Sri Lanka & Myanmar: The face of Buddhist extremism

September 24, 2013   

An unholy partnership between peace advocating Buddhism and nationalism has been taking place in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. This new phenomenon of Buddhist extremism or radical Buddhism is sweeping through Asia, shattering all stereotypes about the religion.

Buddhism is typically perceived as a peace loving religion where monks in saffron coloured robes with shaved heads, spend most of their time meditating. Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka and Myanmar have begun a campaign of intolerance which has the two nations gripped in a violent frenzy against non-Buddhists.

Sri Lanka

Buddhist extremism first reared its ugly head in Sri Lanka in early 2012 when the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) began advocating an aggressive stance against Muslims. The BBS meaning the power of the Buddhist force is a Buddhist extremist group that has been steadily gaining popularity on the island. In Sri Lanka about 70% of the population are Sinhalese Buddhist.

The BBS have even released a statement boldly declaring “This is a government created by Sinhala Buddhists and it must remain Sinhala Buddhist. This is a Sinhala country, Sinhala government. Democratic and pluralistic values are killing the Sinhala race.” The anti-Islam campaign has gone as far as calling for a ban on halal products.

During Maghreb prayers on August 10, Buddhist extremists attacked the Molawatte mosque in Colombo, the capital city. The attackers stormed the mosque, smashing windows and injuring five people in the process. The attacks were triggered by long standing conflicts over the location of the mosque which was built too close to a Buddhist temple.

Despite the decision to relocate the mosque by the Minister of Religious Affairs, the mosque was still targeted. There was chanting amongst the masses saying, “this is a Sinhala Buddhist country and the Muslims and mosques should be thrown out.”

According to Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Director for the Centre of Policy Alternatives, a Sri Lankan NGO, “This attack was obviously planned. It was perpetrated by ring-wing extremists groups infiltrated by Buddhist monks who resent Muslims. They accuse Muslims of trying to convert everyone. They see Muslims’ high birth rate as a threat to the country. But above all, they are jealous of the fact that a Muslim upper middle class has been flourishing in certain industries namely in fashion and textiles.”

Muslim-owned shops were also attacked in April. To date none of the perpetrators have been held accountable.

Last month UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay visited Sri Lanka where she expressed concerns over the recent attacks on religious minorities. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been downplaying the events and has yet to act in stopping the aggression towards Muslims.

Sinhala Buddhist nationalism seems to have flourished under Rajapaksa’s leadership. These feelings of resentment resonate with those that triggered the Sri Lankan civil war 30 years ago. Sadly, it is obvious that the Sri Lankan government has not learnt its lesson. Should the current situation continue to escalate, Sri Lanka could be doomed to repeat history.


Ashin Wirathu

Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk has been inciting religious intolerance and violence against the Muslims who mainly consist of the Rohingya. Wirathu left school at 14 to train as a monk and became involved in the 969 movement in 2001. The 969 movement refers to the nine special attributes of the Lord Buddha, six core Buddhist teachings and the nine attributes of monkhood.

His organisation’s mantra speaks of people who “live in our land, drink our water and are ungrateful to us…we [Buddhists] will build a fence with our bones if necessary to keep supremacist Muslims out.”

Wirathu was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment 2003 for inciting religious hatred but was released in 2010 along with other political prisoners. He has since been slowly gaining a large following all over Myanmar.

Wirathu in his speeches claims that Muslims are the “enemies” of Buddhism and that the Buddhist religion along with its followers, mainly the women had to be protected from the Muslims in the country.

According to several news reports, he is “proud to be called a radical Buddhist.” He has even referred to himself as the “Burmese Bin Ladin.”

When questioned about his radical beliefs, Wirathu claimed “You can be full of kindness and love, but you cannot sleep next to a mad dog…I call them troublemakers because they are troublemakers.” Many have labelled Wirathu’s propaganda as the “ramblings of a sociopath.”

Wirathu’s anti-Islam campaign has resulted in lynch mobs rioting and attacking Muslims. In March there were attacks against Muslims in the state of Meikhtila which lasted 3 days. By the end, there were more than 40 casualties and the homes and stores of Muslims were looted and torched, leaving 10,000 people displaced.

On 21st July, a car bomb exploded during a Buddhist ceremony in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second biggest city. The blast took place about 18 metres away from where Wirathu was and wounded at least 5 people. Although no one has taken responsibility for the blast, fingers are being pointed at Muslims who are seeking revenge against Wirathu.

Early this month, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee established to oversee the country’s Buddhist monkhood issued a directive to curb the growing influence of monk-led movements that incite violence against the Muslims.

Since last year some 237 people have been killed and more than 150,000 have been displaced, the majority being Muslim. Many feel the government is not doing enough to protect its Muslim citizens. Despite the Burmese’s irrational fear of Buddhism disappearing, with just 5% of the population being Muslim there is little chance of Islam taking over.

Thich Quang Duc

Before radical Buddhism began stirring in Asia, Buddhist monks have long been viewed as symbols of peaceful resistance in their fight against colonisations, wars and oppressive governments. One of the most notable figures is Thich Quang Duc.

Thich Quang Duc

On 11 June 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk sat in the middle of a busy Saigon street in front of the Cambodian Embassy and set himself alight in protest of the repression against Buddhists by the then South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Under Diem, Buddhists were restricted from openly practicing their religion, serving in the army and were routinely discriminated against.

When Thich Quang Duc and several other monks demanded religious equality, Diem brushed them off, claiming that no such “discrimination” was taking place.

This famous photo snapped by Malcolm Browne caught the attention of the international community. In reference to the photo, President John F. Kennedy said, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”

Following Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation, there was increased international pressure on Diem. However, Diem never implemented any reforms. Following further deterioration in the dispute, Diem was eventually assassinated in a coup on 2 November 1963, less then 5 months after Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation.

This form of protest still continues, especially in Tibet where Buddhist Tibetans continue to face ethnic cleansing by the Chinese government for over 50 years.


In July there was a protest in Jakarta the capital city of Indonesia, Islamic hardliners called for a jihad against Myanmar. Protesters from the Islamic Defender Front (FPI) were carrying banners that read “FPI is ready to wage jihad. Go to Myanmar and carry out jihad for your Muslim brothers.” There have been several calls for jihad against Myanmar in the last year.

More recently, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Arakan, an Islamic group declared Burma a new front for jihad. The group which has ties to al-Qaeda is comprised of members from Burma, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

After more than a year of fighting, the Dalai Lama finally spoke out against the attacks in Myanmar. He condemned the killings and pleaded with monks to stop their rampage towards Muslims, “Buddha always teaches us about forgiveness, tolerance, compassion…if from one corner of your mind, some emotion makes you want to hit or want to kill, then please remember Buddha’s faith. We are followers of Buddha.”

Although she has fought for the rights of the Burmese people for decades, one wonders if Aung San Suu Kyi is aware that the Rohingya are part of Myanmar and also deserve the right to live in peace. As the face of Myanmer, Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to make any comments about this issue and has been accused of ignoring the problem.

Mantra of hatred

Myanmar buddhist extremism

These monks have been exposed to the violence which engulfed their countries for decades. For years, the monks fought through peaceful means but recently seem to have changed their mantras to “fight fire with fire”.

In order to get their message across, monks have swapped their prayer beads for Molotov cocktails.

They have the power to make change happen just like Thich Quang Duc but there are those who abuse that power by channeling it towards violence and discrimination.  Some where along the way, the line was crossed. The line between spiritual and political has become blurred.

Photo credit: druidabruxux, R.Sterken, druidabruxux & Atlasshrugs

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Gaanashree Wood

Asia editor at the World Outline. Gaanashree has a postgraduate diploma in Legal Practice (LPC) from the College of Law. She also holds a LLB (Law) and LLM in Public International law from University of Leicester and has a BSc in political science from Manchester Metropolitan University. Her main interests are South East Asian politics, foreign policy and women’s rights. She is currently working for various non-profit organisations specialising in conflict resolution and refugee aid.




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