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Militant Buddhism: From Monks Standing By Military in Myanmar To Buddhist Power Army in Sri Lanka

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Discussing the rise Buddhist extremism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, The New York Times in a report said incited by a politically powerful network of charismatic monks, Buddhists have entered the era of militant tribalism, casting themselves as spiritual warriors who must defend their faith against an outside force

“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,” it added.

The newspaper said 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”.

The report quoted a Buddhist monk, Sumedhananda Thero, who said Muslims were violent, 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.”

“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 NYT said 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 per cent of the national population is Muslim. “During Ramadan celebrations in May, Buddhist mobs besieged Islamic prayer halls, causing Muslim worshipers to flee.”

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About the situation in Myanmar, the newspaper mentioned Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk who was once jailed for his hate speech, has rejected the nonviolent teachings of his faith. Military-linked lawmakers deserved to be glorified like Buddha, he said at a rally. “Only the military protects both our country and our religion.”

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.

The situation can be gauged by the fact that the civilian government of Myanmar in May issued an arrest warrant for Wirathu, but charges were not for hate speech against a minority religion. “He is being accused of seditious comments against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,” the report said.

Similarly, Ashin Nyanissara, Myanmar’s most influential monk, said “Muslims have almost bought the United Nations,” at the time when a massacre of Rohingya Muslims was being carried out. The army and monkhood “could not be separated,” he added.

“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.”

The report notes that prevailing anti-Muslim sentiment worldwide has heightened prejudice, with social media playing a corrosive role.

“I’ve been interviewing so many monks, and it is clear that Facebook is what has been driving their hate,” said 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.”

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Meanwhile, 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 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’,” The NYT said.

Meanwhile, a fusion of faith and tribalism is again on the ascendant in Sri Lanka and its champion is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defence chief who is the leading candidate for president in elections due this year.

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.

On the other hand, Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Army) Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero last year told The NYT, “We have been the guardians of Buddhism for 2,500 years. Now, it is our duty, just as it is the duty of monks in Myanmar to fight to protect our peaceful island from Islam.”

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