Surge of radical Buddhism in South Asia

Nationalist Buddhist monks in Myanmar and Sri Lanka are playing a key role in instigating hatred and provoking violence towards the Muslim minorities in both countries, claiming that such action is necessary in order to protect Buddhist race and culture. By Roma Rajpal Weiß

By Roma Rajpal Weiss

A series of religious clashes in Myanmar and Sri Lanka in recent years has increased international concern about the role of Buddhist clergy in fuelling anti-Muslim violence.

Deadly riots broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in southern Sri Lanka on 15 June. Three people were killed and 80 injured in the towns of Aluthgama, Beruwala and Dhagra. The violence was sparked by reports that a Muslim man had allegedly attacked a Buddhist monk. Further reports indicated that the argument had actually been between the driver of a monk and the driver of a Muslim man.

Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, the Buddhist Strength Force), a nationalist Buddhist group with a notorious reputation, is being blamed for the incident. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera, the group's leader, gave a speech around the time of the riots in which he claimed that the Sinhalese Buddhist population was under serious threat from the Muslims. This instigated further violence by large mobs, which attacked mosques and burned down shops and houses in Muslim neighbourhoods.

A few weeks later, similar clashes broke out in Mandalay, Myanmar's second largest city. It was rumoured on social media that two Muslim men had allegedly raped a Buddhist woman. The news triggered violence that left two dead and scores injured. The woman later confessed that she had lied and was arrested.

Tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar have been high since violence broke out in the state of Rakhine in June 2012, displacing over 1.3 million people. At the time, Human Rights Watch documented the role of the clergy that led mobs of attackers.

Sri Lankan soldiers stand guard by a roadside following clashes between Muslims and an extremist Buddhist group in the town of Aluthgama, 17 June 2014 (photo: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images)
Amid mounting international concern over the unrest, deadly violence flared in the Sri Lankan coastal resort of Alutgama in June 2014 when Buddhist hardliners set shops and homes alight in defiance of a curfew, police and residents

International links

Experts believe that the network of extremist Buddhists is growing across Asia as they collaborate in countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

"Extremist Buddhists in these countries see Islam as a global force that is backed by powerful countries and money and lot of powerful institutions and covert terrorist organisations. They see themselves as under threat and are trying to respond in a global way as well through regional connections." Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka Senior Analyst at International Crisis Group, told

Muslim communities make up about 10 per cent of the total population in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, both of which have a Buddhist majority.

The communal clashes in Myanmar have been attributed to the 969 movement, an Islamophobic movement led by Monk Wirathu. Touted as the "Burmese Bin Laden", his hate-filled sermons have called for a boycott of Muslim businesses and have petitioned the government to introduce stricter inter-marriage laws.

Earlier this year, Monk Wirathu visited BBS in Sri Lanka. There was talk of collaboration. Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council NGO in Sri Lanka, told that the links between the two organisations are not publicised and are not a part of the public discourse. "However, the Buddhist extremist groups are free to engage in their propaganda, to threaten action against those they deem to be traitors and to break up gatherings that are against the government or on behalf of the ethnic and religious minorities."

Monk Ashin Wirathu (photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images)
Ashin Wirathu (centre) is a Buddhist monk from Mandalay whose anti-Muslim remarks have drawn attention around the world. A picture of Wirathu was featured on the cover of the July 2013 issue of "Time" magazine accompanied by the headline "The Face of Buddhist Terror". The cover drew angry criticism from the government of Myanmar. He is pictured here attending a 2013 conference at which Buddhist monks from across Myanmar gathered to explore ways to ease religious tensions, after some of them were implicated in attacks on Muslims

Government turning a blind eye

Keenan believes that the situation in Sri Lanka would never have escalated to such a point without the direct support of the government, which is principally inclined towards the Sinhalese as they are a crucial vote-bank. It is also rumoured that the president's brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa actively supports the BBS.

Keenan told "This criminal activity has been allowed to happen with no one being punished. The police don't intervene. If arrests are made, the people are released very soon. To my knowledge, there have been no indictments for any crimes or any of these cases. This is despite there being video evidence – eye witness evidence – of many crimes having been committed."

Former Sri Lankan Ambassador to the UN Dayan Jayatilake insists that the government is not taking concrete measures to curb the activities of extremist Sinhalese Buddhists in the country. "Everybody talks about the role of the Buddhist clergy in mobilising the mobs. And yet I don't see sufficient robust efforts being made by the government or even voicing critique of such organisations as the BBS. Rioters and looters have been rounded up but nobody really knows how the investigations are proceeding."

A Sri Lankan resident surveys the damage to a charred Muslim-owned home following clashes between Muslims and an extremist Buddhist group in Alutgama on 17 June 2014 (photo: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images)
According to former Sri Lankan Ambassador to the UN Dayan Jayatilake, here is regret, mistrust, and anguish at community level: "There is an apprehension that any one of these episodes of violence could spiral out of control and that the country could have another cycle of violence"

Deep scars in the community

Jayatilake adds that although military personnel have been assigned to rebuild the areas that were damaged and that mainly Muslim homes and shops are being repaired and reconstructed, the rebuilding is only happening at a physical level. "At the communitarian level, there is regret, mistrust, and anguish; a sense of disquiet prevails. There is an apprehension that any one of these episodes of violence could spiral out of control and that the country could have another cycle of violence."

Analysts are certain that profound damage has been done to relationships in the community and that tension will remain for a long time. Jayatilake would like to see a task force on religious extremism and violence being set up.

Keenan insists that foreign governments, the UN and other influential international players should be making it very clear to the government of Sri Lanka that the situation cannot continue. "The international community should be saying to the Burmese government and the Sri Lankan government that they should be trying to shut down these links. Muslims are equal citizens and have all rights to protection of their property and lives and equal treatment under the law. The governments of these countries need to make that possible."

Roma Rajpal Weiss

© 2014

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/