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‘Our Duty to Fight’: The Rise of Militant

Buddhism
A call to arms for Sri Lankan monks. Ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in
Myanmar. A Buddhist faith known for pacifism is taking its place in a new
age of nationalism.

Thousands of Buddhists listening to Sitagu Sayadaw, one of Myanmar’s most


revered Buddhist leaders, also known by his monastic name Ashin
Nyanissara, in Paleik, Myanmar, in November 2017.CreditCreditMinzayar
Oo for The New York Times

By Hannah Beech-July 8, 2019

GINTOTA, Sri Lanka — The Buddhist abbot was sitting cross-legged in his
monastery, fulminating against the evils of Islam, when the petrol bomb
exploded within earshot.
But the abbot, the Venerable Ambalangoda Sumedhananda Thero, barely
registered the blast. Waving away the mosquitoes swarming the night air in
the southern Sri Lankan town of Gintota, he continued his tirade: Muslims
were violent, he said, Muslims were rapacious.

“The aim of Muslims is to take over all our land and everything we value,” he
said. “Think of what used to be Buddhist lands: Afghanistan, Pakistan,
Kashmir, Indonesia. They have all been destroyed by Islam.”

Minutes later, a monastic aide rushed in and confirmed that someone had
thrown a Molotov cocktail at a nearby mosque. The abbot flicked his fingers
in the air and shrugged.

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His responsibility was to his flock, the Buddhist majority of Sri Lanka.
Muslims, who make up less than 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, were
not his concern.

Incited by a politically powerful network of charismatic monks like


Sumedhananda Thero, Buddhists have entered the era of militant tribalism,
casting themselves as spiritual warriors who must defend their faith against
an outside force.
Their sense of grievance might seem unlikely: In Sri Lanka and Myanmar,
two countries that are on the forefront of a radical religious-nationalist
movement, Buddhists constitute overwhelming majorities of the population.
Yet some Buddhists, especially those who subscribe to the purist Theravada
strain of the faith, are increasingly convinced that they are under existential
threat, particularly from an Islam struggling with its own violent fringe.
As the tectonic plates of Buddhism and Islam collide, a portion of Buddhists
are abandoning the peaceful tenets of their religion. Over the past few years,
Buddhist mobs have waged deadly attacks against minority Muslim
populations. Buddhist nationalist ideologues are using the spiritual authority
of extremist monks to bolster their support.

“The Buddhists never used to hate us so much,” said Mohammed Naseer, the
imam of the Hillur Mosque in Gintota, Sri Lanka, which was attacked by
Buddhist mobs in 2017. “Now their monks spread a message that we don’t
belong in this country and should leave. But where will we go? This is our
home.”

The ruins of a shop in Gintota, Sri Lanka, in November 2017, after mobs of
Buddhists from the country’s Sinhalese majority marauded through the
village, burning dozens of Muslim homes, businesses and
vehicles.CreditMinzayar Oo for The New York Times
The ruins of a shop in Gintota, Sri Lanka, in November 2017, after mobs of
Buddhists from the country’s Sinhalese majority marauded through the
village, burning dozens of Muslim homes, businesses and
vehicles.CreditMinzayar Oo for The New York Times
Last month in Sri Lanka, a powerful Buddhist monk went on a hunger
strike that resulted in the resignation of all nine Muslim ministers in the
cabinet. The monk had suggested that Muslim politicians were complicit in
the Easter Sunday attacks by Islamic State-linked militants on churches and
hotels in Sri Lanka, which killed more than 250 people.
In Myanmar, where a campaign of ethnic cleansing has forced an exodus of
most of the country’s Muslims, Buddhist monks still warn of an Islamic
invasion, even though less than 5 percent of the national population is Muslim.
During Ramadan celebrations in May, Buddhist mobs besieged Islamic
prayer halls, causing Muslim worshipers to flee.
Because of Buddhism’s pacifist image — swirls of calming incense and beatific
smiles — the faith is not often associated with sectarian aggression. Yet no
religion holds a monopoly on peace. Buddhists go to war, too.
“Buddhist monks will say that they would never condone violence,” said
Mikael Gravers, an anthropologist at Aarhus University in Denmark who has
studied the intersection of Buddhism and nationalism. “But at the same time,
they will also say that Buddhism or Buddhist states have to be defended by
any means.”
Given that Theravada Buddhists constitute overwhelming majorities in the
five countries where their faith is practiced — Sri Lanka, Myanmar,
Cambodia, Laos and Thailand — it might seem strange that they feel so
besieged. But Buddhism, whose adherents make up only 7 percent of the
global faithful, is the only major religion whose population is not expected to
grow in absolute numbers over the next few decades, according to the Pew
Research Center.
Meanwhile, the number of Muslims, who make up just under one-quarter of
the world’s population, is growing quickly, buoyed by youthful demographics
and high fertility rates. By 2050, Pew projects that there will be nearly as
many Muslims in the world as there are Christians.
Buddhist monks have made much of that trend in their rhetoric, portraying
their faith to be under existential threat.
Sitting in his walled temple compound in Gintota, Sumedhananda Thero gave
a bleak prophecy. “If a man dies, it is acceptable,” he said. “But if a race or
religion dies, you can never get it back.”

Buddhist monks and novices at the New Masoeyein monastery where Ashin
Wirathu resides.CreditMinzayar Oo for The New York Times

Buddhist monks and novices at the New Masoeyein monastery where Ashin
Wirathu resides.CreditMinzayar Oo for The New York Times
The military-monastic complex
Thousands of people gathered in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, in May as
Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk who was once jailed for his hate speech,
praised the nation’s army.

Since August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for
Bangladesh. Behind it all was a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the army and
its allies, with Buddhist mobs and the country’s security forces subjecting
Rohingya Muslims to slaughter, rape and the complete erasure of hundreds of
their villages.

Ashin Wirathu has rejected the nonviolent teachings of his faith. Military-
linked lawmakers deserved to be glorified like Buddha, he said at the rally.
“Only the military,” he continued, “protects both our country and our
religion.”

At another protest last October, Ashin Wirathu slammed the decision by the
International Criminal Court, or I.C.C., to pursue a case against Myanmar’s
military for its persecution of the Rohingya.
Ashin Wirathu, a Burmese Buddhist monk who was once jailed for his hate
speech.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

Ashin Wirathu, a Burmese Buddhist monk who was once jailed for his hate
speech.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

Then the monk made a startling call


to arms. “The day that the I.C.C. comes here is the day I hold a gun,” Ashin
Wirathu said in an interview with The New York Times.
Experts at the United Nations say top Myanmar generals should be tried for
genocide. Yet few members of Myanmar’s Buddhist clergy, who have long
served as the nation’s moral conscience, have condemned the bloodshed.
Instead, they refer to the Rohingya as subhuman invaders despoiling a golden
Buddhist land.
In late May, the civilian government of Myanmar, which shares power with
the military, issued an arrest warrant for Ashin Wirathu. The charges were
not for hate speech against a minority religion. Instead, the monk is being
accused of seditious comments against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel
laureate who is the nation’s de facto civilian leader.
Even though Ashin Wirathu has not made much of an effort to hide, and
continues to post videos on social media, the police say they cannot find him
and will try him in absentia.
A Sri Lankan Buddhist bowing in front of Sitagu Sayadaw, in Delgoda, Sri
Lanka.CreditMinzayar Oo for The New York Times

A Sri Lankan Buddhist bowing in front of Sitagu Sayadaw, in Delgoda, Sri


Lanka.CreditMinzayar Oo for The New York Times
Monks like Ashin Wirathu inhabit the extremist fringe of Buddhist
nationalism. But more respected clerics are involved as well.
At 82 years old, the Venerable Ashin Nyanissara, known more commonly as
Sitagu Sayadaw, is Myanmar’s most influential monk. In 1988, Sitagu
Sayadaw was one of a coterie of monks who blessed the nation’s democracy
movement, which sent hundreds of thousands of people to the streets in
peaceful protest. Myanmar’s military rulers responded by massacring
hundreds.
That act of violence stained the junta. Another round of crushed pro-
democracy protests led by the country’s monks, in 2007, hastened a political
transition in which some power is now shared with Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s
civilian government.
After the 1988 crackdown, Sitagu Sayadaw slipped into exile in Tennessee
before returning home to open Buddhist academies and a monastic university.
President Obama and Pope Francis have met with him. Sitagu Sayadaw sits
on interfaith councils, and his missionary society runs meditation centers in
Texas, Florida and Minnesota.
A demonstration organized by a Buddhist monk in support of Daw Aung San
Suu Kyi’s handling of the Rohingya crisis in Yangon, Myanmar, in
2017.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times

A demonstration organized by a Buddhist monk in support of Daw Aung San


Suu Kyi’s handling of the Rohingya crisis in Yangon, Myanmar, in
2017.CreditAdam Dean for The New York Times
But just as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were fleeing their torched
villages, Sitagu Sayadaw sat in front of an audience of army officers and said
that “Muslims have almost bought the United Nations.”

The army and monkhood, he continued, “could not be separated.”


Sitagu Sayadaw was pictured in May on a Facebook page linked to the
Myanmar military, grinning among soldiers. He has offered up his faith’s
greatest sacrifice: an army of spiritual soldiers for the national cause.

“There are over 400,000 monks in Myanmar,” he told the commander of


Myanmar’s armed forces. “If you need them, I will tell them to begin. It’s
easy.”

“When someone as respected as Sitagu Sayadaw says something, even if it is


strongly dismissive of a certain group, people listen,” said Daw Khin Mar Mar
Kyi, a Myanmar-born social anthropologist at the University of Oxford. “His
words justify hatred.”
Monks praying in Bengala Monastery in Yangon, Myanmar.CreditAdam
Dean for The New York Times
Monks praying in Bengala Monastery in Yangon, Myanmar.CreditAdam
Dean for The New York Times
There are some monks, albeit a minority, who are countering the monastic
hate speech.
In Yangon in recent weeks, peace advocates handed out white roses to
Muslims in order to promote interfaith harmony.

“The extremists are only a small part of Buddhism in Myanmar, but they
have loud voices,” said Ashin Sein Di Ta, the abbot of the Asia Light
monastery. “We should say clearly that if any monk, even respected ones like
Sitagu Sayadaw, advocate killing, they should be defrocked.”

But in a country where senior monks are so respected, it remains hard to


question their authority.
Prevailing anti-Muslim sentiment worldwide has heightened prejudice, with
social media playing a corrosive role. During the height of the junta’s power,
unauthorized fax machines were illegal in Myanmar, and the media was
censored. Today, much of the population is on Facebook, ill-equipped to sift
hyperbole from fact.

“I’ve been interviewing so many monks, and it is clear that Facebook is what
has been driving their hate,” said Ms. Khin Mar Mar Kyi of the University of
Oxford. “Monks learned that Islamophobia existed in the West, and they felt
like it justified their feelings.”
Buddhist worshippers celebrating Vesak, the holiday commemorating the
Buddha’s birth, at a temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka, last year.CreditAdam
Dean for The New York Times
Buddhist worshippers celebrating Vesak, the holiday commemorating the
Buddha’s birth, at a temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka, last year.CreditAdam
Dean for The New York Times
One nation, under Buddha
Spread on social media, this is how the tale goes: Once, great Buddhist
empires dominated Asia. Then, beginning in the 7th century, Muslim invaders
began tearing across the continent. Buddhist rulers in present-day Pakistan,
Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia succumbed to Islam.

The indignities continued into this century when, in 2001, the Taliban blew up
the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

It is not just monks who feel the need to guard their faith. This is a time of
profound social change in Myanmar, and some women, in particular, are
yearning for a moral force to counter what they see as a rising materialism
among the nation’s youth. Monasteries, they fear, are no longer as alluring as
malls.

One group that has harnessed this anxiety is the Committee for the Protection
of Nationality and Religion, or Ma Ba Tha, which runs Sunday schools and
other community events popular across Myanmar. Formed in 2014 with the
aim of protecting Buddhism, Ma Ba Tha has pushed successfully for laws that
make it hard for Buddhist women to marry outside their faith.

In Myanmar, as in Sri Lanka — where Muslims have been accused of


manufacturing underwear that makes Buddhist women infertile or of
sprinkling birth control pills into curry consumed by Buddhists — Buddhist
figures have often expressed their hatred of Muslims in sexual terms.

In 2012, reports that a Buddhist woman had been raped by Muslim men
triggered fatal communal clashes in Myanmar. Buddhists in both countries
claim that Muslims are waging a “reproductive jihad.”

“There is this idea of a hyperfertile Muslim man with his many wives,” said
Iselin Frydenlund, an associate professor of religious studies at the Norwegian
School of Theology. “Ma Ba Tha tapped into this trope, and pure Buddhist
women were held up as the symbols of the nation who were in danger of rape
by Muslim men.”

In fact, it is Myanmar’s armed forces that have used rape as a weapon of war
in its battles against various ethnic insurgencies. The United Nations has
blamed the Myanmar military for “sexual atrocities reportedly committed in
cold blood out of a lethal hatred for the Rohingya.”

Ma Ba Tha monks reject such findings, and they have been able to continue
their hate-mongering even though the group was technically outlawed in 2017.
“I don’t think anyone would rape Bengali women because they are ugly and
disgusting,” said one Ma Ba Tha monk, U Rarza, referring to the Rohingya by
a pejorative term.

The Buddhist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero at a temple in


Gintota, in 2017.CreditMinzayar Oo for The New York Times

The Buddhist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero at a temple in


Gintota, in 2017.CreditMinzayar Oo for The New York Times
The Buddhist right returns
When suicide bombers linked to the Islamic State blew up churches and hotels
in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, Buddhist nationalists felt vindicated.

“We have been warning for years that Muslim extremists are a danger to
national security,” said Dilanthe Withanage, a senior administrator for Bodu
Bala Sena, the largest of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist nationalist groups.

“Blood is on the government’s hands for ignoring the radicalization of Islam,”


Mr. Withanage said.
After a few years of moderate coalition governance, a fusion of faith and
tribalism is again on the ascendant in Sri Lanka. The movement’s champion is
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defense chief who is the leading candidate for
president in elections due this year.

Mr. Rajapaksa has pledged to protect religion in the country with the longest
continuous Buddhist lineage. He is determined to reconstruct Sri Lanka’s
security state, which was built during the country’s nearly three-decade-long
civil war with an ethnic Tamil minority.
From 2005 to 2015, Sri Lanka was led by Mr. Rajapaksa’s brother, Mahinda
Rajapaksa, an unabashed nationalist who justified the brutal end to the civil
war by portraying himself as the nation’s spiritual savior.

Temples decorated their walls with pictures of the Rajapaksa brothers.


Money flowed for radical Buddhist groups that cheered on sectarian rioting in
which Muslims died. One of the founders of Bodu Bala Sena, or the Buddhist
Power Army, was given prime land in Colombo, the capital, for a high-rise
Buddhist cultural center. The national telecom service added Bodu Bala
Sena’s theme song to its collection of ringtones.

Last year, Bodu Bala Sena’s leader, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, was
sentenced to six years in prison. But in late May, amid a changing political
climate, he received a presidential pardon. On Sunday, he presided over a
meeting of thousands of monks intent on making their political presence felt
in the upcoming elections.

Before his imprisonment last year, Gnanasara Thero placed his campaign in a
historical context. “We have been the guardians of Buddhism for 2,500
years,” he said in an interview with The Times. “Now, it is our duty, just as it
is the duty of monks in Myanmar to fight to protect our peaceful island from
Islam.”
A Buddhist monk leaving the New Masoeyein monastery to collect alms, in
Mandalay, Myanmar.CreditMinzayar Oo for The New York Times

A Buddhist monk leaving the New Masoeyein monastery to collect alms, in


Mandalay, Myanmar.CreditMinzayar Oo for The New York Times

Dharisha Bastians contributed reporting from Colombo, Sri Lanka and Saw
Nang from Yangon, Myanmar.
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