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The rise of extreme Buddhism: What’s happening and why?

WATCH: Buddhist extremist views are on the rise

Buddhism is a faith that elicits images of peaceful meditation, but increasingly images of violence and persecution are associated with some Buddhists. In places like Myanmar and Sri Lanka, violent fire bombings, mob scenes and forced migrations are now synonymous with Buddhist nationalist sentiment and the problem is getting worse.

“It’s an extremely serious issue in Myanmar. I think it’s one of the toughest challenges that Myanmar is facing,” said Jared Ferrie, a former Reuters journalist in Myanmar now working with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

It’s the same story in Sri Lanka, where violent mobs have driven Muslims from their homes and carried out beatings of non-Buddhist minorities.

“While there’s always been a kind of undercurrent of this movement of Buddhist extremism in Sri Lanka, it’s gotten much worse,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, a professor and researcher at Queen’s university and expert on religious extremism.

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READ MORE: Rohinghya don’t want to return to Myanmar without safety assurances

How can Buddhism be used to justify violence?

Buddhist nationalist sentiment in these countries isn’t new, in fact, the roots can be traced back to the British Colonial era. In the decades since the Brits left their colonial strongholds, that resentment and hatred has festered. Now some monks are interpreting teachings to fit their narratives against non-Buddhist minorities, primarily Muslims, whom they see as threatening Buddhist ways of life.

But, how can they interpret teachings, which are largely seen as peaceful in this way? Peter Lehr, a professor at St. Andrews University in the U.K. and an expert on Buddhist extremism, explains that within Theravada Buddhism, the majority Buddhist belief in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, these nationalist groups have been able to extract justifications.

“Buddhism is under siege [and] we need to defend ourselves. Second, is defensive warfare or defensive violence [which] is acceptable in Buddhism, and third it’s not bad to fight against those people because they’re not really human,” Lehr said.

Armed with the righteous conviction that they are protecting their way of life and religious beliefs, monks like Ashin Wirathu in Myanmar and Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara in Sri Lanka, have taken their brand of hatred to the people.

Ashin Wirathu has been the face of Ma Ba Tha, rebranded last year as The Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, together with the anti-Islam movement, 969 Movement in Myanmar. His speeches and invocations of violence have been responsible for some of the attacks on Rohingya in the country.

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Rohingya refugees being sent back to Myanmar fear torture, persecution
Rohingya refugees being sent back to Myanmar fear torture, persecution

Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, one of the leaders of Sri Lanka’s most vocal Buddhist extremist group, Bodu Bola Sena, has become the face and voice of anti-minority rhetoric there. These two men have moved their messages online and with Youtube, Facebook and Twitter that’s meant a wider audience.

Role of social media in Extreme Buddhism

“I would say that yes, it is being fueled by social media for sure, without a doubt,” Ferrie said.

It’s platforms like twitter and YouTube along with WhatsApp and Facebook that have become the main portals for preaching to the masses.

“I’m in a few of these Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist groups on WhatsApp and it’s quite obvious that whenever there is anti-Muslim rioting going on, addresses get shared in these groups,” Amarasingham said.

Where they used to reach a few people by speaking in small towns and villages or distributing DVDs and CDs with their message, now they are reaching thousands.

“It’s very difficult to shut these people down,” Lehr said. He added that despite admitting to not doing enough to contain hate speech and the spread of misinformation, Facebook did try to stop some of the rhetoric on its platform in Myanmar and even tried to shutdown one of the senior channels of the army, which aligns with some of the Buddhist nationalist views.

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“Hours later, they simply reappeared on Contact, that’s the Russian platform,” Lehr said. “It’s very difficult to stifle this dissemination of hate.”

READ MORE: Facebook shutters 216 pages, groups, accounts in Myanmar, some linked to army

The increase in violence

With the spread of hate speech online, there’s been an uptick in violence, too.

The thousands of Rohingya that have been forced into refugee camps in Bangladesh as their homes and towns have been destroyed, along with the Muslims displaced by Buddhist Nationalists in Sri Lanka, have become common place.

“We followed a fire engine into this neighborhood and we went in and houses were on fire. There were hundreds of young Buddhist men on motorbikes riding around the neighborhood with sticks and with swords singing nationalist songs. The Muslim minority had been driven out,” said Ferrie, recalling one of his reporting assignments.

Other journalists have been targeted and threatened.

Esther Htusan, the first female Burmese journalist to win a Pulitzer prize for her work on human rights violations, was threatened and eventually had to leave Myanmar.

“For them anybody who reports about [the] Muslim minority, particularly Rohingya. Then they think that it’s a traitor of the country or a traitor of the society,” Htusan said. “So that’s what happened to me because I started reporting about this from 2013. … I started getting threats.”

READ MORE: Myanmar, Bangladesh to begin second attempt to repatriate Rohingya refugees (Aug. 16, 2019)

Could it spread and is there a fix?

For now, the violence is contained within this small corner of the world but there is serious concern that with the spread of misinformation on social media the problem could soon spread to other parts of Asia.

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“What really surprised me was that when I went to one of these rallies or gatherings of the Buddhist nationalists back in 2016, I saw a few Buddhist nationalists from Thailand participating in Myanmar. So it really worried me that it could really spread across the country and target other minority groups across the region,” Htusan said.

Lehr agrees there is concern it could spread. “What’s also very ominous is the Buddhist groups … are now connecting the dots, basically getting alliances across the country’s border.”

So is there a fix? The answer isn’t simple. Experts agree that moderate Buddhists need to speak out more but that’s not easy.

“You have to think twice as a moderate monk to do something against these preachers of hate because they are well organized,” Lehr said.

But it’s not just other Buddhists who need to speak out, it’s also politicians and leaders.

READ MORE: House of Commons unanimously votes to revoke Aung San Suu Kyi’s honourary Canadian citizenship

Many have been waiting for Burmese politician and Nobel Peace prizewinner, Aung San Suu Kyi, to speak out against the violence and to address the plight of the Rohingya but so far she hasn’t.

“There could be a lot more done,” Ferrie said. “Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, has huge support among the population but it’s an issue that she for political reasons probably feels very uncomfortable touching. … She and her party hold so much sway over the population that they might be able to make an impact on this if they tried.”

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For now, extreme Buddhist views and their consequences remain a concern. Minority groups hope that in the future, measures to counter these extreme groups helps them live life without fear of being driven from their homes, targeted and killed.