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The Rise of Militant Monks

Michael Jerryson reports on the growing tension between Buddhists and Muslims, in which senior Buddhist monks actively incite violence and intolerance.

By Michael Jerryson

AP Photo / Sakchai Lalit.

Recent developments in Burma have brought the world’s attention to the ongoing conflicts between Buddhists and Muslims in South and Southeast Asia. But while the media may present the Buddhist–Muslim conflicts in Sri Lanka, southern Thailand, and Burma as fundamentally the same at their core, they are not. Far from this, these three conflicts stem from specific regional issues and politics. Furthermore, each conflict emerges out of an important historical context. However, through globalization, these conflicts are beginning to overlap.

Sri Lanka: Emerging from Civil War

Sri Lanka is currently recovering from a twenty-six-year civil war (1983–2009) between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). While the civil war was principally over the LTTE’s desire for independence, it came to be infused with religious symbolism and importance since the vast majority of LTTE members were Tamil Hindus, and the Sri Lankan government and its military were—and still are—predominantly composed of Buddhists.

Throughout the civil war, Buddhists and Buddhist monks pressed the state to take a stronger and more aggressive stance. One of the earliest examples of this came from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front), which in the 1980s counted Buddhist monks among its ranks. In addition to applying political pressure, their members were known to threaten political figures and engage in assassination attempts.

Buddhist militant views on the civil war were quite pervasive. The well-known Sri Lankan monk–scholar Walpola Rahula, who taught for many years at Northwestern University, exemplified the Buddhist nationalist perspective on the war when he declared, “the sangha is ready to lay down their lives” to prevent the government from negotiating with the Tamil insurgents. For these Sri Lankans, their country supports the oldest surviving Theravada Buddhist tradition. A division of its land is a division of its Buddhist foundation.

In 1997, Venerable Piyadassi Maha Thera explained to the Buddhist scholar Tessa Bartholomeusz, “You have to defend yourself. These are difficult questions. If someone goes to kill my mother, I’m going to stop him. So this could be a condition in which I am forced to kill.” For Piyadassi, “mother” clearly points to the motherland of Theravada Buddhism: Sri Lanka. His choice of hypothetical was designed to persuade people to side with his Buddhist nationalist vision.

During the civil war, another Buddhist nationalist group developed that was even more conservative than the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. In 2004, Buddhist monks formed the Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage Party) and called on the government to eliminate the LTTE. Whether the government listened to the Jathika Hela Urumaya or not is unclear, but their brutal military actions indicate that they were not adverse to this suggestion.

Shortly after the civil war, two Buddhist monks broke off from the Jathika Hela Urumaya and formed a new organization called the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force). Within a year, the Bodu Bala Sena had focused on a new nationalist threat: Muslims. When I interviewed the founders of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) in the summer of 2014, it had been only two weeks since cofounder Gnanasara Thero had delivered an emotional speech that triggered Buddhist riots and attacks on Muslims in the coastal town of Aluthgama. Gnanasara Thero’s colleague, Dilanthe Withanage, explained the BBS’s view of the Buddhist–Muslim tensions:

We [Sinhala Buddhists] have two major political parties and [thus the] Sinhalese are divided. As a result, Muslims always join with one party and then [get to] join in governing the country. Muslims always do that—they get the advantage of being a minority…. We want the Sinhalese united and a Sinhalese government. We want protection; we [have protected] Theravada Buddhism for the last 2,300 years. Today, Theravada Buddhism is in the West and in Sri Lanka. But this will not last.

For Withanage and other members of the BBS, although the Sinhala Buddhists may enjoy a 69 percent majority compared to the 8 percent Muslim minority, Sri Lankan Buddhism is a global minority. They see Islamic countries as helping out Muslims worldwide, and Western countries as coming to the aid of Christians. Who, they ask, is helping Sri Lankan Buddhists? For this reason, the BBS considers its efforts to defend the buddhadharma necessary to its very survival.

Thailand: The Legacy of Warring Kingdoms

While Sri Lanka’s Buddhist–Muslim tensions emerged out of an extended nationalist agenda and a civil war, Buddhist–Muslim relations in Thailand have a much longer and more focused history. The region of the three southernmost provinces was once part of a Buddhist kingdom called Langkasuka, during an historical period many southern Buddhists reflect on with pride. However, it later became the Islamic kingdom of Patani. Southern Thailand’s current demographic reflects this diverse past; while the country is over 90 percent Thai Buddhist, the three southernmost provinces are more than 85 percent Malay Muslim. Over the centuries, Malay Muslims have struggled to regain their political autonomy from Thailand. Whenever the central government was weak, southern Thai resistance flared. Since January 2004, the region has been under martial law. Violence is pervasive in the region; people live in constant fear.

The Thai government has militarized Buddhist temples, authorized clandestine military monks, and enforced brutal counterinsurgent directives and interrogation techniques, oftentimes on Buddhist temple grounds.

It is within this context that the current conflict resides. Over the last eleven years, the central Thai government has undergone several military coups. Concurrent with this weakened central government, Thai Malay Muslims have waged a grassroots resistance. As early as the 1960s, groups such as the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) engaged in armed resistance and then attempted to negotiate with the Thai government. These organizations opposed the policy of requiring Muslims to bow to Buddhist statues, take Thai surnames, and abandon their Malay heritage and language of Bahasa Melayu. The Malay Muslim organizations called for changes to these regional policies and for limited autonomy. While the Thai government capitulated with some of their requests, the changes did not last long. Malay Muslim ambassadors who sought to negotiate with the Thai government, such as the religious leader and scholar Hajji Sulong, went missing and later were found dead. It is through these experiences that the Malay Muslim community developed a deep distrust of the Thai government and its promise of negotiations, a perspective shared by Thailand’s southern neighboring country Malaysia, which had tried to broker peace negotiations.

When violence broke out in 2004, no attempts were made to negotiate with the Thai government. Thousands have died in sporadic bombings, random shootings, and public beheadings by insurgents, yet during the last eleven years, no group has claimed responsibility for the violence or issued political requests. In response, the Thai government has militarized Buddhist temples, authorized clandestine military monks, and enforced brutal counterinsurgent directives and interrogation techniques (oftentimes on Buddhist temple grounds). These actions have only worsened Buddhist–Muslim relations.

Buddhist military monks (tahanphra) are soldiers who are selected during training to covertly operate as both monks and soldiers. After they undergo a full ordination ceremony, military monks perform the typical duties of a monk but are armed and receive a monthly salary from the military. Military monks see their work as imperative to the survival of Buddhism in southern Thailand and the legacy of the Buddhist kingdom of Langkasuka.

At one Buddhist temple in the conflict zone, I met a military monk who pulled back his saffron robes to show me his Smith & Wesson. When I asked him why military monks exist, he replied:

Military monks in the three southern provinces of Thailand are like guardians that protect Buddhism from deterioration. If there are no soldiers to help take care of the wat [temple], the wat will become deserted and untended. We are here to protect the religion, encourage the people, and raise the morale of local Thais. This nation can survive because there is religion… If there is no Buddhism to teach and guide the people, we will become a nation of chaos filled with selfish people.

He and many other Buddhists in the region believe that military monks are essential to protecting Buddhism in southern Thailand, and that if Muslims drive the Buddhists out of southern Thailand, order and morality will be pushed out as well.

Burma: Pushing the Rohingya Muslims Out

The recent violence in Burma began in 2012, when the western Burmese state called Rakhine saw widespread Buddhist riots and violence against the Rohingya Muslims. Tensions in the state had risen prior to this, largely due to the rising population of the Rohingya and the decline in the Rakhine Buddhists, the majority population.

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A Rohingya Muslim man pleads for entry into Bangladesh after fleeing Burma. (c) AP Photo / Anurup Titu.

The violence rippled across the country and brought global exposure to the Burmese Buddhist nationalist organization called the 969 Movement. The name of the organization is numerical shorthand for the nine supreme qualities of the Buddha, six traits of the dharma, and nine traits of the sangha. Buddhist traditions are inundated with numbers and categories that stretch back for hundreds of years; however, the significance of 969 in Burma is quite recent. In the 1990s, the Burmese monk U Kyaw Lwin used 969 as a numerological counter to the South Asian Muslim use of 786. While not a global phenomenon, South and Southeast Asian Muslim business owners have displayed 786 to indicate that their establishments are owned by Muslims. The term acts as a surrogate for writing out sacred words such as Basmala (“In the name of Allah”) or bismillah-ir-rahman-ir-rahim (In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful), which is a phrase that begins most surahs in the Qur’an.

In Burma, Buddhists from the 969 Movement and the Association of Protection of Race and Religion (MaBaTha) argue that Muslims pose a danger to their country. To protect the nation, these Buddhists have lobbied for four laws on race and religion to control and limit the Muslim population and, in their view, protect the buddhadharma. The first of these is a birth control law, which passed in late May. The Burmese Parliament continues to await the President’s enactment of the three remaining bills, which pertain to monogamy, conversion, and interfaith marriage.

Update – Friday, August 28: In early July, Burma passed the law restricting the Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men from marrying, and earlier this month, the government passed the final two laws, criminalizing extra-marital affairs, and making it more difficult for people to change religions.

While these Buddhist nationalists see Muslims as a threat, human rights groups consider the actions of Buddhist nationalists and the Burmese government harmful to the Muslim population. Since 2011, Muslims of Bengali descent (who call themselves Rohingya) have been forced to live in concentration camps where they are deprived of jobs, school, and access to medical attention; their food supply is also limited. Since the 1980s, they have been without citizenship, and in the last few years many have fled the country in refugee boats, some dying in the attempt. Responding to these human rights attacks, the Burmese Buddhist monk Pamaukkha explained to a member of the Agence France-Presse (AFP), “We do not want anyone here posing as refugees or Bengalis, trying to swallow the nation or its people. They need to be sent back now.” The nation is Burmese and Buddhist, he and others argue. It does not have room for Rohingya.

For conservative Burmese Buddhist monks and nuns (who are often more conservative than their monastic brothers), Muslims pose a threat to the Buddhist majority, financially and demographically. In a dharma talk from February 2013, the Burmese 969 Movement’s prominent monk U Wirathu explained, “[The money that you spend at a Muslim-owned shop] will be used to get a Buddhist–Burmese woman and she will very soon be coerced or even forced to convert to Islam. And the children born of her will become Bengali Muslims and the ultimate danger to our Buddhist nation, as they will eventually destroy our race and our religion. Once they become overly populous, they will overwhelm us and take over our country and make it an evil Islamic nation.”

U Wirathu does not quote scriptures to support his views; it is unnecessary. Burmese Buddhists see him as a religious authority independent of scriptures. For U Wirathu, there is no anti-Muslim violence in Burma; rather, there is a growing effort to combat a Muslim invasion. The Burmese sangha, the sole authority on who is or is not a monk in their tradition, has not defrocked U Wirathu nor others in the 969 Movement and MaBaTha organization.

New Regional Alliances to “Protect Global Buddhism”

In this globalized world, conservative Sri Lankans, Thais, and Burmese Buddhists have come together under the banner of protecting Buddhism. Buddhists in these three countries face changing demographics and declines in their majority populations. Conservative Buddhists argue that this is because Muslims have larger families than their Buddhist counterparts. They also point to interfaith marriages: when a Muslim and Buddhist marry in South and Southeast Asia, more often than not the Buddhist converts to Islam. This is largely due to religious and social pressures. There are no ramifications for leaving the Buddhist faith, but Muslims consider apostasy a blasphemous act that leads to hell. Such distinctions do not go unnoticed by members of the 969 Movement and BBS, which seek to create laws to curb such tendencies. A change in demographics does not justify the violence or Buddhist fears, but it adds an important context to the perspectives of Conservative Buddhists.

This is not a multireligious country. This is a Sinhalese country.

— Kirama Wimalajothi Thera, Bodu Bala Sena cofounder

U Wirathu and other Burmese monks believe Muslims are part of a global financial network stretching from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia that seeks to overthrow Buddhist control in their country and others. This view is shared by members of the Sri Lankan BBS, who now collaborate with the 969 movement. After a visit to the 969 headquarters in early 2014, they invited U Wirathu to the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. In September 2014, he addressed thousands of Sinhalese Buddhists and formally met with the Bodu Bala Sena. There was international outcry over this invitation and U Wirtahu’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. In their defense, one of the cofounders of the Bodu Bala Sena, the Buddhist monk Kirama Wimalajothi Thera, exclaimed, “This is not a multireligious country. This is a Sinhalese country.” Six months later, U Wirathu returned again to Sri Lanka, this time to help foster an international Buddhist alliance to protect global Buddhism from Islam and other threats.

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U Wirathu, a prominent leader of the extremist 969 Movement, which has lobbied the Burmese government to limit the rights of Muslims. (c) AP Photo / Gemunu Amarasinghe.

Thai Buddhists also have shown support for the 969 Movement and the MaBaTha. Thai Buddhists monks have attended MaBaTha meetings in Burma and donated funds to help the organization broadcast its messages. Many Thais have argued that their country should not take in Rohingya boat refugees; instead, they believe the Thai government should push them back out to sea. When pressed on the ethics of this position, they explained to Bangkok Post journalist Sanitsuda Ekachai: “We are kind, but Muslims are aggressive and have too many kids. They are national security threats who will aggravate problems in the deep South.”

Many Asian Buddhist may hold views that clash with Western visions of religious pluralism. For many Buddhists in Asia, the buddhadharma is not a “religion.” This distinction is exemplified in the reflections of Taiwanese immigrants to the United States, who have noted how they “became” Buddhist once they arrived. There was no identification for this in Taiwan. What is at stake from the perspective of many Asian Buddhists is not their religion but their basic identity and way of life. This difference between Western Buddhists’ and Asian Buddhists’ perspectives of the buddhadharma has become prominent in the current Burmese crisis.

On November 4, 2014, the U.S. Buddhist Teachers Network issued an open letter to President Barack Obama more than a week before his participation at the ASEAN Summit in Burma. Their letter called upon Obama to speak out against the growing anti-Muslim violence in Burma and across Asia and urged him to “express concern for Burma’s Muslims and Rohingyas in [his] public speeches.” It was signed by 381 Buddhist teachers in the United States.

This approach is strikingly dissonant from the sentiments expressed by many Burmese Buddhist monks and, collectively, the Burmese sangha. While there are notable Burmese Buddhist monks who work in concert with Western Buddhist visions of a pluralistic society, their efforts do not hold sway over the popular Buddhist culture or the current Burmese legal reforms.

As in any society, a perceived loss or anticipated loss in majority status is often alarming to those in the majority. Such changes can trigger conservative reactions and desires to protect the majority’s privileges. For groups such as the 969 Movement and the Bodu Bala Sena, the failure of the international community to acknowledge their concerns alarms them, only escalating the problem. Whether one agrees with the Buddhists involved in these conflicts or not—and Western onlookers, especially Western Buddhists, have made their disapproval clear—it is important to hear and understand the concerns of all involved. The less people feel heard, the more they will act to become heard. In this era of increased globalization, the world is only going to get smaller—and the need to listen all the greater.

Michael Jerryson

Michael Jerryson

Michael Jerryson is the author of Buddhist Warfare and Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand and an associate professor of Religious Studies at Youngstown State University in Ohio.