In the West, Buddhism is often understood as a religion of compassion and peace, with gauzy images of serene meditation, the hum of chanted prayers, a symbolic lotus bloom. So what are we to make of a currently circulating video of a robed Burmese monk wielding a sturdy pole as he joins a killer mob beating a defenseless Muslim man to the ground? In the background, mosques and houses are burning and Muslim children are running for their lives.
Buddhist violence, including lethal brutality against non-Buddhist minorities, is not a phenomenon confined to Burma. In recent decades, Sri Lanka’s ethnic tensions have been ignited and reignited by Buddhist zealots. As in Burma, they find sympathizers in Buddhist-dominated governments and the military. Only weeks ago, Sri Lankan monks were filmed leading a stone-throwing band toward a Muslim-owned clothing warehouse in suburban Colombo, the capital.
In the Himalayan nation of Bhutan two decades ago, fears that a centuries-old Tibetan culture and Buddhist monarchy were under threat from an influx of ethnic Nepalis led to large-scale expulsions of people who, officials said, could not prove they were citizens. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge emerged from an almost thoroughly Buddhist nation.
In Burma, missing from the reaction to the gruesome scenes of terrified Muslims killed and displaced are an unambiguous condemnation and moral leadership by Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father, Aung San, founded the Burmese army, with which she now works in transforming her country. While known around the world as an outspoken champion of democracy, she has now become a Burmese politician, careful not to take on the ethnic Burman Buddhist majority, the powerful monks or the military.
Monks were also fearless defenders of democracy, but the question that now arises is, Democracy for whom? Since the political transition began in Burma, monks have joined in attacks on Muslims first on the western Arakan coast, where stateless ethnic Bengali Muslims have settled for two centuries, and then more recently in other Burmese regions where Buddhists and Muslims lived together in peace.
After anti-Muslim violence broke out a year ago in the Arakan region (now also called Rakhine state) on the Bay of Bengal, Aung San Suu Kyi, an ethnic Burman and a Buddhist, called for adherence to the rule of law, but she showed no public outrage over the increasingly well documented assaults by Buddhist village mobs and monks against the Muslim population known as Rohingyas, many of whom were forced to flee in unseaworthy boats. An unknown number have perished at sea and many thousands, their homes and possessions gone, live in refugee camps.
Attacks against Muslim have erupted sporadically since then, spreading more widely across Burma, and beginning to affect not only the stateless Rohingya Muslins but also communities of Burmese Muslims whose citizenship is not in question. Human Rights Watch reported that in October of last year, in a mixed Burmese and Rohingya Muslim area of Arakan that had previously escaped destruction, satellite images showed that 633 buildings and 178 houseboats had been destroyed.
In mid-April of this year, the BBC and other media in Britain showed images from what was described as police video of Buddhist mobs attacking Muslims in Meikhtila, in central Burma, in March. Shops were looted, buildings burned and more than forty people killed. Again, monks were part of the mob and, again, the Buddhist-dominant police stood by and watched.
The Christian ethnic minorities in Burma have not been victims of targeted attacks so far, by most accounts, though a variety of ethnic groups waging war against the Burmese state for decades include many Christians. Most of them, a large number of them Baptists, were converted during the British colonial era, which ended with Burmese independence in 1948. Though most (but not all) non-Burman ethnic separatists have reached at least tentative cease-fire accords with the central government, their situations could become more precarious if Buddhist violence continues.
In Sri Lanka, paradoxically the most advanced country in the region in human development terms, British colonialism left a legacy of tension and division between the predominantly Sinhalese Buddhist people of central and southern Ceylon, as it was then known, and the long-established Tamil population of the north, with its cultural heart on the Jaffna Peninsula. Another, separate group of Tamils were brought from India later by the British to the central highlands of Sri Lanka as “tea-pluckers” in the sprawling plantations established by British and Sri Lankan companies.
These Tamils, like the Rohingyas in Burma, were denied citizenship for many years, but they did not join the Tamil rebellion in the north. Sri Lanka also has a Muslim population, classified as an ethnic group, and significant Christian communities after centuries of Portuguese, Dutch and British occupation. In a thirty-year civil war that ended in 2009, Muslims were caught in the middle of Sinhala-Tamil pressures.
Under British rule, the northern Tamils, many educated by American missionaries in the Jaffna area, became favored civil servants for the colonial government because of their high level of competence in English and well developed professional skills. After independence in 1948, the Sinhalese majority turned on them and demanded that the government replace them with Sinhala speakers (also abolishing English usage at the same time). When hostilities led to war in the mid-1980s, the conflict was defined, rightly or wrongly, in ethnic and religious terms, with most Tamils being Hindus and the Sinhalese Buddhists.
For a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were in fact two simultaneous civil wars in Sri Lanka, when an extremist Sinhala Marxist-Leninist-Buddhist movement, the People’s Liberation Front, argued that the Sinhalese-led government had given away too much to the Tamils in a short-lived truce and peace agreement in 1987, brokered by India. The JVP, as it was known by its initials in Sinhala, terrorized areas of the Sri Lankan south and interior hill country, with Buddhist monks’ support. The violent movement fed on a sense of having been betrayed to “Hindu New Delhi,” because of India’s military intervention to end the Tamil war. During a ceremony in Colombo, a Sri Lankan Sinhalese sailor stepped out of an honor guard and hit the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi with his rifle.
Succeeding central governments in Sri Lanka, played the Buddhist card with increasing regularity and ferocity, running up a multicolored Buddhist banner rather than the national flag at one point in Jaffna and elsewhere in Tamil-majority areas. Atrocities were committed by both sides during the war between the central government and Tamil militants, though with greater indiscriminate brutality on the side of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which first annihilated virtually all more moderate rival groups and unarmed Tamil politicians early in the war, and assassinated not only a series of Sri Lankan national political leaders but also the country’s leading human rights lawyer, Neelan Tiruchelvam, also a Tamil.
Sri Lankan analysts of intense Buddhist antipathy to Tamils and their culture have suggested that the Sinhalese majority has nurtured a sense of being a threatened minority in South Asia, partly because of the dominant presence of India, with its huge Hindu population, and the political power of the state of Tamil Nadu, whose support governments in New Delhi often need. Sri Lankans see Buddhism pushed to the margins in India, where even some of the most holy Buddhist sites are managed by Hindu organizations. Many Indian Buddhists are poor converts trying to escape the Indian caste system.
The spectacle of Buddhism-as-politics—except for the Tibetan situation, which has more to do with China than India—is largely missed or ignored by most Western Buddhists, who accept some of the practices as more lifestyle choices than religion, with many of these practices heavily influenced by Hinduism or Indian yoga gurus and ashrams.
In Sri Lanka, Buddhism is a faith that defines society for the Sinhalese, and it becomes the identifying characteristic when they feel threatened. That still doesn’t entirely explain how it became the rallying call of the modern Sri Lankan military, or large segments of it, and how its nonviolent, introspective teachings were so easily abandoned not only in time of conflict—perhaps understandable given the brutality of the Tamil Tigers—but also when time came to make a just peace with the civilian population of the Tamil north.
The Tamil Tigers were not defeated until 2009 under a determined army assault. In putting down the long rebellion, the Sinhalese Buddhist side incurred universal opprobrium for its human rights abuses, and now triumphantly dominant in the central government, it remains unwilling to heal the Hindu Tamils’ cultural wounds.