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Conflicts and the future of Islam and Buddhism in SE Asia

The ongoing conflicts and religious disharmony in Buddhist societies from Sri Lanka to Japan were in the spotlight at "Twenty-Five Years in Retrospect: Buddhism, Ethnic Conflicts and Religious Harmony in South and Southeast Asia" - a conference organised by the International Centre For Ethnic Studies last month in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

The conference was a successor to one held 25 years ago on the topic, "Ethnic Conflict in Buddhist Societies: Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma".

Over the intervening years, Muslim-Buddhist relations have been badly damaged by events such as the Afghan Taleban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in 2001, the 2013 bomb blasts at Bodh Gaya, violence against the Muslim Rohingya and the rise of 969 movement in Myanmar, and the emergence of nationalist Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) coupled with riots in Sri Lanka last month. In every case, the violence was mobilised in the name of Islam or Buddhism.

That the 57 Muslim member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) chose to remain silent over the Bamiyan and Bodh Gaya incidents while speaking out loudly over the Rohingya and Sri Lankan Muslims' plight has not helped build bridges between Islam and Buddhism. This has special implications for the Asean region, where Muslims and Buddhist coexist as the two largest religious communities.

Southeast Asia has a population of 618 million, made up of 42 per cent (240 million) Muslims and 40 per cent (150-190 million) Buddhists. Twenty-five per cent of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims live in Southeast Asia, which is also home to 38 per cent of the world's 350 million Buddhists. Buddhism took root in Southeast Asia from the 7th-11th centuries and Islam from the 12th-15th centuries.

Research papers aired at last month's two-day conference touched upon the state of ethnic and religious relations in Asia's majority-Buddhist countries, covering such topics as Buddhist ethics for post-conflict reconciliation; the Buddhist-nationalist Bodu Bala Sena movement in Sri Lanka; Buddhist-Muslim tension in Myanmar's Rakhine state; Buddhist and Islamic coping strategies in Thailand's deep South; how minorities in Cambodia relate to the Buddhist majority; and political collaboration between Buddhists and Muslims.

The research papers illustrated the diversities within the worlds of Islam and Buddhism, covering South, Southeast and East Asia, the Theravada and Mahayana worlds of Buddhism and an Asian Islam distanced yet linked with the Middle East.

Also discussed were the ongoing violent ethno-religious conflicts in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, which have attracted attention and sympathy among both local and global communities of Muslims and Buddhists. Though presented as clashes of religion by most international media, these are in reality local conflicts between the Indo-Aryan Rohingya and the Mongoloid Burmans in Myanmar, and the Sinhala Buddhists and Tamil/Sinhala-speaking minority-Muslim community in Sri Lanka, whose political leaders adopted Islam as an ethnic identity marker in order to distinguish themselves from Tamil Hindu/Christians and Sinhala Buddhists. While this ethnic identity brought economic and political benefits in the past, it is now backfiring on Sri Lankan Muslims as Sinhala Buddhist nationalists rise and seek dominance in the post-civil war era.

Spearheading Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka is the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Like other religious nationalist parties, the BBS is not content with inclusive politics and sees politics in a religious way.

The Kandy conference heard from BBS chief executive officer Dilanthe Withanage, who said the group was seeking to protect and revive Sinhala Buddhism as a political and social force in Sri Lanka after years of its erosion under colonial rule and Christian missionaries. He claimed Buddhism in Sri Lanka has been reduced to empty practice and textbooks. Monks are ordained in robes but not in spirit. Sinhalese Buddhist parliamentarians do not fight for the religious and ethnic rights of the Buddhist majority, while representatives of minority communities protect theirs. He also remarked that the 70 per cent majority Sinhala Buddhists are divided, leaving the way open for the 10 per cent minority religious communities to make crucial political decisions. Thus democracy does not work in favour of the Sinhala Buddhist majority. He added that the old colonial structures of government and justice were of no benefit to the Buddhist populace and that Western ideas of education, multiculturalism and religious pluralism spread by the education system and the media are strengthening the minorities. Thus the situation of Sinhala Buddhists as a community that has preserved the Theravada Buddhist tradition for 2,300 years is under threat from global forces, and requires international Buddhist support. Dismissing Sri Lanka's constitutional protection for Buddhists as a paper promise, the BBS insists there is a need to revise the majority-minority concept so that the status of the majority is affirmed. The declining Sinhala population is causing erosion of their faith, leading to closure of Buddhist temples and institutions. As such, there is a need to establish a Buddhist society through social development, to create a new generation of courageous and independent monks, to reorganise monastic education to meet the challenges of globalisation, turn temples into centres of social development, establish an organisation of nuns, propagate dharma, promote Buddhist entrepreneurs and enterprises, safeguard the religion's heritage sites and counter local and international "anti-Buddhist" activities.

Its call for preserving Sinhala Buddhism has made the BBS a popular socio-political force among the youth and the masses, but is not that popular among liberal and moderate Buddhists. It is xenophobic towards other Sri Lankan ethnic groups and has two main issues with the 7-per-cent Sri Lankan Muslim population:

1. The BBS sees the spread of puritanical Wahhabi Islam - which favours the adoption of Arab culture and dress such as face veils for women and white "thawb" robes for men - as a divisive force. This view is shared by many other Asian Buddhists, who are alarmed by the sudden appearance of exclusivist tendencies among local Muslim populations.

2. The BBS opposes Halal certification as a legal requirement in Sri Lanka, viewing it as a step towards Islamisation of the food industry.

Assistant Professor Imtiyaz Yusuf is a lecturer and director of the Centre for Buddhist-Muslim Understanding, College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University.

The concluding section of this two-part article will be published in tomorrow's Nation.


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