When we think of religious violence, it is most unlikely that Buddhism – a religion generally perceived as inherently peaceful – springs to our mind. As a matter of fact, also because of the vaguely orientalist and stereotyped perspective from which we look at the heterogenous Asian realities, it is difficult to see a link between Buddhism and phenomena like violence and aggressive militancy: we experience a sort of cognitive dissonance whenever we try to imagine a monk in his saffron robe giving up his contemplative state to stir communal hatred or even lead an armed assault against a mosque.
Yet, Buddhist monks are today protagonists of what is known as Buddhist nationalism – a phenomenon that, though having its roots in the colonial period, has recently hit the headlines following acts of violence which took place in countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. Although different in many aspects, all these countries share the fact that the majority of their population follows Theravada Buddhism, whose monks have traditionally had high social prestige. All three countries are also undergoing a difficult political situation characterised by transition and uncertainty – consider for example the recent democratisation in Myanmar, the latest military coup in Thailand or the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka. These circumstances have somehow nourished a revisitation of the parameters that define national identity while giving more credibility to Buddhist nationalism.
This kind od exclusive nationalism ha reached alarming proportions. Myanmar is undoubtedly the country where Buddhist nationalism has acquired greater legitimacy and in its name ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims is being carried out. Certainly, Myanmar is the country where Buddhist nationalism has acquired greater legitimacy. Here the monk Ashin Wirathu, founder of the movement 969, has oddly proclaimed himself “the Burmese Bin Laden” and is fomenting intolerance and violence against minorities through social networks like Facebook and YouTube. Instead, in Sri Lanka the success of extremist Buddhism has been promoted mainly by the group Bala Sena (brigade of the Buddhist power), responsible for the Aluthgama massacre in 2014.
All in all, Buddhist nationalism is nothing but an aggressive form of xenophobic religious militancy which targets minorities, especially Muslims, through acts of violence and a poisonous propaganda aimed at spreading degrading islamophobic stereotypes. In the rhetoric of Buddhist nationalism, faith plays a crucial role in defining who belongs to the nation and who does not, overlapping the concept of religion and that of ethnic group. Therefore, the religious other becomes the enemy of the nation and as such is persecuted.
What is worth mentioning is that Muslim communities in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand represent no more than 10% of the overall population of each of these countries and so it is ill-founded to depict them as a threat the majority. Yet, this has not been enough to prevent waves of gruesome violence against Muslim people, properties and shrines. Not even the Buddhist tenet of non-violence seems to restrain intolerance and aggressiveness. On the contrary, radical Buddhists find in ancient mythology – where killing the infidel was a legitimate means to protect the community – the justification for their behaviour and the connection with their present aspirations.
However, extremist Buddhism owes its success mainly to some unscrupulous political figures who, in several cases, have benefitted from the religious mobilisations carried out by monks. This is particular apparent in Sri Lanka, where the ex President Mahinda Rajapaksa consolidated his electorate along religious and ethnic lines. In Myanmar, where the favour of the clergy is a key element in the new political context, the ruling class, included Aung San Suu Kyi, have proved to be very appeasing towards Buddhist supremacism so much that a set of laws ‘for the protection of race and religion‘ was promulgated. And it is exactly when religious fanaticism combines with political issues that the dangerously monolithic vision of the nation gains momentum.
Translated by Elena Valdameri & Laura Valdameri