Only Compassion Can Counter Intolerance in Buddhist Societies
A perceived increase in intolerance and extremist ideologies has been a growing concern across the global political and religious landscape in recent years. No community, it seems, is immune from such conservatism, including Buddhist societies in South and Southeast Asia. However, while there may appear to be commonalities to conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka when viewed from afar, the fault lines of violence are rooted in very specific historical, contextual, and localized issues and circumstances.
The recent unrest in Myanmar began in 2012 with Buddhist riots and violence against the Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine. Tensions had grown largely because of the rising population of the Rohingya and a decline in Rakhine Buddhists, the majority population. The violence spread across the country and brought global media exposure to the 969 Movement, a Buddhist nationalist organization. Buddhists from 969 and the Association of Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha) believe that Muslims pose a danger to Myanmar. Buddhist monk and Ma Ba Tha member U Pamaukkha argues that the nation is ethnically Burmese and Buddhist, and does not have room for the Rohingya.
Though not as highly publicized, the conflict in southern Thailand has a long and contained history. Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala, the three southernmost provinces of Thailand, once formed part of the Islamic kingdom of Patani. The Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 confirmed Thai rule over the historical Patani region, and since then a segment of the Malay Muslim population there has struggled to regain political autonomy. Since 2004, the region has been under martial law and thousands have died in the ensuing violence. In response, the Thai government has militarized Buddhist temples in the region, authorized covert military monks—soldiers selected during training to carry arms while wearing monastic robes and living in temples—and enforced counter-insurgent directives and interrogations, often on Buddhist temple grounds.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, is recovering from a 26-year civil war (1983–2009). Shortly after the war, two Buddhist monks formed an organization called the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force, BBS) to combat a perceived nationalist threat from Muslims. Responding to violence against the country’s Muslim minority by Buddhists, BBS spokesman Dilantha Withanage says, “Whenever there is something wrong done by a Buddhist monk everything [is blamed on] us because of our popularity. BBS is not a terror organization, BBS is not promoting violence against anyone . . . but we are against certain things,” citing threats by Islamic State to declare the whole of Asia a Muslim realm. (BBC)
In any society, a perceived threat to majority status can be alarming to those in the majority and can trigger conservative reactions. Whether or not one agrees with the Buddhists involved in these conflicts, it is vitally important to hear and understand the concerns of all parties. Several prominent Buddhist leaders, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Shodo Harada, and the Dalai Lama, have responded to such violence with calls for peace based on the fundamental Buddhist principles of compassion and respect for all life.
“Buddha always teaches us about forgiveness, tolerance, compassion,” the Dalai Lama says. “If from one corner of your mind, some emotion makes you want to hit, or want to kill, then please remember Buddha’s faith. We are followers of Buddha. We’re in the 21st century. All problems must be solved through dialogue, through talk; the use of violence is outdated and never solves problems.” (ABC News)
The Rise of Militant Monks (Lion’s Roar)
Dalai Lama Pleads for Myanmar Monks to End Violence Amid Damning Rights Report (ABC News)
Buddhist Leaders Respond To Violence Against Muslims In Myanmar (Huffington Post)
Why is there communal violence in Myanmar? (BBC)
The darker side of Buddhism (BBC)