Taking old friends too seriously: Sri Lanka, Burma and Buddhist extremism

MYANMAR-VIOLENCE/

People collect pieces of metal from the rubble of a neighbourhood in Pauktaw township that was burned in recent violence October 27, 2012. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun (Caption and content from Reuters)

Sri Lanka’s long relationship with Burma is something that anyone who has even a nodding acquaintance with Sri Lankan history is aware of. In both nations, Theravada Buddhism has been a vital political idea that has cemented the legitimacy of monarchs. Both Burma and Sri Lanka saw a Buddhist revival as a response to colonial occupation, a revival which has allowed Buddhism to fuse with nationalism as both countries achieved their independence.

With such a similar and connected past, it should come as no surprise that the Bodu Bala Sena’s manifesto echoes that of the 969; an extremist Buddhist organization in Myanmar that seeks to ethnically cleanse Myanmar of Muslims, who make up 4% of the country’s population.  The 969 take their title from Buddhist numerology and have styled themselves as defenders of the Buddhist faith and more importantly, protectors of a Buddhist nation. They are led by a monk named Wirathu, who has been inciting religious hatred as far back as 2003.

The 969 propound that the Muslim community is destroying the Buddhist way of life, and thus the very fabric of society, but much of their rhetoric is meant to stir up economic resentment as well as nationalist fervour. They accuse the Rohingya of monopolizing industry and preventing wealth from trickling down to poorer ‘true’ Burmese citizens. And in an effort to rectify this alleged injustice the 969 has promoted wide scale boycotts of Muslim owned stores and enterprises, encouraging Buddhists to patronize Buddhist businesses instead, which are now distinguishable by the 969 stickers they sport on their storefronts. This is similar to the tactics of the BBS in Sri Lanka, where Muslim shops in Kurunegala have been told to close  down by the 31st of March and the organization openly handed out leaflets  in Maharagama, telling Buddhists not to shop at No Limit. Despite having a religious and nationalist agenda, the rhetoric of both these extremist groups revolves around economic discrimination to implement it.

The aims of the Bodu Bala Sena and 969 may be similar but they have very different means of spreading their ideology. For instance the Bodu Bala Sena has a frequently updated website and Facebook page, despite attracting critics who post comments along the lines of “die extremists!” on their wall. While their views are anything but progressive, their methods certainly are and they are quite at ease with technology and social media.

By contrast Myanmar’s low internet penetration and long history of censorship mean that such a campaign would be pointless; 969 does not even have a Wikipedia page. Instead its ideology is disseminated through sermons and the distribution of anti-Muslim leaflets. The organization uses the existing religious infrastructure to transmit these opinions, particularly the monastic schools which have become a driving force in the education of poorer Burmese who have no access to state schools.

Myanmar’s isolation from the rest of the world has allowed the agenda of the 969 to go mostly unnoticed by mainstream international media. Yet the effects of its hate-mongering have now come to a head. Last week a dispute between a Buddhist customer and a Muslim shopkeeper sparked a wave of violence against the Muslim Rohingya community in the Burmese state of Meikhtila. The three days of rioting have led to 40 casualties, mosques and the homes of Muslims and Buddhists alike being torched, and an estimated 10,000 Muslims being displaced.

Sri Lankans should be wary because we are mimicking the trajectory of Myanmar at an escalating rate. Just days after the BBS sent out an SMS asking Buddhists to shop at non-Muslim shops for the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, a mob allegedly led by Buddhist monks, attacked and damaged Muslim owned Fashion Bug.

In both instances these fundamentalist groups have succeeded in manipulating and contradicting the tenets of moderation and non-violence to form a dogmatic religious identity, which is then equated with a national identity. While common sense should remind us that a violent fanatical Buddhist organisation should be a contradiction in terms, the terrifying truth is that these groups are impervious to this irony.

  • Jonathan

    I agree with the objectives of the BBS and the 969 in principle. There is nothing wrong with a community serving its own interests. Church groups sponsor their own members for scholarships. Temples and kovils frequently give provisions and food to their own community. It is the rabble rousers who misunderstand and take misuse this message that are causing mischief and causing chaos. By all means arrest the perpetrators of violence. But do not blame the BBS or the 969

    • Piranha

      Your moronic justification for the actions of the BBS gives the oxygen that these fascist religious groups need to cause mayhem in the country that has come through a devastating 30 year war. You are able to read and write in English on this forum but I suspect there is [edited out].

    • P.Riyad

      The BBS and similar organizations are only a response to fifth columns established in Asia by the western powers to neo-colonise these countries. After the Arab Spring created, nurtured and financed by the NATO powers, we have to be vigilant that such despicable moves are not permitted to happen in our countries. The use of NGOs and Christian organizations to spearhead their operations makes these organisations the targets of the reaction by local nationalistb organizations. It is a matter of survival.

  • Gehan

    Thanks for an interesting article. Just wondering, what’s your source for the claims about 969? I wouldn’t mind reading more on that. But it appears that 969 is not as mainstream as BBS is in SL. Are they a real threat to the Myanmar economy? Race riots take place all the time – India is a case in point. It is not a strange thing in multi-ethnic societies. What we really ought to fear is state sponsorship or acquiescence. I don’t think the Myanmar government can be accused of that. HRW, for instance, has only criticized the government for being slow to respond. BBS is fast entering mainstream politics as a powerful, insidious force. I don’t quite see this happening in Myanmar. So perhaps the parallel needs to be examined closely. What we should really fear is the debilitating effect all this is likely to have on the economy – when the enterprising few are targeted – a lesson to be learnt from Uganda when it expelled Indians.
    So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say SL is potentially worse off. Perhaps we should be warning Myanmar to stay clear of SL’s trajectory.

  • oopla

    interesting. the added addition of Bhutan in the South Asian region which expelled all it Nepali HIndus to consolidate the Budhist Buhutan remains the legacy of Budhism in this region. Much has been said about HIndu and Muslim fundamentalisms in the area. But Budhist fundmentalism is a reality too. Not to mention Chriistian fundamentalism in North East and some south Indian area too. Nagaland for Christ seems to come to mind.
    Whithin these realities whats our response

  • MRGR

    With Buddhist mobs chasing Muslims from village to another, experts blame radical monks for the new wave of sectarian violence in Burma.

    “It is clear that there are some agents provocateurs with radical anti-Muslim agendas at work in the country — including influential Buddhist monks preaching intolerance and hatred of Muslims,” Jim Della-Giacoma, a Burma expert with the International Crisis Group think-tank, told The Week.

    “Also, the systematic and methodical way in which Muslim neighborhoods were razed to the ground is highly suggestive of some degree of advance planning by radical elements.”

    Tension between Buddhists and Muslims has been simmering since last year’s sectarian violence in western Rakhine state, which displaced thousands of Muslims.

    Monks were seen igniting the violence by preaching a so-called “960 movement”, which represents a radical form of anti-Islamic nationalism that urges Buddhists to boycott Muslim-run shops and services.

    We must prevent racial and religious disputes

  • Sri

    Neither BBS nor 969 have any place in both countries if they claim to be democratic, rule of law and justice. In any case it is against all principles of Buddhism as taught by Buddha to practice tolerance which is the very antithesis of preaching hatred, intolerance and riots. It is also a sign of governance failures by the state in both countries especially as both are member countries of the UN and hence of the Charter. SL is a test case.

    • dushsh

      What 969 is doing according to this article is to provide education and fight for economic tickle down which are basic necessities of a fair society. Muslim community can respond fairly to these demands. So there is no real extremism among Buddhists.
      In Sri Lanka only point that move to mainstream politics is the halal certificate issue which was provided by Muslim organisation to food producers. To get this certificate meet producers are suppose to BLEED ANIMALS TO DEATH. Forcing this kind of extreme Muslim rules on Sri Lankan community is unacceptable.
      In middle of our countries is India where 100 millions of people deprived of education and economic opportunity because of iideas fuelled by Hindu extremism. Those poor people know it is a KILLING FIELD they will face if they ever rise against State Terror.

  • Meghal

    A correction, the Muslim community of the state of Meikhtila are ethnically different to the Rohingya.

  • Haris

    When people slant incidents to justify theit prejudices, without knowing the facts, things sure will get out of hand. The international media egged on or financed by the LTTE, loves to see SriLanka destabalized. They hide behind any opportunity they could find to achieve their goal.

    This incident in Sri Lanka has started with an accusation of the rape of a 15 year old girl, where the rapist works at the establishment adjoining the Muslim owned business. Also, the target establishment is owned by a Sinhalese. They have torched the equipment belonging to that business. When people resolve to mob rule they do not care who owns the propery they destroy. Unfortunately the muslim owned business also became a victim here. The employees of the Muslim owned business are mostly Sinhalese, so they lost their jobs too.

    When this type of mob violence takes place in India or the UK, the reporting of all these ‘do gooders’ are different.

    Let Sri Lanka alone to handle their internal affairs.

    • murugan

      When you start killing your own people, this becomes external affairs.
      No more internal.

      Murugan

      • haris

        Then you should start with India. Not only India is doingb that with their own at the moment and did in the past, they trained LTTE to do that in Sri Lanka. LTTE first started with killing their own people, starting with the mayor of Jaffna. VP did that with his own hands!

        • reality

          It all started with ORGANISED STATE TERRORISM in Sri Lanka, from 1956 on wards, periodically killing its own citizens!!! Now four years after the STATE SPONSORED GENOCIDE killing has become normal in Sri Lanka.

          The so called leaders are not ashamed of it. For them business as usual, just making money for themselves and their extended family for generations to come!!!Inciting communal hatred in private and condemning it “on stage” has become a way of life for them!!

          • haris

            The reality is, that colour bar existed in the US, UK, South Africa, etc. in 1956. In Sri Lanka when 10% of the popolation asked for equal political representation there was trouble; started in Jaffna by the minority Tamils. In all incidents which sparked-off riots it was always the Tamils who sparked them off. Yes, the govt. should have protected all citizens. In 1956 they did but 1983 they relented. There is no excuse for thet. Political reality I suppose.

            Wonder why everybody has conveniently forgotten the JVP uprising in the 70′s and 80′s when Sinhala youth were killed en-masse by then government. Where were all this do-gooders then? At that time one had to be Tamil or Muslim to join the govt. forces!

            Minority should know how to co-exist with the majority like in most places in the world. India is the culprit in all cases. Selecting Sri Lanka exclusively to blame would not help. As TN claims that the Tamils are their brothers, may be all who does not want to be co-exist in SL should look for a better life in TN, in the Tamil homeland. Otherwise adjust and co-exist. Trying to make trouble in Sri Lanka at every opportunity by distorting the facts would make the lives of all citizens in SL miserabel.

            I am happy that with all their faults SriLanka has finally found visonary leadership.

    • Sri

      Let Sri Lanka alone to keep the killing field going?! The facts are all too stark.

  • georgethebushpig

    Dear Meghal Perera,

    I guess it was written in the cards when MR chose Myanmar as his first choice of state visit subsequent to the end of the war.

    Enjoyed reading your article and look forward to a lot more.

    Cheers
    GTBP

  • jay

    Diaspora can try fooling white man forever..ever and ever..But Not SL

  • Athacolla

    When the LTTE started blowing up so many people and funded and trained by India why was the UN silent together with the rabid western opinion. , when opinions are not balanced the responses naturally become unbalanced. This is captured in the meaning of Correct thought, correct deed and correct action. Monks are no more human than you and I.

    • joke

      “Monks are no more human than you and I”

      This is a laughing matter!!! If it is so, then they should not call them monks!!! They conveniently remain monks in order to live without working, free food, free accommodation and the respect they get for donning the saffron robe!!

      It is a known fact, most of the Sri Lankan Buddhist monks enjoy all the “luxuries” of a common man despite donning the saffron robes!!There are only a few pious monks in Sri Lanka.

      As for UN and the world, they remained silent when there were organised pogroms by the STATE TERROR (aided and abetted by the so called monks as well)all these years against the innocent Tamils!!
      LTTE emerged to defend the helpless Tamils.

      • dushsh

        STATE TERROR WAS LTTE. Terror of state of India. Programs of our government provided educations and land for people who were deprived of them. This agitated few fascist Tamils who got help from India who maintains a polarised society with help their own state terror. If Tamils could understand themselves this war would not happened.