Sri Lanka’s not-so-tranquil Buddhists

Pope Francis faces a big challenge when he heads to Sri Lanka this month – dealing with the bitter hostility of the island’s extremist Buddhist monks

This article was first published in The Catholic Herald on January 2 2015.

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Last year the satirical news site The Onion published a story about Buddhist extremism. Its headline read: “Extremist cell vows to unleash tranquillity on the West.” It described a video posted online in which a monk threatened “an assault of profound inner stillness” and said “no city will be spared from spiritual harmony … We will bring the entire United States to its knees in deep meditation.”

In Western culture the Buddhist monk is an unshakably serene and peaceful figure, unwilling to hurt a fly. Yet Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka are likely to have a different picture. The sight of saffron robes may bring to mind not tranquillity but an angry crowd, a shaking fist or a brick thrown through the window.

Buddhist aggression against minorities in Sri Lanka rose sharply last year. In January three Pentecostal churches were attacked by mobs. At least one of these mobs was led by monks. Furniture and windows were smashed and a prayer centre set on fire. In June anti-Muslim riots in the south-west of the country brought violence on a much larger scale. Four people were killed, 80 injured and 10,000 displaced. Neighbourhoods were torched and homes ransacked.

Pope Francis, who is expected to arrive in the country on January 13, will be deeply aware of the dangers Sri Lanka’s minorities face. His first challenge is to avoid making them worse.

Tensions have long existed in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the rest of the population. These were pushed to the background during the decades-long civil conflict with the Tamil Tigers, a secular insurgency finally crushed in 2009.

Since then extremists have found their voice in a group called Bodu Bala Sena (“Buddhist Power Force”), or BBS. The group, founded in 2012, says it only seeks to defend Sri Lanka’s Buddhist identity and distances itself from any violence. Yet the rioting against Muslims followed rallies held by BBS nearby. The spark was an altercation between two Muslims and a Buddhist monk, but a fiery address by the BBS leader, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, escalated the tension dramatically. To an angry crowd he exclaimed: “If a Muslim or any other foreigner puts so much as a hand on a Sinhala person – let alone a monk – it will be the end of all of them!”

The group is not keen on Pope Francis either. After the Holy See confirmed his three-day visit, BBS issued a statement, saying: “Pope Francis must apologise to Buddhists for the atrocities committed by Christian colonial governments in South Asia.” Assuming the trip is not cancelled because of its proximity to Sri Lanka’s presidential elections, the Pope will have to tread carefully.

Buddhist extremism has become a danger not just in Sri Lanka but in Burma, too. Similar riots against Muslims have killed at least 200 people in the past two years. A Burmese movement called 969 has emerged that, like BBS, sees Muslims – and to a lesser extent Christians – as predatory aggressors out to destroy Buddhist culture.

Francis has little experience of Buddhism to draw on. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires he built close relationships with Jews, Muslims and Protestants. On his visit to the Middle East he was accompanied by two old friends, a rabbi and an imam, whose embrace at the Western Wall transmitted a powerful image to the world. But Buddhists are barely a presence in Argentina. His journey to South Asia – the first by a pope since St John Paul II went to India in 1999 – will mark a step into the unknown.

His chief antagonists are Gnanasara, the hot-headed leader of BBS, and Wirathu, leader of 969, who jokingly calls himself “the bald Bin Laden”. The pair, both monks, have close links. Last year they met twice, and Wirathu attended a BBS conference in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, addressing 5,000 supporters. They will be eyeing the Pope’s visit closely, particularly on the second day, when Francis meets Buddhist and other religious leaders. Any clumsy reference to the country’s recent war or its colonial history could lead to difficulties.

The monks’ causes have become popular because many in Sri Lanka and Burma feel that Buddhism is under siege. Despite both countries being majority Buddhist there is a sense that the religion is being edged out by more aggressive faiths.

To bolster this view the groups’ supporters argue that Buddhism has long been on the losing end of history. They recall the time 1,000 years ago, before the spread of Islam and the growth of Western empires, when nearly all of Asia was Buddhist. Now countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh are mainly Muslim and the Philippines is mainly Catholic. Burmese and Sri Lankan nationalists see Buddhist diminishment in terms of military advancement by Christians and Muslims. This aggression, they feel, continues today. As the official BBS website says: “The call for Buddhist nationalism is a last resort to … ensure history is not repeated.”

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