Political Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Burma

 

In Sri Lanka, a situation that bears a certain resemblance to Ireland, the demand for recognition of its separate status by an island minority linked by religion and ethnicity to its larger neighbor (in this case Hindu Tamils of southern India) is perceived by members of the majority community-Sinhalese Buddhists-as a threat to the nation's integrity. Like Irish Catholicism the Theravada Buddhism of Sri Lanka has developed into a nationalist ideology in which religion has become a marker of communal identity. The reasons are largely historical. Sri Lankan Buddhists regard themselves as the survivors of the great Buddhist empire founded in India by King Asoka in the third century BCE. While in mainland India Buddhism eventually disappeared as society relapsed into the multiform patterns of worship which came to be known as Hinduism, the Sinhalese held to the Buddhist faith which eventually became politicized. In Sri Lanka (as in Burma), Buddhism provided the stirrings of anti-colonial sentiment by offering 'the only universally acceptable king who rescued Buddhism and our nationalism from oblivion.'

 

In 1956, the year of Britain's Suez debacle, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, leader of the opposition Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), was able to win power on a proBuddhist, pro-Sinhalese ticket, replacing the upper-class, English-educated liberals of the United National Party who had governed the country since independence. The SLFP benefited hugely from celebration of the 25ooth anniversary of the Buddha's birth (Buddha Jayanti) the following year and from the previous publication of a report detailing the suppression of Buddhism under the British. The Jayanti enlarged upon and celebrated the national myth bonding the Buddhist faith to the land and the Sinhalese nation which 'had come into being with the blessing of the Buddha as a "chosen race" with a divine mission to fulfil, and now stands on the threshold of a new era leading to its "great destiny"'. The SLFP was aggressively supported by the United Monks' Front, which rejected the concept of secular nationhood in terms very similar to those that would be used by Ayatollah Khomeini in his famous Najaf lectures.

 

The 'Buddhisization' of Sri Lankan politics had the inevitable consequence of making non-Buddhists (Tamils and Muslims) feel excluded from the nation, provoking demands by Tamil separatists for a state of their own. The Tamil Tigers-as the activists called themselves-were concerned not only with securing political rights, but more importantly with maintaining a cultural, ethnic, and religious identity which had been suppressed or alienated as Sinhalese nationalism became increasingly reliant on Buddhist symbols. More than 60,000 people from both communities lost their lives in the ensuing civil war that lasted nearly two decades. In the late ig8os the Tigers resorted increasingly to the novel tactic-pioneered by the Shii Hezbollah in Lebanon-of suicide bombing. More often than not the victims were civilians. A steady campaign of assassinations (including that of the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in iggi, by a female bomber) and indiscriminate murder was kept up through the 1990’s. In 1996, 91 people died, and 1,400 were wounded, in the suicide bombing of Colombo's Central Bank; 18 were killed in the destruction of the twin-towered World Trade Centre in Colombo in 1997; 16 died in the suicidal attack on a Buddhist shrine in Kandy in 1998. Some, though not all, the Tigers were practising Hindus, who dedicated themselves to Shiva before sacrificing themselves-and others.

 

The example of Buddhism in Sri Lanka clearly demonstrates that none of the major religious traditions is immune from 'fundamentalism', to which violence is closely linked-though it might be better in this, as in most other contexts, to describe the process as the 'nationalization' or secularization of religion. Donald Swearer argues that by 'homogenizing' the Buddhist tradition and reducing it to a simplified core teaching along with a moralistic programme of right living linked to Sinhalese Buddhist identity, Bandaranaike (and his later successor President Jayawardine) 'ignored the polar dynamic between the transmundane and the mundane, a distinction basic not only to traditional Theravada Buddhism but to the other great historical religions as well. The absolutism of fundamentalism stems from this basic transformation of the religious worldview.' The narrowly ideological nature of 'fundamentalism', Swearer concludes, means that it is 'not religious in the classical sense of that term but rather a variant of a secular faith couched in religious language'. In this process traditional religious symbols are 'stripped of their symbolic power to evoke a multiplicity of meanings'. Like Juergensmeyer, Swearer sees nationalism as triumphing over religion, rather than the reverse: 'Religions thus harnessed to nationalism are often regarded as more pure and orthodox than the traditional forms they seek to supplant; in turn nationalism readily takes on the character of a fervid, absolutistic revival of religion. In the case of Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, the search for national identity is prior and conditions the fundamentalism of the religion(s) incorporated into nationalism.'

 

Sri Lanka's toxic identity politics are not altogether unique, especially in other Theravada Buddhist nations. As we shall see in the section underneath Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar, for example, provided a similar rallying point against British colonialism. But the conflation of "the land, the race, and the faith" among the majority there, along with a view that this majority is the steward of its own uniquely pure form of Buddhism, has been a great source of political and cultural disharmony with the country's many non-Buddhist minority groups, most recently the Rohingya Muslims. Although Buddhism might eschew violence on a doctrinal level, it is not immune from nationalist myths that see a place for it.

 

Militant Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Militant Buddhism in Sri Lanka has its roots in an ancient narrative called the Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle), which was composed by monks in the sixth century. According to the Mahavamsa, the Buddha foresaw the demise of Buddhism in India but saw a bright future for it in Sri Lanka. "In Lanka, O Lord of Gods, shall my religion be established and flourish," he said. The Sinhalese take this as a sign that they are the Buddha's chosen people, commanded to "preserve and protect" Buddhism in its most pristine form. According to myth, a young Sinhalese prince in the second century BC armed himself with a spear tipped with a relic of the Buddha and led a column of 500 monks to vanquish Tamil invaders. In addition to defending his kingdom from mortal peril, the prince's victory legitimized religious violence as a means for national survival.

Militant Buddhism was a driving force behind the 25-year war between the majority Sinhalese (74 percent of the population) and the minority Tamils (18 percent), who were fighting for an independent state in the island's north and east. (Muslims, who make up six percent of Sri Lanka's population, were often caught in the middle.) During the war, monks repeatedly undercut efforts to work out a peace agreement.

 

The sangha, as the clergy is collectively referred to in Theravada Buddhism, has historically exercised political power from behind the scenes, embodying a broad form of religious nationalism.

 

While most canonical texts in the Buddhist Theravada tradition offer evidence for a doctrinal position against violence, at the same time, the Theravada canonical literature recognizes that the predicament of kingship for the performance of its duties necessarily entails conducting wars or inflicting violent punishment on culprits, i.e. acts that bring negative karma to the king's future rebirths.

Pivotal in fostering the social and material conditions for enlightenment, Buddhist communities generally do not unite across national boundaries for a common goal or to combat a religious "other." In contrast to other world religions, Buddhism does not uphold a belief in religious redemption through warfare like the Crusades. Nor does it have a doctrine or history to mobilize religious communities to act violently against unbelievers. Buddhists in its "authentic" form, also do not identify with a global, transnational, or universal brotherhood in order to legitimate local practices. Instead, the Buddha's sacred biography and the cult of his relics justify ritual veneration at sacred centers throughout the Buddhist world that are seen as centers of extraordinary power. That power is understood to embody simultaneously political and religious dimensions that reflect on the status of local Buddhist leaders and define a political and ritual hegemony within their communities.

Seen from the vantage point of history, however, violence has been and continues to be present in Buddhist societies as Buddhists have been both targets and agents of communal violence. In 1973, the Thai monk Kitthiwuttho stated that killing communists did not cause negative karma and the Buddhist Precepts were tantamount to national law. (Donald Swearer, The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia , 1995, 95) And in the absence of a national constitution in Burma since 1988 (that would otherwise empower the official acts of a secular modem state), the regime has employed Buddhist authority and institutions to legitimate its politics.

In Sri Lanka, violent riots have been promulgated by Buddhist monks and lay people in defense of their vision of a distinctly Buddhist nationalism. At the same time, Sri Lankan Buddhists have been the target of violence unleashed against them by ethnic and religious, the Tamil Tigers. (See Donald Lopez, 2001)

At the turn of the twentieth century, Buddhism underwent revitalization and reforms in Sri Lanka that were in large measure the result of efforts by Angitara Dharmapala, the Sri Lankan protege of Henry Olcott and Helena Blavatsky, prominent founders of the Theosophical Society. This revitalization, modeled largely after Christian organizations and a Buddhist identity in Sri Lanka, became a rallying point against British colonial power.

See case study:

Upon independence, monks claimed the right to vote in elections and hold political office. These facts strengthened their role in the public life and politics of the new nation. Thus in Sri Lanka, monks have been able to occupy significant political positions in public life, gaining the right to vote in elections and run for political office. In this regard, the Sinhalese sangha negotiated to a far greater degree a modem re-definition of the normative role of a Buddhist ascetic. Traditional monastic ideals remain normative in Burmese national culture, however, where monks may not vote and are encouraged by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, on grounds of rules governing monastic conduct (vinaya), to remain aloof from worldly and political affairs. (See H.L. Seneviratne, The Work of Kings: The New Buddhism in Sri Lanka, University of Chicago Press, 1999).

In Sri Lanka, about 75 percent of the population is Buddhist. Tamils constitute a minority that is mostly Muslim, but also includes a significant (18 percent) number of Hindus. But for Sri Lankan nationalists, Buddhism is commensurate with a Sri Lankan identity whose history they believe reaches back to the mythic origins of the island recounted in the sacred Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle). Sinhalese monks continued to be activists in the ethnic and political struggles of the early 1980s. Their actions, indeed, their self-proclaimed sacred duty, were to preserve thatreligio-nationallegacy for future generations. Monks saw themselves as not merely advisors, but as moral guardians of the Sri Lankan nation and defenders of the Dharma, both threatened by ethnic and religious others. It was their responsibility to pave the way for politicians to safeguard a Sri Lanka where Buddhism would prosper. During the bloody civil wars in the 1980s between Tamil separatists and Sinhala Buddhists, monks were instrumental in organizing and mobilizing people to defend the Sinhala identity. Statements like "There is no Buddhist sangha where there is no Sinhala race" were part of their battle cry. (See Anada Abeysekara, Colors of the Robe: Religion, Identity, and Difference, 2002). Monastic militancy even led to the murder of Sri Lanka 's Prime Minister, Ranasingha Premadasa, in 1993.

Contrary to popular perceptions in the west however, the sangha is an institution structured by multiple principles of hierarchy. A culture of hierarchy pervades interactions with and among monks as junior monks are expected to obey and respect senior ones. Most basic is the seniority that monks acquire through years spent living a monastic life. In most branches of the tradition, full ordination requires that the monk be at least 20 years of age and his seniority increases with each year of service. The relative seniority of a monk since ordination also determines whether he greets another monk by bowing to him or whether he will receive such homage, although the relative position of two individuals to one another may be less marked. Monastic rank within a monastery further differentiates status among monks, with the abbot receiving unqualified respect from monks residing in his compound. Ordination lineages in the Theravada tradition may also differentiate themselves from other lineages by stressing stricter adherence to the monastic code of conduct (vinaya). Respective claims to strict purity in monastic practice also introduce an element of contesting relative hierarchy among monastic communities. Modem reforms of the sangha introduced by the state have sought to institute administrative centralization that links local chapters to regional committees and national leadership. While traditional practice espouses strict adherence to hierarchy within the sangha, such interpretations necessarily also recognize, but may not condone, ways to contest it. Hence, it would be misleading to view the sangha as a monolithic institution since historically, it comprises diverse communities that distinguish themselves through local teachings, practices, language, and ethnic identity.

"To be Burmese is to be Buddhist" is a slogan first coined by the early nationalist movement, the Young Mens' Buddhist Association founded in 1906 when the country was a British colony. Usually referred to as the YMBA, it was modeled after the YMBA founded by Angitara Dharmapala, the Sri Lankan protege of Henry Olcott and Helena Blavatsky, prominent founders of the Theosophical Society.

The Buddhist sangha is the only cultural institution surviving the collapse of the traditional kingdom after the third and final Anglo-Burmese war in 1885. Buddhism has been a rallying point for resistance against the colonial state and its successors since independence in 1948, even like is the case with Indonesia and India, Burma, represents the continuation of a ‘British colonial’ state. But the type of political and economic reforms critical to fostering civil society in Indonesia were not implemented with sufficient cohesion to build a post-colonial state to serve the Burmese nation. (1)

 

While most canonical texts in the Buddhist Theravada tradition offer evidence for a doctrinal position against violence, at the same time, the Theravada canonical literature recognizes that the predicament of kingship for the performance of its duties necessarily entails conducting wars or inflicting violent punishment on culprits, i.e. acts that bring negative karma to the king's future rebirths.

 

Pivotal in fostering the social and material conditions for enlightenment, Buddhist communities generally do not unite across national boundaries for a common goal or to combat a religious "other." In contrast to other world religions, Buddhism does not uphold a belief in religious redemption through warfare like the Crusades. Nor does it have a doctrine or history to mobilize religious communities to act violently against unbelievers. Buddhists in its "authentic" form, also do not identify with a global, transnational, or universal brotherhood in order to legitimate local practices. Instead, the Buddha's sacred biography and the cult of his relics justify ritual veneration at sacred centers throughout the Buddhist world that are seen as centers of extraordinary power. That power is understood to embody simultaneously political and religious dimensions that reflect on the status of local Buddhist leaders and define a political and ritual hegemony within their communities.

 

Seen from the vantage point of history, however, violence has been and continues to be present in Buddhist societies as Buddhists have been both targets and agents of communal violence.

With the exception of the British colonial administration, every Burmese government since independence in 1948 has catered to the sangha for popular support, religious blessing, and political legitimation. By the same token, these governments have also had to contend with the power of the sangha to mobilize people. Governments have used Buddhist ritual to legitimate political power in times of constitutional crisis or in the absence of a national constitution altogether. Governments have used Buddhist authority or "Buddhification" to rally nationalist sentiments among the general population, to foster an ideological Buddhist nationalism, to integrate Christian, animist hill tribes and other ethnic minorities into the administration of the nation-state, and to put pressure on non-Buddhists to convert to Buddhism. For instance, "Indian Rights Group Accuses Myanmar of Forcible Conversion of Christians," Agence France Presse, November 11, 2001, reported that according to the Naga People's Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR), hundreds of Christian Nagas had been forced to convert to Buddhism by the ruling military junta and religious bodies. Those resisting either experienced displacement and persecution or were kept as bonded laborers by the junta and Buddhist monks. Other forced conversions occurred in other tribal areas.

 

Violence against Rohingas

 

The extent of violence inflicted upon Muslim communities is difficult to ascertain. One measure, however, is the large number of Muslim refugees the riots engendered, especially among Rohingas who fled their native Arakan in Lower Burma primarily to Bangladesh. The attacks caused an unknown number of deaths, the burning of Muslim homes and shops, and the desecration of sacred sites and objects, including the destruction of mosques, scattering of Qurans in the street, and driving pigs through consecrated grounds. Accounts about these raids do not add up to a coherent master narrative, but fall into separate versions. They include an official version given by government media, accounts by Buddhist monastic organizations, and additional versions based on foreign press reports and first-hand descriptions by Burmese Muslims, Buddhists monks, and other eyewitnesses. Each kind of narrative attributes to entirely different contexts the underlying causes and immediate catalysts for these mob attacks on Burmese Muslim.

 

According to official state media and newspapers, Buddhist-Muslim rioting again broke out in Mandalay on March 17, 1997 over an alleged rape of a Buddhist girl by a Muslim man.

 

Different observers affirmed SLORC's (State Law and Order Restoration Council) role in instigating the riots. Some observers stated that the monastic attackers, whose identity was mostly hidden by robes draped over their heads, were, in actuality, mere imposters and agitators sent by the regime's grassroots organization the Unity, Solidarity, and Development Association (USDA). The Nation reports on March 28, 1997: "Lt. Gen. Myo Nyunt, Burma's religious minister went to meet local Muslim leaders and reportedly said: 'Let them [monks] destroy it - don't resist them, the army will compensate you for everything.' Thus warnings of impending attacks would come from local government officials or army officers urging Muslims not to retaliate or fight back, but to endure the Buddhists' rampage. This allowed many Muslim families to flee to safety, abandoning their homes and mosques to destructive fires set by rampaging crowds.

 

In response to the rioting that spread within days throughout Burma, SLORC imposed martial law, closed all universities, and instituted curfews on monasteries in Mandalay and in other cities. Soldiers surrounded many of the larger monasteries, especially in Mandalay and Rangoon. At the same time, state television aired lengthy and frequent broadcasts depicting the regime's leading generals venerating senior Buddhist monks and making extravagant donations to them.

 

Aung Zaw writes in The Nation: "A young monk in Rangoon did not deny that they were involved. In the same piece, Aung Zaw reports that " ... about 50 monks at Bargaya Road in Rangoon followed by soldiers and riot police went to another mosque, chanting: 'We don't want Muslims' and throwing stones at the mosque. The authorities did not intervene." (2)

 

In March 1997 and in incidents since then as recently as November 2003, Burmese Muslims became targets of violent rampages by Buddhist monks. Anti-Muslim rioting flared up over a local conflict that is said to have occurred in Mandalay. From there, anti-Muslim riots spread to all major cities in Burma within just a few days. The extent of violence inflicted upon Muslim communities is difficult to ascertain. One measure, however, is the large number of Muslim refugees the riots engendered, especially among Rohingas who fled their native Arakan in Lower Burma mostly to Bangladesh.(3)

 

Muslims throughout the country often received warnings from local officials of impending mob attacks, indicating that the riots were not spontaneous, but planned in advance. The strategy also concentrated the loss of property and buildings and likely reduced the loss of lives. In response to the rioting that spread within days throughout Burma, SLORC imposed martial law, closed all universities, and instituted curfews on monasteries in Mandalay and in other cities. Soldiers surrounded many of the larger monasteries, especially in Mandalay and Rangoon. At the same time, state television aired lengthy and frequent broadcasts depicting the regime’s leading generals venerating senior Buddhist monks and making extravagant donations to them. (Some of the above was previously published by us on an earlier link).

 

1. Robert W. Hefner, Civil Islam, Princeton University Press, 2000.

 

2. Aung Zaw, " Rangoon Plays the Muslim Care!," The Nation, March 28, 1997.

 

3. A detailed and multi-faceted Report on the Situation For Muslims in Burma was published by Images Asia in two parts in March 1997: http://www.asylumlaw.org/docs/burma/MMR_1/SEC%20II/Report%20on%20sit%20muslims.pdf

 

 

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