extent safe and secure in their respective countries.

This is not how the militant monks see things. They are convinced that Buddhism is under siege, and in grave danger of being wiped out. To explain this, they point out that while Muslims or Hindu Tamils (in the case of Sri Lanka) are in the minority in these countries, they enjoy significant support from beyond their national borders.

In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, the notion that a non-Buddhist minority is the vanguard of an imminent invasion is very strong indeed. It is believed that firm action has to be taken to prevent “them” from taking over Buddhist lands and eradicating Buddhism. Basically, the militant monks see their communities as targets of a relentless “holy war”, and see it as their duty, to respond in kind with their own variant of “holy war”.

Justifying violence

The conviction that Buddhism is under threat also allows these leaders to justify the use of violence. Militant monks usually start their argumentation by pointing out that even the Buddha himself showed some understanding for the wars conducted by his benefactor King Pasenadi instead of condemning them. He did still warn him that “killing, you gain your killer, conquering, you gain the one who will conquer you” – the message being that violence begets violence. Even for the Buddha, then, nonviolence was not necessarily an absolute value – a point seized on by many of today’s militant monks. Although they readily concede that an offensive use of violence should never be allowed, they point out that peaceful and nonviolent Buddhist communities still have the right to defend themselves, especially if and when the survival of the religion as such is at stake.

This point of view is dated. As soon as Buddhist-majority states came into being, the monkhood had to find ways to justify violence, including war, especially that perpetrated by their virtuous sovereign against an opponent. Indeed it was by the monarch’s benevolence, and under the law and order he created, that the monastic order was able to survive.

An early example of such a justification comes from the Sinhalese Mahāvamsa (the Great Chronicle): After a battle against a Hindu-Tamil army, Buddhist King Dutugāmunu felt remorse for all the deaths he had caused, and asked senior monks for advice. They basically told him not to worry since he had caused the deaths of only one and a half persons – one who had just converted to Buddhism, and another who had been a Buddhist lay follower. All the rest had just been “unbelievers and men of evil life […], not more to be esteemed than beasts”.

This notable verdict implies that killing is excusable as long as the intention behind it is in the defence of the religion. Not surprisingly, this quote still is used to condone the use of violence – most recently by the Sitagu Sayadaw, an esteemed Burmese monastic leader, in order to justify the current persecution of perceived enemies of both state and religion – in this case, the Rohingya.

Sanctioning the violent actions of one’s ruler or one’s government is one thing; actively inciting lay-followers to commit such acts in defence of the religion is something completely different. Compared to “preachers of hate” from Abrahamic religions, today’s militant monks have a difficult tightrope to walk, since incitement to murder constitutes one of Buddhism’s four disrobing offences (pārājikas) – offences resulting in the automatic expulsion from the monkhood. In September for example, a Thai monk was forced to disrobe because he had publicly demanded that for each monk killed in Thailand’s deep south, a mosque should be torched.

Most militant monks are therefore very careful in avoiding open calls to violence – instead, they attend mass rallies and demonstrations to stoke anti-Muslim sentiments and to preach “passive resistance” or “pro-Buddhist affirmative action”: not buying from Muslims, not selling to Muslims, not fraternising with Muslims, not allowing one’s children to marry Muslims. They leave it to their followers, especially those organised in pro-state vigilante groups or Buddhist militias, to draw the right conclusions.

Although there is anecdotal evidence of armed monks actively taking part in violence, the majority of militant monks shy away from directly becoming involved: again, this would be a grave violation of the monastic code. Ashin Wirathu, a monk and leader of the Burmese anti-Muslim movement, describes this passive role very eloquently: “I am only warning people about Muslims. Consider it like if you had a dog, that would bark at strangers coming to your house – it is to warn you. I am like that dog. I bark.”

The rise of this strain of militant Theravāda Buddhism can be explained in ethnic, social and economic terms, but from the perspective of the militant monks themselves, it’s about religion. It’s not about the control of resources or worldly goods, but a defensive “holy war” or “Dhamma Yudhaya” in response to a perceived aggressive “jihad” against Buddhism that has been waged for centuries, from the destruction of the Buddhist library in Nalanda/Bihar at the end of the 12th century, to the destruction of the famous Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001.

The ConversationThis somewhat simplistic reading of history, reminiscent of Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, reinforces the militant monks’ belief that now is the time not for peaceful meditation, but for firm action. The Buddha’s warning that violence begets violence seems to have fallen on deaf ears for the time being.

Peter Lehr, Lecturer in Terrorism Studies, University of St Andrews

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Sky News: “Special Report: The Rohingya refugee crisis”

Posted in Buddhism,Myanmar | 3 Responses | Print |

3 Responses

  1. This video is too heart rending as it is terrifying. . The scenes appear to be straight from a horror movie. Makes one to think. Is there really a God who is all meciful,beneficent and merciful? Was Karl Marx right when he said:” Religion is the sigh of the oppressed; heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions”? And coming down to earth where are those brave nations who describe themselves as ‘champions of democracy and human rights’ who don’t hesitate to obliterate even obliterate prosperous,wealthy functioning nations forcing regime change to prove their ‘passion for human justice’? Why are they so silent now at the barbaric ethnic cleansing of a helpless civilian population?Why these double standards and selective condemnation of evil. Or shall we settle down to accept the words of the famous French philosopher who once said:”Everything in life is abstract. Only we give it value”. However all admiration for this extraordinary courageous reportage by hero investigative journalists of Sky news. And thanks to prof.Cole for posting it.

  2. “…not buying from Muslims, not selling to Muslims, not fraternising with Muslims, not allowing one’s children to marry Muslims. They leave it to their followers, especially those organised in pro-state vigilante groups or Buddhist militias, to draw the right conclusions.”

    A superb capsule summary of how racism operated in a “free-market” regime like the USA. Only the group with the numbers and money has the power to successfully ostracize via its ordinary choices, ruining the lives of the Other, signalling it’s fair game for a KKK to terrorize.

    The same mechanism is what American Evangelicals are demanding with the legal right to discriminate against LGBTQ and in fact anyone else they please based on a “sincerely held religious belief.” It’s also the dream of the anti-immigrant movements all over the world. Ostracize, put at a market disadvantage, ghettoize. Then it turns out the wealthy patrons of all these movements are the real winners, because the deformed labor market thus produced by bigotry drives down the wages of workers who can’t unite for leverage. As long as Group A is in a bit less misery than Group B and has the right to bully it without consequence, the system endures for generations and wealth flows upwards.

  3. The ideal of strict obedience to the vinaya did not really enter Theravada Buddhism until the 19th century, as a result of modernist embarrassment with such things as divination, and has never prevailed among Tibetan or Japanese monks, for instance.

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