Sri Lanka sees emerging tensions between Buddhists and Muslims
Legacy of civil war should serve as a warning of the costs of ethnic and religious conflict
Across Asia, religious fundamentalism is posing a growing threat to liberal society. Even Sri Lanka, a country that has only recently emerged from a bloody civil war involving religious as well as ethnic differences, may once more be at risk.
Islamist militancy is generating the most headlines. In Bangladesh, for example, liberal commentators have been killed by alleged Islamic fundamentalists. In Malaysia, self-declared atheists have been bullied by militant Islamic organizations. In Indonesia, Muslim fundamentalists have seized the political initiative.
But a virulent strain of Buddhism has also emerged as a danger in parts of Asia, particularly in Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka. The threat to liberal societies may be less dramatic but is nonetheless real.
These majority-Buddhist countries have similar experiences of a religion that is the embodiment of tolerance and pacifism giving rise to extremism and the baiting of minorities.
In the most shocking example, a brutal military campaign triggered by attacks by Muslim militants led to the exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh.
In Sri Lanka, a nation of 21 million people, tensions focus on differences between the mostly-Buddhist ethnic Sinhala, who account for around 74% of the population, and an ethnic Tamil minority, composed of Hindus and Christians. A Muslim community, mostly descended from Arab and Malay traders, adds to the mix.
Sri Lanka's brand of religiously-influenced nationalism began in the years after independence (1948), as a Sinhala Buddhist coalition led by Solomon Bandaranaike sought to redress Sinhala complaints that the British colonial government had favored Tamil Christians for government jobs.
This resurgence of Buddhist nationalism was opposed by Tamils, who criticized legislation making Sinhala the official language of government administration. Protesting Tamil lawmakers were assaulted by Sinhala thugs, beginning a spiral of ethnic tensions and violence.
Tamil militancy led to civil war that cost over 100,000 lives over nearly three decades before the insurgents were finally defeated in 2009.
But many Buddhists remain uneasy and restless, with the economy in a fragile state. Extremism thrives in situations of general malaise or uncertainty, and both Islamic fundamentalism and Buddhist extremism can be traced to economic anxiety and political tumult. To complicate matters, Buddhists in Sri Lanka, along with Myanmar and Thailand, follow the Theravada tradition, that is more conservative than the alternative Mahayana tradition.
In Myanmar, it is hard to tell if extremist monks such as Wirathu, who heads the Ma Ba Tha movement, are consciously leading a charge against the minority Muslim population or simply reflecting a widely held view in Myanmar that Rohingya Muslims are unwelcome foreign guests. In Sri Lanka, by contrast, there is little confusion about who is leading the extremist movement. It is radical monks such as Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, general secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena, a group of monks and others with radical pro-Buddhist views, whose name loosely translates as Buddha's Forces. "Yes we are racists. If you touch one Sinhalese, it would be the end of all of you," the firebrand told Muslims in Dharga Town, south of Colombo, before anti-Muslim rioting began there in 2014.
Sri Lankan monks see themselves as the global guardians of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, which may explain why Buddhist militants in Sri Lanka are closely following events in Myanmar.
Claims that Buddhists have been attacked by Rohingya Muslims have received wide publicity. Marches were organized in Colombo in solidarity with Myanmar Buddhists and the slogans shouted suggesting that Islamic terrorists were slaughtering Buddhists in Myanmar.
Although the problems in Myanmar seemed distant to Sri Lanka, that started to change when 30 Rohingya refugees fleeing in a boat were picked up by Sri Lankan navy off the country's northern coast in June. Buddhist leader Gnanasara commented: "Rohingyas from Myanmar arrived in Sri Lanka to invade our land."
Some Buddhist monks discovered a refugee house maintained by the United Nations near Colombo and news soon spread over social media that they had exposed a Rohingya "terrorist" hideout. When the police took the refugees away for their own safety, monks harassed and abused the Rohingya men and women.
Many Sri Lankan Buddhists seemed to have been impressed by this false story. The police later arrested several monks but the detentions only enraged many Buddhists.
Fears are now growing that there could be clashes between Buddhists and Sri Lanka's own Muslims, a wealthy business-based community, which has some sympathy for the Rohingya. Long-standing economic tensions have been exacerbated by the spread locally of Islamist fundamentalism. Violence has already reared its ugly head, with the torching of Muslim shops.
The international community has expressed concern about the growing tensions, including the U.S., the European Union and Ban Ki-moon, then U.N. secretary-general, who urged the government to ensure the safety of all Sri Lankans. These interventions have further alienated many Sri Lankan Buddhists who still see their country as tolerant.
But the unfortunate truth is that Muslim-Sinhala tensions could yet deteriorate into the full-scale violence that Myanmar has experienced.
Militant Buddhist monks do not have any justification for encouraging people to assault and intimidate minorities. But they are feeding on the popular Buddhist view Muslims have abused the welcome they received when they first arrived in the 16th century, and that they now wish to turn Sri Lanka into a Muslim country with Islamic law.
Faster economic growth would benefit all communities and reduce mutual animosities, not least Buddhist envy of local Muslim wealth. But with the economy remaining sluggish, such tensions may only increase.
Also, many Buddhists are struggling to stay calm in the light of evidence of local Islamist radicalization combined with the reality of jihadi terrorism around the world.
In Sri Lanka, as in other countries, a better understanding of the way ethno-nationalism can spiral out of control could prevent the brutal violence now taking hold in Myanmar, for example, and elsewhere.
The government should do much more to foster ethnic amity. If nothing else, the country's painful recent history should serve as a warning.
Rajpal Abeynayake is a writer and lawyer, and a former editor in chief of the Daily News in Colombo.