A toxic mix of nationalism and religious extremism is leading to a wave of political violence across Southeast Asia
In 1998, when Thet Swe Win was in the ninth grade, he picked up a propaganda booklet at school in downtown Yangon. In it, he read that his race and religion were under threat. If Muslims were allowed to spread, the booklet claimed, it would not be long before Burmese Buddhists would vanish.
“After I read that, I was anti-Muslim,” says Thet Swe Win. He boycotted Muslim-owned businesses. He stopped eating biryani, one of his favourite foods. He regularly beat up the smaller of the two Muslim boys in his class. “The book said we had to do something about it,” he explains. “One teacher asked me why and I said, don’t you know this book? Muslims are very bad and we have to do this back to them.”
Meanwhile, 300 miles to the north in Rakhine State, 17-year-old Sujauddin Karimuddin was experiencing the increasingly militant fallout of this “hateful incitement”, as Thet Swe Win calls it. A member of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority, Sujauddin first realised he was an outsider at age five, during enrollment on his first day of school in the small town of Kyauktaw. A teacher told him that his name was unacceptable; he should call himself the Burmese name Khin Maung Lay instead.
It didn’t help. After the government intensified its persecution of Muslims in 1991, forcing 200,000 people across the border into Bangladesh, school life became increasingly difficult for Sujauddin. Despite being an A-grade student, he was forced out of classes by Buddhist classmates and told to ‘know his place’ when he complained. Physical attacks and insults like ‘cockroach’ and ‘rat’ were frequent. Muslims were referred to as ‘it’. The friend he’d often skip school to smoke cigarettes with told him coolly: “If I were king, in one day I would kill all you guys”.
Initially protected from the worst abuses by the community standing of his father, a prosperous businessman, Sujauddin’s luck eventually wore thin. In the name of patriotic duty, he was repeatedly arrested by the army and subjected to forced labour. In 1995, his village was stormed by militants and his family’s farmland confiscated; they remained trapped for a year after resisting “relocation” to an unlivable jungle outpost. In 1998 Sujauddin left, alone, for Australia.
Few of his fellow Rohingyas were as lucky. Following vicious riots in Rakhine State in 2012, more than 112,000 Rohingyas fled, most of them by boat. Those remaining were excluded from the country’s first democratic vote in 2015. Tensions mounted, and in October 2016, 300 men from an insurgent group calling themselves the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) killed nine Burmese border guards, triggering a military crackdown that escalated into a genocide. In less than a year, at least 10,000 Rohingyas were killed. A million more fled to Bangladesh.
Ethnic violence on this scale is orchestrated by Myanmar’s brutal and politically unaccountable Tatmadaw army, which has dominated control of the country since it gained independence from Britain in 1948. The military is far from alone in driving the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, however. A small but influential cohort of the country’s revered, red-robed monks now lends vocal support to the violence, justified by highly contentious interpretations of Buddhist scripture.
In reality, though, these justifications all boil down to the same fear espoused by Thet Swe Win’s propaganda booklet: that Buddhist culture is under siege and could be usurped by Islam and other minority groups. Again, this paranoia isn’t new, despite the fact that Buddhists enjoy overwhelming majorities (of 70%, 88% and 93% respectively) in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand.
Militant Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka claim that the minority Hindu Tamil population is really just the vanguard of India’s 74-million-strong Tamil Nadu state, poised and ready to invade. In Myanmar, members of the broader, ultranationalist 969 movement insist that the country’s Muslims – who make up less than 4% of the population – are quietly plotting to take over the country. Notwithstanding, that the Islamic calendar still has 560 years to go, some even claim that the number 786, symbolic in Islam, is a secret code denoting a plot to take over the world in the 21st Century (7+8+6 = 21). Sujauddin vividly recalls seeing posters “everywhere”, especially in immigration offices, warning that it would not be a natural disaster that wiped out Burmese Buddhists, but the Rohingya.
In Myanmar, this militant Buddhism is spearheaded by ultranationalist monks like Ashin Wirathu of the Ma Ba Tha organisation and the rebel Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), started by the late monk Thuzana in 1992. The phenomenon is far from limited to Myanmar: Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have played a key role in stirring up Sinhalese nationalism and religious hatreds for decades, while in Thailand’s troubled deep south, “bad” monks have been known to take up arms in guerilla warfare between Buddhist and Muslim fighters.
What’s more, some of these violence-supporting monks have begun forming international networks to support and learn from each other. “The Sri Lanka and Myanmar Buddhist monks have signed a memorandum of understanding,” says Burmese activist Ro Nay San Lwin. “They are working closely”.
To many in the monkhood and outside it, such behaviour is deeply shocking. Buddhist monks are widely expected to eschew any form of political engagement, even in cases where this appears benign.
“Militant Buddhists are those who are resorting to political violence to achieve their aims and who violate this founding principle of Buddhism that’s ahimsa, ‘do no harm’,” explains Peter Lehr, author of Militant Buddhism and lecturer in Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrew’s, and who also studied as a Buddhist monk in Thailand.
Dr. Lehr relates how he saw this rift manifest between a pair of twin brothers, both monks, in the deep south of Thailand, where attacks on mosques and on Buddhist temples are commonplace. While one called upon the monks to assist in the fight against anti-Buddhist attacks, his twin brother insisted that temples can be rebuilt, and while the deaths of monks are always regrettable, it is for the monks to step back and allow karma to run its course.
But monks who are critical of their colleagues for breaking their apolitical religious stance by encouraging violence are also reluctant to break it themselves to call for tolerance, integration or laws that protect ethnic minorities. As Dr. Lehr explains, most Buddhists disapprove of monks that speak out, making it extremely difficult for them to defend minorities or model the ethnic cohesion that is so badly needed in their communities. Thus the violent side tends to hold greater sway in the public sphere.
Yet at times, peaceful political contributions by monks can be powerful. For Thet Swe Win, now a civil society activist who speaks out on behalf of minorities in Myanmar, the turning point came with the Saffron Revolution in 2007. Joining a protest in Yangon that was led by Buddhist monks, he was surprised to see the city’s Muslims donating generously to support the protesters, even giving their slippers to the barefoot monks.
“I realised we are all just the same people, all being oppressed,” he says. “We live in the same areas but we don’t communicate. We’re isolated.”
If mobilising the Buddhist population against ethnic minorities is intended to help autocrats divide and conquer, it seems to be working. In Myanmar, the social and religious rifts created by militant Buddhism continue to tear apart mixed communities, frustrating attempts to move the country forward and keeping power in the hands of the military, even as the nation struggles towards democratic rule. In Sri Lanka, violence led by Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalists in the historically peaceful Kandy province led to a state of emergency being declared in 2018, curtailing civil rights and endangering the lives of Muslims and Buddhists alike.
Unchecked, these militant movements may eventually pose a risk to the governments that allow them to grow. After a year of playing down the ongoing genocide in Rakhine State, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National Democratic Party finally stepped in to outlaw Ma Ba Tha in July 2017, but the group is still going strong, largely thanks to the financial support of the army.
At the same time, the Rohingya genocide has attracted the attention of ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), all of which have called for their supporters to wage jihad in Rakhine state. In Thailand, Malay-Muslim insurgents have established links with ISIS supporters in Malaysia, which could potentially support the flow of ideology into Thailand as well as weapons into Malaysia. The Easter bombing campaign that swept across Sri Lanka on 21 April demonstrated either that homegrown terror groups are alarmingly well-organised or that they’re dealing with one that’s supported by a jihadist network such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda.
As religious polarisation intensifies throughout Southeast Asia, the last thing a country like Myanmar or Sri Lanka needs is to turn a fabricated threat into a reality by pushing minorities towards groups keen to exploit them. By ignoring and even encouraging militant Buddhist movements, these leaders risk sparking ethnic conflicts that spread beyond their borders – and back again.