Colombo, May 19: Militant-political Buddhism is on the rise in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, both Buddhist-majority countries, writes P.K.Balachandran in www.southasianmonitor.com.
It is exploiting the political vacuum existing in these countries due to weak governments, to build a strong political constituency with the aim of turning these countries into mono-religious cum mono-ethnic states, ostensibly to avert subjugation to “alien” groups like the Muslims.
In Myanmar, the “Ma Ba Tha” (Association for the Protection of Race and Religion) and 969 movements led by monk Ashin Wirathu has been on the rampage for the past few years, with the clandestine support of successive governments including that of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.
In a recent incident (on April 28), a mob of about 50 to 100 Buddhist ultranationalists put pressure on local officials and police in Yangon’s Thaketa Township, to close the two Madrasas. The ultranationalists alleged that Muslims were using the schools to conduct prayers, which they claimed violated an agreement signed by the schools’ leaders last year. The authorities carried out the mob’s demand with alacrity as the police watched.
Wunna Shwe, Joint Secretary General of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council, told Human Rights Watch that closures like this are not uncommon in Myanmar.
“According to our experience, Madrasas that are sealed or closed almost never open again,” Wunna Shwe said. In Taungoo, in the Bago Region, government sealed ten mosques in 2001 and, only four have since been reopened.
Government regulations on venues for prayer and constructing religious buildings are opaque, often only explained orally by local officials, and have onerous requirements ,HRW said. Authorities also prohibit construction of new mosques, and make it extremely difficult to get authorization to make repairs to existing religious buildings ,it added.
In 2013, clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in Meiktila, Mandalay Region, resulted in dozens killed and over 800 building were destroyed.
In Sri Lanka, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) which instigated the ugly riots in the Muslim quarter of Aluthgama, south of Colombo, with the tacit support of the Mahinda Rajapaka government in 2014, went into its shell after the defeat of Rajapaksa in 2015. But it has raised its ugly head again now, given the political vacuum created by the weak government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
With the local body and provincial elections due, Sri Lankan political parties have begun pandering to communal and ethnic sentiments. The BBS is used as a tool by forces keen on exploiting communal feelings, which the BBS can arouse with its reckless statements and brazen campaigns. With the police going into a shell, the BBS becomes a law unto itself.
The BBS, which campaigned against Halal branding and the burqa with state support in 2014, is expected to raise the bogey of a Muslim “take over of Sri Lanka”, as all major parties are competing for the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist vote.
Myanmar’s Muslim population is varied, both racially and linguistically. In the North, in Rakhine state, formerly called Arakan, the Muslims are basically immigrants from East Bengal and speak Bengali. A majority in North Arakan, these Bengali-speaking Muslims trace their history to the 15 th. Century, though the bulk of the immigration took place after the establishment of British rule in Myanmar in the 19 th.Century. In South Arakan or South Rakhine, Myanmarese Buddhists are in majority.
In the southern part of the country, however, the Muslims are of mixed origin, tracing their ancestry to a bewildering variety of ethnic groups from various parts of India, Iran and the Middle East. Those Indian Muslims who have Myanmarese blood are called Zerabadis. Many Myanmarese Muslims in the south sport Myanmrese names.
Before the British established themselves in Myanmar after the First Anglo-Burman War in 1826, the Muslim population in the country was small, even in Arakan, which is close to East Bengal. But the violent way in which the British took over Myanmar following the First and Second Anglo-Burma Wars (1826 and 1852 respectively), and the heavy Indian immigration which they encouraged as rulers, created anti-Indian feelings among the Myamarese, who, unlike the immigrants, were also Buddhist.
It was as if the British had opened the floodgates to Indian immigration as at the turn of the 20 th. Century, annual arrivals had touched 250,000 and Yangon had become an Indian majority city. According Anthony Ware of Deakin University of Australia, Yangon, which was a Buddhist town with innumerable pagodas and monasteries, became a multi-ethnic and multi-religious town in less that 50 years of British occupation.
Since the town had been burnt down completely during the 1852 war, and only major Buddhist shrines like the Sule and Shwedagon pagodas were allowed to stand, Yagon was laid out afresh by the British. In that process, shrines of non-Buddhist communities were built, vastly outnumbering Buddhist shrines. With their places of worship having disappeared or pulled down to make way for development, the Myanmarese Buddhists of Yangon migrated virtually en masse to Upper Myanmar.
Buddhism and the Myanmarese were both marginalized by British power. Their place was taken by Hindus, Muslims, Parsees, Jews, and others from all parts of India.
The abolition of the Myanmarese kingdom by the British also contributed to the marginalization of Buddhism as the king was seen as the embodiment of Buddhist power and as its protector. The Myanmarese Buddhist edifice had lost its cornerstone with the abolition of kingship.
It is therefore not surprising that Myanmarese nationalism kicked off with the establishment of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association. Buddhist feelings ran quite high in 1938, when an Indian Muslim cleric made an anti-Muslim remark. Buddhist mobs attacked Muslims all over Myanmar. Moplah Muslim tea vendors in Myanmarese railway stations, a fixture in Myanmar railways, made easy targets. Thousands fled to their native Kerala.
When World War II spread to Myanmar in 1942, most Indians fled to India but the Muslims stayed on. To fight the Japanese invader, the British formed a local resistance group called the V Force in Arakan and recruited Arakan Muslims for it as the Buddhists tended to be pro-Japanese and had formed the Burma Independence Army to fight alongside the Japanese who had promised to make Myanmar an independent country after the war.
In the event, this triggered a Buddhist-Muslim war in which the majority of the victims were the non-militarized Muslim and Buddhist populations of Arakan or Rakhine.
As the British were clearing out of the Indian sub-continent in the late 1940s, a largely Hindu India and a largely Muslim Pakistan was going to be formed and Myanmar was going to be independent with a Buddhist majority to boot. At this time, the Muslims of Arakan or Rakhine started a movement to get their area attached to Pakistan as East Bengal was to become East Pakistan. This exacerbated relations between the Muslims and Buddhists in Rakhine and elsewhere in Myanmar.
But the Muslim movement failed because Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, rejected the plea for accession in order not to annoy Myanmarese nationalist leaders.
Unfazed, the Rakhine Muslims started a Jehadi movement to secure independence for Rakhine. This eventually became the most fiercely contested separatist movement in Myanmar after independence in 1948. It was finally put down by force in the 1960s by the military government led by Gen.Ne Win.
During the 50 year rule of Myanmar by a military junta, the communal situation was kept under control even as the regime actively promoted the Mynamarization and “Buddhistization” of the country. Most of the remaining Indians, barring the Muslims, fled.
Vote Bank Politics
However, when democracy was being restored in phases, the Muslims of south Myanmar, who seemed to be getting along the Myanmarese Buddhists , gradually began to feel the heat. Democracy, even in its incipient phase, had unleashed the politics of numbers and the Buddhist majority saw the need for maintaining its numerical superiority and also for using it to capture and retain power.
The Muslims were portrayed as an ever increasing group based on the belief that that they had at least for wives and that they encroached on the Buddhist population by marrying and converting Buddhist females.
When ex-General Thein Sein was in power he brought in a law to govern inter-faith marriage, family size, religious freedom and conversion to other religions. The “Ma Ba Tha” (Association for the Protection of Race and Religion) movement led by the vitriolic monk Ven.Ashin Wirathu, praised President Sein for this even though it was campaigning for the full restoration of democracy to fully unleash Buddhist power.
Intense anti-Muslim propaganda led to riots in 2012 and 2014. By the time Nobel Peace Prize winner and pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi came to full power in 2016, monk Wirathu’s movement had become the strongest movement in the country with branches in 250 ofr the 330 townships in Myanmar and thousands of followers. By this time, the Muslims had also begun to be seen as local representatives of the world-wide Jehadi or Wahabi movement and as a security threat to the country as well as Buddhism.
Meanwhile, efforts to marginalize and push out the Rakhine Muslims had progressed. Way back in 1982 itself, the Rakhine Muslims had been entered as “Stateless Bengali Muslims” in the census. In the anti-Muslim phases since the 1990s, they had become refugees in their own country and also abroad. 150,000 are presently in refugee camps and several had tried to flee to countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan (Karachi) and India.
But nowhere are these people welcome. Bangladesh, which has had to bear the brunt, put them up in a previously uninhabited island called Thengar Char, which is accessible only in winter and is a refuge for pirates.
Attempts to get the Aung San Suu Kyi government to take back the Rohingyas and stop the violence against them by Buddhist extremist-inspired Myanmarese mobs drew no response from Suu Kyi. She would dismiss these pleas by saying simply: “We have other priorities” or “There is another side to the story”.
US and human rights groups have highlighted the plight of the Rakhine Muslims or Rohingyas as they are called generally now. But to no avail. Apparently, the Western powers do not want to pressurize Aung San Suu Kyi so as not to push her towards China. The military junta which ruled Myanmar before her, had been very pro-China and had kept the West out of Myanmar. Suu Kyi had reversed this. The West had rewarded her for her pro-West leanings by giving her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. With China not interested in human rights and the West indifferent, the persecution of the Rohingyas is likely to continue unabated.
Sri Lanka had a major Muslim issue in 1915, when anti-Muslim riots engulfed Central and South West Sri Lanka. What began as a protest against the sharp trading practices of the Muslims of Indian origin (called Indian Moors), quickly became Buddhist nationalist movement against the Muslims, who like the Tamils, were also seen as being pro-British by the island’s emerging Buddhist nationalistic elite.
This happened at a time when Sri Lankan nationalism was based on its Buddhist heritage and the need to protect and foster this heritage. Though the nationalist movement was not specifically against Muslims and was anti-Christian and anti-Indian immigrant primarily, it engulfed the Muslims too.
After the British put down the riots with exceptional force, peace returned to Sri Lanka till independence came in 1948, when another issue began to engage Sri Lankan nationalists – the question of the nationality of the Indian Origin Tamils (IOT) employed in the plantation sector.
The million strong IOT community was disenfranchised and rendered stateless, causing a rift with India. The Muslims issue was brushed under the carpet in the process.
When democracy unleashed the politics of numbers, the nationalism of the majority Sinhalese-Buddhists aimed at the marginalization of the principal minority, the Sri Lankan Tamils, who were mostly Hindus. As the Tamils’ movement for autonomy gained ground, the Muslims decided to keep out of it though they were also Tamil-speaking. The Muslims sided with the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist in opposing the Tamils’ demand for autonomy and independence. And unlike the Tamils the Muslims joined Sri Lankan governments and used state power to improve their condition.
But the Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalists, who were watching the rapid economic and educational progress of the Muslims with increasing concern, could not do much to curb them as they needed Muslim support to quell the Tamils’ armed struggle for an independent “Eelam” from the mid 1970s to 2009.
But the moment the armed separatist Tamil movement was military crushed in 2009, and the Tamils were not longer a potent threat, the Sinhalese-Buddhist extremist groups turned their attention to the Muslims. A number of Buddhist extremists organizations led by monks came into being, the chief among them being the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).
The BBS built its case on the visible Islamization of the Sri Lankan Muslims thanks to returning workers from the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia. Money had poured in for mosque building, women started to go about covered from head to foot, and men sported beards and caps. The world-wide rise in Wahabi-inspired terrorism further fueld anti-Muslim feelings.
The BBS started a movement against “Halal” branding of foods in the market and sought a ban on burqas. Leaked stories about some Muslims going to Syria to join the ISIS added fuel to fire.
It was suspected that the Buddhist nationalist government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa was backing the BBS to enhance Rajapaksa’ image as the leader of Sinhalese-Buddhist majority. In June 2014, the BBS instigated a riot in Aluthgama, south of Colombo, where there was a sizeable Muslim trader population. The riots were seen as a ploy by the Rajapaksa government to communalize Sri Lankan politics to win the snap Presidential election which was held in January 2015.
After the defeat of Rajapaksa in the 2015 election, the BBS lay low but it has come back again to the forefront now, with the political situation becoming fluid. With opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa challenging his rival President Maithriala Sirisena to hold local and provincial elections in a situation where the government is seen as being inept, Sirisena is forced to think of catering to the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist constituency to deny this to Rajapaksa.
Not surprisingly, the BBS is taking up issues against the Muslims and asserting itself in many ways. This is because of the need to revive communal politics to fight the coming elections.
The BBS has taken up the issue of the alleged grabbing of reserve forest lands by Muslims in the Wilpattu area, and is creating property ownership disputes in the Muslim areas of the Eastern province. But its activities are relatively subdued compared to the past, and compared to the Ma Ba Tha and other organizations in Myanmar.
(The featured picture at the top shows houses in a Muslim quarter of a town in Myanmar burning in the riots of 2013)