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Contemporary Buddhism

An Interdisciplinary Journal

ISSN: 1463-9947 (Print) 1476-7953 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rcbh20

Anti-Muslim Buddhist Nationalism in Burma

and Sri Lanka: Religious Violence and Globalized
Imaginaries of Endangered Identities

Mikael Gravers

To cite this article: Mikael Gravers (2015) Anti-Muslim Buddhist Nationalism in Burma and Sri
Lanka: Religious Violence and Globalized Imaginaries of Endangered Identities, Contemporary
Buddhism, 16:1, 1-27, DOI: 10.1080/14639947.2015.1008090

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2015.1008090

Published online: 18 Feb 2015.

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Download by: [Nanyang Technological University] Date: 08 October 2016, At: 12:36

Mikael Gravers

In Burma, monks are promoting a new marriage law restricting interfaith marriages.
They have used hateful anti-Muslim rhetoric and claimed that Buddhism, language,
culture and the national identity is endangered. Since 2012, Burma has seen widespread
anti-Muslim riots resulting in burned mosques and casualties instigated by the 969
movement. Burmese monks study in Sri Lanka where the Buda Bala Sena, (Buddhist
Power Force) movement runs a fierce anti-Muslim and anti-Christian campaign. There is
a clear connection between the monks in these former British colonies where Buddhism
was part of the nationalist anti-colonial struggle. Buddhism is still part of ongoing
identity politics.
Todays xenophobic Buddhist nationalism seems to contain a combination of the
traditional Buddhist cosmological imaginary of a decline in the doctrinea dark age of
moral chaos, and a modern globalized imaginary of other religionsIslam and
Christianity in particularattempting to wipe out Buddhism.
The article discusses how these religious imaginaries and monks are engaged in
nationalist politics and absorb globally transmitted ideas of danger to religion and
identity; and how these imaginaries are translated and localized to a modern context.
This seems to be part of a globalized ontological scare in Burma and Sri Lanka. The
movements are generating xenophobic and fundamentalist views and using religion as
a medium of violence.

Buddhism in Burma/Myanmar and Sri Lanka has been engaged in politics
since colonial times.1 In recent years, Buddhist monks have been active in the
democratic opposition to military rule in Burma. In 2012, nationalist monks began
an anti-Muslim campaign, which was probably inspired by a similar movement in

Contemporary Buddhism, 2015

Vol. 16, No. 1, 127, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2015.1008090
q 2015 Taylor & Francis

Sri Lanka. These monks claim that Buddhism is under threat of aggressive Muslim
conversion and that Islam represents a danger to other religions, culture, race,
nation and the economy. This view is embedded in an imaginary of a world
engulfed in a decline of both morality (sila) and knowledge of the doctrine
(dhamma), as related in Buddhist cosmological narratives of the impermanence of
the Buddhas teaching. This increasingly politicized role of Buddhism in Burma in
relation to globalization will form the discussion of this article.
The campaign in Burma seems to be part of a global interfaith struggle of
universal values transcending national and cultural borders (Csordas 2009), which
often involves a clash with modern ideas of liberal freedoms, rights and
individualism. The following analysis suggests that religion is increasingly
becoming a dominating dimension of identity politics and thus an important force
in changing global relations.2 Juergensmeyer (2008, 249) considers the present
situation of religious militancy to be a global war. The interesting perspective is,
however, not just that militant religious movements have increased, but also that
world religions have become more communitarian and ethnicized. In Burma and
Sri Lanka, this process is nonetheless not new and has roots that go back to
colonial times, as will be described in the following. In his important discussion of
global systems and globalization, Jonathan Friedman (1994, 207) viewed the
connection between religion, nationalism and violence as part of globalized
identity politics: The Globalization of fundamentalism and powerful nationalisms
is part of the same process, the violent eruption of cultural identities in the wake of
declining modernist identity. It may well be that modernist identity is under
pressure, but I suggest that the Buddhist monks rather ascribe to a hybrid
(localized) identification, which amalgamates traditional Buddhist cosmological
imaginary and a modern moral imaginary of the world order. Thus, I hesitate to
view traditionalism and modernism as polar points of identification. The
nationalist Buddhist monks in Burma and Sri Lanka are neither anti-democratic nor
anti-modern; instead, they have an ethnicized perception of those for whom
democracy works and whom it includesthus, challenging Western conceptions
of democracy.3 They imagine society as a communitarian entity based on Buddhist
ethics. It is a hybrid form of modern re-traditionalization, which signifies the
changing global role of religion where faith represents the ultimate legitimate
moral order when the global economic and political forces challenge established
boundaries and identities.

Cosmological imaginaries and the globaltheoretical notions

In order to analyse this interfaith struggle, we have to ask how religion
becomes a medium for politics and how the sacred domain enters the temporal
world with increasing force to a point where it represents the ultimate legitimacy
(Touraine 2007, 127). In Burma, the sacralization of power appears in times of
social crisis and uncertain political transition. Burmas society, politics, and
economy are all in rapid transition. Years of emigration and international

economic and diplomatic boycott of Burma are now reversed. Ever since the
Burmese military allowed elections in 2010, the space for civil participation and
actions has been more open than during the last decades. Yet, the fear and
mistrust which dominated both rulers and ruled for decades are still prevalent.4
This fear includes fear of losing religion, language and culture. Throughout this
process, there has been a struggle of subject formation between two major
political positions, as described below.
The opposition, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy
(NLD), and the monks from the 2007 Saffron Revolution stand for modern free
subjects, the rule of law, human rights, and a relative individualism, as embedded
in the Buddhist understanding of the world (Aung San Suu Kyi 1991; Gravers
2012). Dhamma (the doctrine) is considered as a democratic sharing of moral
values, such as loving kindness and compassion, which is translated into a modern
form of mutual help and security. Political spiritualitya term coined by Foucault
(1978)and moral perfection go together with modernist values such as equality.
The other position, represented by the army, its ruling Union Solidarity
Development Party, and the nationalist monks has the communitarian subjects
abiding by nationalist obligations as their centerpiece. Buddhism is synonymous
with Myanmar culture and a corporate identity. This position tends to homogenize
subjects, To be Myanmar/Burman is to be Buddhist. Consequently, to live in
Burma/Myanmar and to receive citizenship, one has to respect Buddhist values
and Myanmar/Burman culture and language. According to the Citizenship Law of
1982, 135 Myanmar races have status as tai yin tha, or original ethnic groups, i.e.,
those living in Burma before the first British conquest in 1824, and are entitled to
citizenship. Protection of race, religion, and nation has repeatedly been
emphasized by Burmese nationalism, as it was during the anti-colonial struggle
and after independence in 1948. The Burmese military favours developmentalism
(i.e., unlimited national economic development) in harmony with Myanmar
traditions. Western-style democracy and human rights are not viewed as
compatible with Myanmar culture.5 This position is, therefore, more traditionalist
and emphasizes a politics of ethnic difference. Spirituality is replaced by an often
aggressive nationalism.
Both positions include Buddhism and emphasize a struggle against
disorder. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD oppose a military totalitarian orderan
anti-democratic disorder. The nationalist monks and the military struggle against
the fragmentation of the unitary state and its cultural (Buddhist) national
hegemony by foreign forces and aliens ethnic groups, which includes the
thousands of internally displaced Rohingya Muslims, whom nationalists criticize
for being supported by United Nations Development Program aid and Al-Qaeda.
The Buddhist nationalists thus believe that the opposition will create an anti-
national disorder. The Buddhist cosmological imaginary is thus applied to explain
and legitimize two opposing political models of the world. Both positions
interpellate moral subjects and a moral order differently and translate global
forces differently. In practice, these two positions overlap and are partly shared by

many in Burma, in particular when fear of losing identity is invoked. Some

supporters of the Saffron Revolution may share the fear of Muslim domination
but oppose violence and discrimination. Thus, the military/government and the
opposition use Buddhist cosmology and refer to power and authority as based on
universal cosmic laws.
The recent discussions on religious violence often look at the religious
practices, liturgical and ritualin order to explain what Juergensmeyer (2001, 6)
has called the strain of violence found in the deepest levels of religious
imaginations. However, the violent strain lies more in the way cosmological
imaginaries are applied to legitimize violent actions against non-believers or
heretics. Thus, we cannot support the indirect conclusion in recent articles on
Buddhism and violence, such as the Time magazine article (Beech 2013), in which
Buddhism in Burma and Sri Lanka is characterized as being violent per se. Although
religious phrases may be used in violent rhetoric, Buddhism in itself is not violent.
Alternatively, I suggest we should ask how the religious actors imagine and apply
religion to provide legitimacy to specific political acts and violence.
The global dimension of such struggles has been termed cosmic wars by
Juergensmeyer (2008, 147) to denote conflicts of good and evil, divine struggles as
political battles, and even terror (in the mind of God). However, this is not a
specific property of religion but a general struggle between primordial values, or
what Zizek (2000) has called the fragile absolute and liberal modern challenges.
In a recent discussion of ethnic and religious fundamentalism, Zizek (2014, 36)
writes: Liberalism and fundamentalism are caught in a vicious circle. It is the
aggressive attempt to export liberal permissiveness that causes fundamentalism.
However, while this argument exactly resonates with the movements discussed
here, it does not explain how and why this clash produces radical religious actions.
The primordial global values are the fudamentalized or radicalized religions,
nationalism and ethnicism. However, they may include different local political
agendas and are not merely a product of anti-liberalism (see Veer 2002). What is
similar is the way they function in the cosmic struggles between different moral
orders as outlined in the two positions above: They signify imaginaries of
endangered identities and appeal to a fundamental ontological fear and thus often
carry legitimized violenceas, for example, when a Muslim leader claims that Islam
is under attack (Juergensmeyer 2008, 1). We have to analyse carefully the types of
violence involved, for example, mob violence as in Burma and Sri Lanka. This type
of violence may also have other purposes than mere the religious. It is often
politically organized or induced. Thus, neither religion, nor nationalism and
ethnicity are violent per se, but are used to explain and legitimize violent acts as
moral facts. In his seminal study, Tambiah (1996) has demonstrated that ethno-
nationalist and religious mob riots are generally politically organized and
routinized as part of elections. This is perhaps the case in Burma and Sri Lanka.
How do we understand globalization? Not merely by the notions scapes
and disjunction as Appadurai (1996) used to define the process. There are many
more aspects which we do not have room to discuss here. In the following, focus is

on the global transmissions of claimed universals, i.e., of ideas, values and

practices and of different imaginaries of a cosmic struggle. They are transmitted,
translated and focalized into local contexts and conjunctures. The process of trans-
localization, however, comes via many channels and sources (Csordas 2009;
Appadurai 1996). Religious cosmological imaginaries may refer to violence when
they describe threats as well as the decline in morality and knowledge
sometimes followed by narratives of struggles and second comings.
Juergensmeyer (2008) understands the global religious struggle as a global
rebellion against Western secular nationalism. I prefer to view the struggle as a
continuum from reformist or revivalist movements, over spiritual politics of
liberation and identity politics to rebellions. However, in Burma and Sri Lanka, we
cannot speak of a rebellion. Both movements combine religion and nationalism
and have roots in anti-colonial struggles. Juergensmeyer (2008, 22) rightly
suggests that Religion, like secular nationalism, can provide the moral and
spiritual glue that holds together broad communities. However, religion
sometimes also divides communities in the same process.
What do we mean by cosmological imaginary? The concept in the following
is inspired by Charles Taylors (2005) discussion of modern social imaginaries as a
moral order, although with a somewhat different focus in relation to Burma and Sri
Lanka. Taylor (2005) defines a social imaginary to be the way we view our social
existence and the way we share social practices within a moral order. Thus, it is not
a scheme of ideas or a model of the world. It is the common understanding that
makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy (Taylor
2005, 23). It is constantly under change by global forces. The modern imaginary,
Taylor argues, moved beyond the traditional imaginary based on universal cosmic
and divine laws to modern individualist freedoms. In the modern imaginary, the
moral is embedded in the individual subjects (Touraine 2007) but dis-embedded
from the religious cosmology. It is precisely this dis-embeddedness which
cosmological imaginaries attempt to resist by merging nationalism with a
religious moral order and translating religious values into a modern order.
Cosmological imaginaries are visions of the origin of cosmos, its
development, its law and forces, and its decline. They are based on religious
texts, chronicles and myths, such as suttas (the Buddhas sermons), Jataka stories
(on the Buddhas formers existences) and vasa chronicles, or legends, (as the
Mahavasa in Sri Lanka). Buddhism recognizes the use of force in the mundane
world (lokiya). The supra mundane or sacred world (lokuttara) promotes non-
violence (ahisa) and aim at liberating followers from the sufferings in the secular
world. These worlds are interdependent parts of the cosmos. In Buddhist
cosmology, the teachings of the Buddha will gradually decline in a dark age (kala-
yuga). Immorality will prevail until an emissary from King Indra has cleansed the
world: fire will destroy the lustful, water will eliminate anger, and most
importantly, ignorance will be removed by a strong wind before the next Buddha,
Ariya Metteya, arrives. This is the popular version of the cosmology (Shway 1882,
vol. 1,106ff.). Thus, the cosmological understanding of the origin and perpetuation

of the Buddhist world predicts a violent cleansing of vices before a moral order of
non-violent harmony is established by a righteous ruler.
In Burma, we can see how the modern imaginary and the traditional
cosmological imaginary clashes. Yet, they are part of the same modern global
trend which, in my opinion, is highly influenced by uncertainty generated by fear
of the collapse of social and moral orders, and of all kinds of global risks and
insecurities, including climate and environmental changes or the loss of identity.
This imaginary of decline, or apocalyptic imaginary, which is rooted in Buddhist
tradition as well as in the history of anti-colonial struggle, mingles into the present
conjunctures in Burma and Sri Lanka.

Nationalism, colonialism and Buddhist monks in Burma

Buddhist monks fought against the British during the conquests of Burma in
1852 and 1886. The Burmese king and his officials attempted to stop conversion to
Christianity as they were not only perceived as a conversion of the kings subjects
to another faith and rituals but also as a conversion to become kalathat is
foreignerand thus subvert the allegiance to the king. Religion and political
loyalty were closely connected. Burmese monks perceived the British conquest as
a threat to Buddhism. In 1886, monks became leaders of several rebellions against
the British while Christian Karen led by American Baptist missionaries engaged in
suppressing these rebellions and captured some of the monks.6 The British did not
appoint a head of the monastic order (sagha) after the final annexation and did
not want to fulfil the royal role as protector of Buddhism. The sangha had to
survive on its own and monks formed the first nationalist organizations in Burma
as a protest against colonialism and its lack of respect for Buddhist values. The
British officers and officials entered monasteries with their boots and shoes on
and, thus, did not respect the sacred spaces of Buddhism. In 1906, the Burmese
monks emulated the anti-colonial monks in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and formed the
Young Mens Buddhist Association (YMBA) in protest against British disrespect for
Buddhism. In the 1920s, local wunthanu athins, i.e., nationalist associations, were
formed under a General Council. Monks entered the secular world and made
dhamma talks on Buddhism and politics. Dhammakathika, also known as dhamma
lecturers, toured Burma teaching dhamma as well as English combined with
political activism. Thus, it was not an anti-modern but an anti-colonial movement.
Famous monks, such as U Ottama, travelled in Asia and learned from Gandhi and
anti-colonial movements.7 He was jailed by the British several times until his death
in 1939. Another famous monk, U Wisara, died in jail during a hunger strike. The
colonial government brought workers from British India in the thousands, who
then quickly came to dominate as a workforce in southern Burma. Chettiyar
(Hindu) and Cholia (Muslim) moneylenders operated in the Delta, Burmas rice
basket, and indebted Burmese peasants in the 1920s. Moneylenders owned at
least 25% of the farmed land in Lower Burma (Smith 1965, 109). During the global
economic crisis in 1930, a former monk, Hsaya San, organized a formidable

countrywide rebellion amongst peasants against the British and mixed Buddhist
cosmological concepts with nationalism.8
In 1938, half of Rangoons population consisted of immigrants from India
and they lived in their own religious communities. The British organized the
administration of Burma after ethnic and religious criteria into a plural society
where people met in the market but lived in separate communities, as reflected in
the colonial census from 1872. The British ruled by a racial division of labor
(Furnivall [1948] 1956, 311). Colonial officers conducted an ethnographic
registration of ethnicity and religion to map the cultural differences of plural
society. The ethnic minorities in the hills were under a Frontier Area
Administration and separated from Burmans in Ministerial Burma. Christianity
gradually dominated the Chin, Kachin and Karen and their ethnic organizations
(Gravers and Ytzen 2014). The ethnic and religious classifications became an
important tool for governance. Colonial governmentality (Scott 2005) left the
religious and cultural communities to their own customary practices as long as
they served the empire and did not rebel. Thus, this secular order did not consider
Buddhism as part of the Burmese political system as it had been during the
abolished monarchy. However, the British seem to have underestimated the
religious dimension of ethnic Burman identity and its potential for future conflicts.
A bookpublished by a Muslim in 1931, and reprinted in 1938containing
highly disparaging references to Buddhism (Smith 1965, 109)became the spark
that started the xenophobic fire. The content of the book is not known.
Mendelson (1975, 210 211) writes: The book by Hti Baw The Abode of a Nat
[spirit, MG] to which had been attached an appendix with an anti-Buddhist
statement by a Muslim Maun Shwe Htin from a book written in 1931. It is unclear
if monks or political activists made this attachment. Demonstrators and monks
passed a resolution demanding that the author be punished, and if not steps will
be taken to treat the Muslims as enemy no 1 . . . and to bring about the
extermination of Muslims and the extinction of their religion and language (Smith
1965, 110). Afterwards, the newspaper The Sun, owned by rightwing politician U
Saw, published an inflammatory letter by a Buddhist monk on the sufferings of
Burmese women married to Muslims.9
The letters said that the Muslims would exterminate Buddhists and their
language (Smith 1965, 110). Monks organized demonstrations against Muslims
and riots followed. It was easy to mobilize laypeople against the foreigners when
monks claimed that Buddhist women who married Muslims suffered and that their
children lost their legal status if they did not convert. Thus, in the eyes of many,
converts lost their ethnic identity. In 1938, rumours spread that the famous Sule
and Shwe Dagon pagodas were in danger of being destroyed. 1500 monks from
the All Burma Council of Young Monks responded by attacking Muslims and
looting and burning their shops in the bazar. One hundred and ninety-two people
of Indian origin were killed and 878 wounded when the police intervened.
Monasteries became armed sanctuaries and loot safes contrary to sangha rules.
More than 4000 persons were arrested. Among these were monks accused of

violence, arson and murder (Cady 1958, 393395).10 However, the aim of the
monks was to protect Buddhism, race and language. During strikes in 1938, this
anti-colonial struggle was instigated and directed by young monks and students
of the Dobama (We Burmans) movement under the slogans Burma for Burmans
and Master Race We Are, We Burmans (Khin Yi 1988). Meanwhile, the monks
proclaimed Muslims to be the enemy number oneexploiting our economy and
seizing our women, we are in danger of racial extinction (Khin Yi 1988, 96). Riots
spread all over the country and, while most victims were Muslims, six monks were
also killed. In response, the Buddhist Womens Special Marriage and Succession
Act was enacted by the colonial government in order to discourage interfaith
Buddhism became the core of ethnic Burman nationalism and was involved
in the identity politics during colonial rule. Monks viewed the colonial order as a
moral disorder and thereby found it was legitimate to intervene in the secular
world. Here we find the roots of the present struggle for Buddhism, race, language
and culture of the Burman nation and against what was seen as foreign intrusion
of religious and secular values. This tendency continued after independence when
Prime Minister U Nu declared Buddhism as state religion in an effort to dismantle
the heritage of the colonial order. However, young monks were angry because U
Nu gave equal rights to other religions. In 1961 there were demonstrations against
the construction of mosques by young monks who destroyed two in Okkalapa,
Rangoon. The monks also protested against marriages between Buddhist women
and Muslim men.12 At this time the military had launched an anti-communist
campaign. The Communist Party of Burma began its revolutionary struggle in
1948. The military distributed a pamphlet, Dhammantaraya, (Buddhism in
Danger) and organized mass meetings, while the Young Monks Association
issued a similar publication. The campaign was not only a condemnation of
Marxism for its anti-religious ideology but also as an alien influence.13 The
campaign made it easy to promote Buddhism as state religion while Islamic and
Christian organizations opposed this as undemocratic.
After General Ne Win and the army took power in a coup in 1962 the
sangha gradually came under more strict political control and was purified in
1980. Ne Win did not want the monasteries to be political centres and potential
bases of resistance to his mixture of military rule and one party Burmese way to
socialism. Ne Win regulated monastic education and banned the use of photos of
the Buddha and pagodas on calendars, books, cassette tapes and other
commercial objects. He prohibited monks political activities, and removed
women and other persons who were not allowed to live in monasteries.14 So-
called bogus monks were evicted from monasteries and about 300 monks were
disrobed. A Sangha Council of 33 elder monks was elected to govern about
300,000 monks under the control of the department of Religious Affairs.15 Ne Win
also initiated the propagation of Buddhism among Burmese and minority hill
peoples, including Christians. All this was done in the classic royal style of the
monarch as purifier of Buddhism, as well as part of his Burman nationalism and

his idea of a unitary state. However, it was first of all aimed at gaining control over
political monks.
The time after independence saw a multitude of ethnic and political
insurrections as well as a failed democracy. Buddhism was viewed as being in
danger and under pressure from foreign influences. Although abuse of religion
for political purposes was banned in the constitution of 1947as it is in the 2008
constitutionthe young monks followed the tradition of engagement in secular
politics. This trend continued in 1988 when monks were active in the
demonstrations against Ne Win and his bankrupt regime. During the uprising,
they briefly took over the management of Mandalay when authorities stopped
functioning. An estimated 600 monks were killed during the uprising (AAPP
[Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, (Burma)] 2004, 13). In 1990 in
Mandalay, 7000 monks demonstrated and two were killed. Resorting to previous
methods, the young monks then formed clandestine and illegal associations and
referred to the actions of U Ottama, the anti-colonial hero.16 However, new
demonstrations and riots against Muslims in Mandalay continued to resurface in
1993, 1997. In 2003, where three monks were killed by the military in Kyaukse,
many were wounded, and five monks were jailed for 25 years. Once again, the
xenophobic discourse from the colonial era reappeared. The army accused the
NLD of instigating the riots, but there were also rumours of the involvement of
fake monks placed and controlled by the military. Many believed the military to be
the instigator (AAPP [Burma] 2004, 20). At this time, young monks with democratic
ideas began to prepare a resistance movement against the military regime, which
had become increasingly violent against its opponents.

Dhamma, democracy and the spiritual politics of 2007

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (1991) has used Buddhism to explain democracy
and criticize the military regime. She has emphasized confidence in moral,
spiritual and intellectual values (saddha) as important for laypeople (Aung San
Suu Kyi 1991, 178). In her interpretation, Buddhism is liberal and has free subjects
who can realize truth by their own free will. In other words, dhamma is
democratic and share loving kindness (metta) and compassion (karuna). She
criticized the generals for ruling with violence and fear and not maintaining
society and the economy. They did not follow the 10 moral perfections of a
righteous ruler (dasa-rajadhamma) emphasizing liberality, morality, self-sacrifice,
integrity, kindness, restraint and austerity, non-anger, non-violence, tolerance,
forbearance or non-obstruction (non-opposition against the will of the people, in
Aung San Suu Kyis version). She argued that the generals instead followed the
wrong path (agati) and created suffering, greed and delusion among people.
Their rule was based on ignorance. She also referred to the first legendary
Buddhist king, the Mahasammatathe unanimously elected ruler. She clearly
invoked the Buddhist cosmological imaginary and translated it into a modern
democratic version.

Monks are spiritually superior to laypeople including rulers, whereas rulers

are patrons and purifiers of the monastic order. In the 1990s, monks also referred
to the dasa-rajadhamma rules since monks have a moral obligation to advise
rulers when they tended towards injustice or immoral deeds (Aung San Suu Kyi
1991, 12). In Burma, the estimated 300,000 400,000 monks wield a considerable
spiritual and moral influence.17 AAPP (Burma) (2004) concluded that although
there has been problems between rulers and monks it has never been as bad as
now (i.e. in recent years 2010).
Young monks began to mobilize following the military clampdown on
students and monks in the 1988 uprising. They used libraries and courses in
English and computing as cover for political discussions. They formed secret
associations of young monks like their predecessors had done in the 1920s, when
protesting monks were beaten by the military. In August 2007, the young monks
organized the All Burma Monks Association through which they issued a pattam
nikkujana kammaa boycott of donations from military personnel. This action is
normally taken against individuals who offend the Sangha or individual monks.
It can only be revoked in a ritual of at least four monks. The young monks
demanded an apology from the military. As the military never apologized the
young monks began to protest with their rice bowls turned upside down. Even
though this boycott has not yet been revoked, it seems that it has not had any
major impact after the parliament began its work.
Monks engagement is not only political but also social. Throughout military
rule, they were involved in development projects, clinics, and hospitals. They were
also the first to help victims after the cyclone Nargis in 2008 and they are running
2000 3000 monastic schools for poor children.
In 2007, the monks emphasized non-violence and loving-kindness to all
beings. They wanted a dialog between opposition and the military. While some of
the monks supported the NLD, others emphasized political neutrality. However, all
agreed that there was a need for better formal educationneglected by the
military rulecombined with better knowledge of Buddhism in order to
implement democracy. The monks coined the concept study-power (hpou`n
acariya) against the generals who lacked knowledge.18 The generals were
considered as a-dhamma, that is, anti-dhamma. The young monks referred to the
Kalama Sutta, where the Buddha instructs his followers to criticize those who
promote a wrong teaching. The young monks criticized the generals for building
and renovating stupas only in order to legitimize their rule through donations.
Thus, in the view of the young monks the generals neglected society, economy
and religion and brought Buddhism in danger.
The generals responded by beating, disrobing and jailing monks. Some
were killed and about 300 were given long sentences with hard labour and remain
deeply traumatized. According to the military, they were bogus monks acting for
anti-national or neo-colonial forces. The generals argued that it was not an act of
demerit to disrobe or kill false monks who broke the monastic rules, the secular
laws, and destabilized the nation. The generals used Buddhism to legitimize their

rule in defence of the nation. They constructed the Uppatasanta (lasting peace)
pagoda in Naypyidaw (Royal city) as a replica of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in
Yangon. They moved the capital in 2006thereby imitating the practice of the
kings by moving away from the former colonial capital.19 This nationalist strategy
ingrained with Buddhism and fashioned in royal style acted as a legitimization for
their military rule.
During their regime, following the coup in 1989, the generals integrated
Buddhism into their slogans for Myanmar nationalism such as one race, one
language and one religion. The national causes were the non-disintegrations of
the nation and national solidarity and the perpetuation of sovereignty. This was
combined with the so-called peoples desire to oppose those relying on external
elements, and those trying to destabilize the state; crush internal and external
destructive elements (i.e., the NLD). This rhetoricdisplayed on billboards and in
the national museumwas aimed at creating a Mangala country with reference
to the Magala Sutta in which the Buddha gives voice to multiple strictures on
moral discipline in order to avoid dangers and suffering: Not to associate with
fools, but with the wise; to have discipline, to support parents. The sutta (sermon)
is important in Buddhist ceremonies to ward off dangers and bad fortune. Thus, it
signifies prosperity and good fortune (Houtman 1999, 130 ff.). Senior General Than
Shwe, head of the State Peace and Development Council, used the slogan:
Uplifting the moral of the whole country. Morality meant loyalty and obedience
toward the regime and the nation, thus protecting both. It is this nationalist
rhetoric, which is now resonating in the words of the anti-Muslim monks.

Nationalism, xenophobia and Buddhism

In 2012, serious anti-Muslim riots erupted in the Rakhine State when a mob
of young Buddhist men armed with sticks and clubs attacked the Rohingya
Muslim minority after an alleged rape of a Buddhist girl. While the author does not
know the specifics of this case, rumours of rape have often preceded riots in the
past. The Rohingya are not recognized as Myanmar citizens and considered illegal
Bengali immigrants. Many Muslims in Burma do not have full citizenship and are
seen as alien, imported by the British during colonial rule.20 At least 140,000
people were internally displaced and 200 have been killed during the nation-wide
riots since 2012. Buddhists began flying the Dhamma flag on their houses to avoid
attacks and thus disclosing Muslim houses by default.21
A pattern is gradually reappearing after the anti-Muslim riots spread to
Meiktila, Lashio and other Burmese towns in 2013. As in the past, the riots started
with rumours of an alleged rape of a Buddhist girl or woman by a Muslim. Matters
quickly turned ugly when demonstrations led by monks ended in mob killings, the
looting of shops, arson and the destruction of mosques. There were suspicions
that army personnel had used this as a tactic to legitimize the role of the military as
the events were seen as highlighting that Buddhism and society needed
protection and law and order. In July 2014, the pattern was repeated in Mandalay

where 200 young thugs on motorbikes, drunk and armed with swords and clubs,
attacked Muslims and looted and burned their shops. The crowds also included
aggressive monksmaybe some bogus monks (The Irrawaddy, July 8, 2014).
Journalists who covered the riots were threatened. A Muslim graveyard was
vandalized after the funeral of a Buddhist who was killed. All of this had started
with a rumour on Facebook about the rape of a Buddhist woman by a Muslim
shop owner, which then led some monks to alert their followers. However, this
rape case later turned out to be false, and the woman confessed that she had been
promised one million Kyat (The Irrawaddy, July 21, 2014).22 Meanwhile, a false
document with a NLD stamp was posted on Facebook, which criticized the
government for not protecting the Muslims. The aim was clearly to compromise
Aung San Suu Kyi as a supporter of Muslims. The thugs in Mandalay looked
suspiciously like those who operated in the Pyithu Swan-ar-Shin (Peoples Force)
organization during the military regime and attacked Aung San Suu Kyi in 2003.
However, the government denies any connection and defines the riots as
communal riots. In an interview with the BBC in October 2013, Aung San Suu Kyi
was careful not to make accusations against the monks and argued that the
violence derives from both sides and is based on mutual fear (The Irrawaddy,
November 26, 2013). She refrained from calling the riots ethnic cleansing.
While resentment and even hatred against Muslims is widespread and
difficult to assess, the atmosphere of violence, fear, mistrust, and the lack of
reliable information created by the military rule may have exacerbated it.
Publications written in a hateful anti-Muslim and hateful language have circulated
at least since 1997 when the booklet titled 969 was published in Moulmein. The
numbers symbolize Buddha, Dhamma, and the Sangha, and seem to act as a
symbolic riposte to a number (probably 786) used by Muslims for halal shops and
In 2010, a similar publication is mentioned by the Irrawaddy (18 July, 2014)
titled If you marry a man of another evil race and religion. It highlights eleven
stories of forced conversion and sexual abuse of Buddhist women by Muslim men,
which are written by a monk under a pseudonym. It appears, however, that the
storieswritten in language not far from racistare based merely on hearsay. The
Irrawaddy article emphasizes that such a publication could only be printed with
the approval of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. However, it is impossible to say
who is behind these riots and whose interests they may serve. A member of the
Central Executive Committee of the Arakan National Partyrepresenting the
Buddhist Rakhine (Arakan) majority in the Rakhine Statespeculated that there is
a mastermind behind the riots; There must be people who want to fish in
troubled waters by instigating violence (The Irrawaddy, June 17, 2014).
He believes that the riots could have been instigated by what could be a mix of
former military personnel, hardliners from the Union Solidarity Development Party
(USDP)the ruling partyand locals. Interestingly, the USA blacklisted former
minister Aung Thaung, USDP Member of Parliament, for undermining Burmas
democratic progress and for perpetuating violence, oppression and corruption .

Aung Thaung has been associated with the Swan-Ar-Shin organization of thugs
and is believed to have links to the Taung Tha Army. This Buddhist militia is said to
be behind the recent mob violence. However, Aung Thaung denies the allegations
and no proof is given (The Irrawaddy, November 10, 2014).
Although the present political context is different, the activism follows the
same pattern as in 1938, when a similar publication (mentioned above) inspired
the riots. Thus, it is an indirect continuationin both rhetoric and violenceof
the anti-colonial struggle. The following is a brief summary of the ideology of the
nationalist monks and their leader, U Wirathu, as much as their statements have
been translated into English.
The most outspoken monk now is the 47-year-old U Wirathu, founder of the
radical 969 movement. He is the abbot of the Mesoeyein Monastery in Mandalay
and seems to have gained followers all over Burma for his fast-growing
movement. In 2012, he came out of jail during an amnesty. In 2033, he had been
jailed for 25 years by the military after anti-Muslims riots caused the death of 10
people in Kyaukse town (as mentioned above). At that time, the demonstrations
were thought to be part of the democratic struggle. He has appeared as the voice
behind recent riots, if not the instigator, but never an actor in the riots.
Interestingly, he has not been arrested since 2003, and has been praised by
President Thein Sein. Influential monks have in interviews denied that he is violent
and emphasize that he is a fine Pali teacher. Those who engage in the riots are said
by monks I interviewed to be non-Buddhists or people who do not understand
Buddhism and its non-violent ethics. Other informants characterize U Wirathu as
politically nave and immature, when he pronounced himself Burmas Bin
Ladena frightening global image for a Buddhist monk.24 Even though he has
limited secular education and little knowledge of the world outside the monastery
and does not speak English, he is a skilled user of Facebook.25
If we look at the rhetoric of U Wirathu and his supporters a clear imaginary of
xenophobic nationalism and Buddhism-in-danger appears. He emphasizes
Myanmar nationalism and protection of race, culture and Buddhism. In a recent
interview, U Wirathu, said: Dont take nationalism lightly. He criticized Aung San
Suu Kyi of indirectly supporting the Muslims (The Irrawaddy, April 2, 2013). In the
monks eyes, she has therefore not taken nationalism seriously enough. U Wirathu
fears that a change in the constitutionas proposed by Aung San Suu Kyicould
open space for a future Muslim candidate for president.
U Wirathu and his followers insist they will protect race and religion and
repeat the accusations from the 1930s. Muslims are still called kala or black
foreigners from India, and accused of forcing Buddhist women into marriage,
while Muslim women are not allowed to marry Buddhists or to convert. The
nationalist monks even argue that Muslim businesses should be boycotted
because Muslims only trade among themselves. U Wirathus movement has
distributed anti-Muslim propaganda all over Burma claiming that Muslims control
Burmas economy, although they constitute merely 5% of the population. The
mosques are enemy bases, he claims.26 They use a highly derogatory language

aimed at demonizing the enemy. For example, U Wirathu said, You cannot sleep
next to a mad dog. Likewise, monks in a demonstration carried a banner saying:
Islam is similar to animalism (The Irrawaddy, December 2, 2013)(the meaning
seems to be that Muslims are polygamous and have too many children). In order
to prevent inter-faith marriages, U Wirathu and his followers have also begun to
draft a law. However, in September 2013 the Maha Nayaka Sangha Council
banned the 969 organization as it found it to be illegal according to the
constitution, which prohibits the political use of religion. The Sangha Council
criticized the proposal to criminalize the marriage of Buddhist women to Muslim
men without permission from their parents and local authorities. The draft law
further required Muslim grooms to convert to Buddhism. However, the Sangha
Council did not prohibit the monks from promoting nationalist ideology.
U Wirathu responded by saying that the council was undemocratic and operating
under the gun (The Irrawaddy, September 12, 2013), i.e., under military command.
In January 2014, nationalist monks convened a new meeting of monks at Tu
Mo Shi Monastery in Mandalaywith estimates ranging from 10,000 to 33,000
participants. U Wirathu participated but interestingly so did other well-known and
influential monks, such as the Sitagu Hsayadaw (Ashin Nyanissara), a supporter of
Aung San Suu Kyi.27 The meeting was intended to collect signatures for the law on
interfaith marriage restrictions. This is the same idea as promoted by the 969
movement. President U Thein Sein supported the proposed legislation whereas
Christian and Muslim leaders oppose this restrictive law.
The meeting also urged people to oppose local and international business-
people who support proposals to recognize non-indigenous ethnic groups (i.e.,
Rohingya Muslims) as citizens. The monks claimed that this would be a violation of
Myanmars sovereignty.28 The nationalist monks allied with the National
Democratic Front, a party which split from the NLD in 2010, in order to promote
the draft law in parliament. The strong turnout in Mandalay highlights that the
monks will probably intervene in the 2015 elections and perhaps even advise the
electorate not to vote for parties who are against their nationalist and anti-Muslim
agenda, since monks are not allowed to vote according to the constitution.
The meeting resulted in the formation of a new movement, the Sasana
Wuntha Parla, or Mabatha (Association to Protect Buddhist Race, language
and Religion). During an interfaith meeting in Yangon in late January, organized
by Columbia University, the Sitagu Hsayadaw urged all sides to avoid violence.
U Wirathu, who also attended the meeting, talked about a dialogue and said that
he would advise his followers in Rakhine State to follow the rule of law. The role of
the Sitagu Hsayadaw was probably meant to remove the violence from the
movement in order to protect the non-violent foundation of Buddhism. Obviously,
Mabatha poses a serious challenge to the NLD and Daw Suu Kyi before the
elections in 2015.
According to The Irrawaddy (May 5, 2014), Mabatha has now collected four
million signatures for the law, and has involved the Ministry of Religious Affairs
and the Attorney-Generals Office in their efforts to promote the bill. There are

actually four laws in preparation: one on the regulation of interfaith marriages,

which is only allowed with permission from the parents of the woman and
authorities; another on the restriction of conversion; one on the banning of
polygamy; and the last to enact population control (of Muslims). More than one
hundred NGOs have protested against these human rights violations and
restrictions on individual and religious freedom. This resulted in U Wirathu calling
the NGOs traitors. Ostensibly, this nationalist movement is creating new frictions
and political confrontations in Burma. The government and the radical monks
seem to follow the same nationalist ideology. It is also likely that the movement
has gained support from monks who were active in the Saffron Revolution
although its leaders criticize U Wirathu. As the 400,000 Burmese monks are a
significant factor in Burmas fragile transition, Burmas democratization process
faces several risks. Extensive riots could be used by the military and the National
Defense and Security Council as an excuse to suspend elections or even to
suspend the parliament in a state of emergency.
In 2013, an article in Time magazine about anti-Muslim violence in Asia
upset the Burmese (Beech 2013). The front page with a photo of U Wirathu said:
The Face of Buddhist Terror, and implied that Buddhism was now a religion of
violence. The issue was banned in Burma and the journalist, Hannah Beech, will
probably not be allowed re-entry. The President, monks and laypeople were angry
and felt that the article was a demonization of their religion. Their anger is
understandable since Buddhism explicitly adheres to ahisa, non-violence, as a
core doctrine and since most monks are tolerant towards other faiths. The article,
overlooked the many forces and the history behind the problems in Burma (and
Sri Lanka), and to many Burmese became a symbol of Western intrusion and lack
of understanding of Buddhism.
While a mixture of cosmological imaginary and nationalism spur the anti-
Muslim movement, its organized riots thrive through instigations and calls for
defence of religion and race on Facebook. The monks are political but it is not clear
if they are politically directed, although there are some indications. The riots led by
a Buddhist mob are definitely well organized and prepared. Moreover, Muslims are
considered an alien danger connected to global forces. However, the riots have
evoked anger in Indonesia and Malaysia with attacks on Buddhists in these
countries as well as a recent threat from Al Qaeda, which is believed to have
contacts in Burma. Thus, the riots have global inspiration, relations, and impacts.
Since 2013, there has been a close connection to similar riots in Sri Lanka.

Political monks in Sri Lanka

Buddhists are a world minority. If we dont protect this small group, it will be the
end of the Buddhists. My 969 organization will work together with Budo Bela
Sena (U Wirathu in Colombo).29

Young monks from Burma have been studying in Sri Lanka and have
returned with inspiration from the fierce nationalism propagated by radical
Sinhalese monks. The Burmese monks have adopted the idea of Sunday Dhamma
Schools now spreading in Burma in order to promote Buddhism and protect it
from decline. As in Burma, political activism among monks in Sri Lanka has its roots
in the anti-colonial struggle of the early twentieth century, and became an
inspiration for Burmese monks. History definitely influences the present religious
riots in Sri Lanka.
Galagonda A. Gnanasara Thero, the leading monk of the new radical
nationalist Buddhist organization Budo Bela Sena (BBS, Army of Buddhist Power)
in Sri Lanka, is accused of instigating the recent riots against Muslims in Alutgama
town. In subsequent police interrogation, he blamed the Muslims and the
government. We are not terrorists and it is the sole right of the Sinhalese
Buddhists to protect Sri Lanka from all other forces, he said (Aljazeera, August 28,
2014). BBS claim that Buddhism is not protected and faces a big danger in both Sri
Lanka and in the world. In other words, an imaginary of Buddhism is in danger.
They criticize the government and authorities for not protecting nation, religion,
and race. They refer to Muslim extremism and Christian fundamentalism, claiming
that Buddhism, in contrast, constitutes the middle path. Monks have attacked
mosques, a law college accused of favouring Muslimsprobably following a
rumourand shops and houses. The radical monks oppose halal slaughter,
burkas, and marriage between Buddhist women and Muslims. They argue that
Buddhist women are victims of forced conversion or rape at the hands of Muslims.
The BBS is also anti-Christian. They accuse evangelical churches of conducting un-
ethical conversions by abusing development projects and humanitarian aid to
convert Buddhists. This is also seen as an intrusion of foreign economic forces
which want to dominate Sri Lanka. In March 2014, Gnanasara, monks and villagers
stormed the premises of the Holy Family Church in Kandy district and assaulted
the pastor and his family in an effort to stop him from worshipping while the
pastor in vain continued to call upon his freedom of religion.30 Although Christians
comprise only 7.4% and Muslims 9.75% of Sri Lankas population, they are now
seen as the main enemies by BBS after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers.31
During the riots, monks were directly active in the mobs, throwing stones
and destroying shops.32 While the riots only involved a small segment of Sri
Lankas 30,000 monks, the Sangha still seems to struggle to maintain discipline.33
The BBS is widely considered to be connected with former President Mahinda
Rajapakse and his brother, a military officer and Defence Minister, which suggests
connections to the army. The BBS centre in Colombo was inaugurated by the

Historical roots and the violent version of cosmology

Monks have been involved in politics since colonial times. BBS refers to the
Buddhist revival around 1900 which was led by the famous revivalist and lay

celibate, Anagarika Dharmapala, in a fight against colonial rule and Christian

missionaries and education. Dharmapala, who was influenced by the founder of
Theosophy, Henry Olcott, travelled in the region, including Burma. He had been to
a Christian school and he formulated a modern Buddhist activism. He formed the
Young Mens Buddhist Association and wrote a moral code for laypeople.
Dharmapala was not only engaged in the restoration of historical temples but also
led by a romantic quest for the Sinhalese past.34 Buddhist Chroniclesparticularly
the Mahavasawhich had been translated into English, became an important
source to combine the Buddhist cosmological imaginary with emerging
nationalism. The chronicle tells the story of the Buddhist king Dutthagamini
whoafter a long war against the evil (Tamil) King Elaraevicted the Tamils in
the second century BC. Dutthagaminis story is used as if it was factual history.
It describes Dutthagamini as a dhammaraja, a righteous king according to
Buddhism, who fights demons and protects Buddhism through a holy war.35 The
legend reads as an allegory of Maras attack on the Buddha before his
enlightenment. The evil tempter Mara and his army were wiped out when the
Earth Goddess wrung her wet hair and the ensuing flood swept away the army of
evil, i.e., the ultimate defence of the Buddha and dhamma (the doctrine). Deegalle
(2003), a Sinhala monk, explained that Dutthagamini showed remorse after killing
his enemy and gave Elara the last honours. Dutthagamini was comforted by
monks who said that it was no worse to kill evil unbelievers than to kill animals.
Thus, the Mahavasa can be interpreted as a dispensation of the non-violence
principle which states that killing of all sentient beings produces demerit and
contradicts metta (loving kindness). Deegalle (2003, 126) accordingly says,
This reductionist explanation is problematic for Theravada Buddhist teachings
and traditions. Justifying that killing of Tamils during the war is not papa (sin,
evil) is a grave mistake even if used in the Mahavasa as a means to an end.

However, a 2000-year-old legend has been projected into the present

identity politics. Back then, there probably were no clear boundaries between
Hindu Tamils and Sinhala Buddhists, but the legend is nevertheless used to
conjure a racial divide between the dark Dravidian Tamils and the Ariyan (noble)
Sinhala, which is then projected onto colonial Ceylon. Muslims, Christians, and
Tamilsparticularly those brought from India and resettled to work in British tea
plantationswere classified as aliens. Dharmapala said the destruction of
Sinhalese civilization could be traced to economic as well as spiritual causes
and that Muslims, being skilled traders, were outdoing the local businesses
(Tambiah 1996, 70). Sinhala nationalists accused Muslims of seducing our
daughters and their moneylenders of making us slavesin a rhetoric similar to
that in Burma. Spencer (1990b, 286) has argued that Victorian anthropology of
races influenced Dharmapala and the radical monks. Dharmapala is quoted in a
pamphlet from 1902:

Ethnologically, the Sinhalese are a unique race, inasmuch as they can boast that
they have no slave blood in them . . . were never conquered by the Tamils or
European vandals who for three centuries devastated the land, destroying
ancient temples, burnt valuable libraries, and nearly annihilated the historical
race. (cited in Spencer 1990b, 286)

The statements above are very similar to those in contemporary Burma and
present day Sri Lanka.
Buddhist civilization was in danger according to Dharmapala and Buddhist
monks. Riots occurred in the 1880s and in 1915. Many were killed, and shops were
looted by crowds with clubs. According to Tambiah (1996, 62), it all looked
organized. Following 1948, the colonial past formed the foundation of Buddhist
nationalism, which was applied by the internationally renowned monk Walpola
Rahula. He argued that monks should be allowed to participate in politics since
nationalism, natural culture and Buddhism all connect in patriotism. He also
referred to the Mahavasa chronicle. For him the combination of the
dhammaraja (righteous ruler), the Sinhala language, Buddhism and the Aryan
race (as opposed to the Tamils) was synonymous with the Sri Lankan Sinhala
nation. Radical Buddhist movements, who felt that Buddhism had been betrayed,
have therefore maintained this formula of language (basa), nation/country
(rasadera) and religion (sasana) (Tambiah Stanley 1992).
When radical monks promoted the Sinhala-only Bill, which favoured the
Sinhala language in schools and the administration in the 1950s, this nationalist
demand was soon adopted by the political parties. Yet in 1959, PM Bandaranaike
was assassinated by a Buddhist monk. In 1983, anti-Tamil riots killed 3000 people.
The usual pattern of organized and armed crowds of radical (Marxist) monks,
students and criminals operated. At this time, Tamils were the main enemy of the
radical monks. In 2004, monks formed the political movement, Jathika Hela
Urumaya (JHU, Our Heritage) and the party, Sinhala Urumay (Sinhala Heritage).
The heritage party fielded 200 monks in the elections and won nine seats. JHU
launched an anti-conversion bill opposing unethical conversion (i.e., Christian
Evangelical conversion). The drafted bill provoked worldwide Christian protests.
In 2006, monks from JHU attacked a rally for peace with the Tamil Tigers (LTTE).
The heritage party considers the Sinhalese to be threatened by foreign religions
and economic forces. They are anti-government, anti-secular and mistrust the
politicians abilities to protect sovereignty, language, Buddhism, economy,
democracy and justice. They argue that Buddhism should be Sri Lankas official
religion and that the country should be ruled after the ten dhammaraja principles,
which they compared to principles of a modern egalitarian state. Gangodavila
Soma, one of the leadings monks, and a student of Rahula, died a mysterious
death, has subsequently obtained martyr status, and is now compared to
Although BBS represents a minority and their use of violence seems to
create fear, their arguments have gained some public support. Critical voices are

countered with hateful language, and their representatives even started a violent
fight in the parliament. With the end of the civil war in 2009, they also turned their
hatred towards the Muslims and Christians. In 2013, the most radical monks broke
away from JHU and formed the Buda Bela Sena.
The monks actions are a struggle against what is seen as moral decadence
of the secular state in order to achieve a Buddhist State, which is based on political
spirituality and a claim of representing the will of the people as well as national
heritage. The global perspective in the radical movement has a clear historical
reference to colonialism which was explained by a Sri Lankan monk, who felt that
independence from the West has yet to be won on the cultural and ideological
level (Juergensmeyer 2008,126). Thus, it is not merely a religious or interfaith
struggle, but a broad political struggle displayed as a cosmic war. Tambiah Stanley
(1992) described the radical monks as Buddhist fundamentalists and anti-modern.
I believe such designations distort the understanding of the movement. It is not
against all modern things but is anti-secular, and although its members are radical
defenders of Buddhism, they do not subscribe to a specific fundamentalist version
of Buddhism. To condone violence by referencing chronicles or Jataka stories is
not a new form of Buddhism. However, the engagement of monks directly in
politics, demonstrations, and political violence, as we have seen in Burma and Sri
Lanka, intensified in colonial times and highlight a modern trend in combination
with nationalism. Buddhism became engaged in nationalism and identity politics
as part of a revival movement. Monks political involvement is disputed in both
countries and many monks and laypeople consider it to be against the monastic

Reflections and concluding remarks

Despite the historical and cultural differences, there are also similarities
between the two countries where Buddhism is an important medium of politics.
The activist monks in the two countries share a common nationalist version of the
Buddhist cosmology which carries a vision of Buddhism in danger.
The cosmological imaginary is applied through the promotion of democracy
and individual freedoms within Buddhist ethics as well as a communitarian and
xenophobic nationalist agenda. Whereas the first is egalitarian, the second attacks
other religions and promotes violent identity politics. I suggest we have to analyse
four dimensions of politicized religion in order to understand why it is used to
justify violence:

(1) A historical dimension. Social memory of colonialism or previous conflicts.

(2) Cosmological imaginaries of religion in danger.
(3) A global imaginary of cosmic war.
(4) The local political context. Religion as a medium for nationalist politics.

All these dimensions combine and interact in the examples above. The use
of cosmological imaginaries evokes the idea of a moral order, which has to be

defended or restored. This imaginary, its myths, legends, and notions, may guide
and legitimize collective actions and sometimes be used to instigate violent riots.
However, the religious imaginary itself is not synonymous with violence. Violence
appears when the imaginary is integrated into a nationalist ideology of cultural/
ethnic (race) identity and a kind of political organization is formed. Furthermore,
violence tends to run its own course, and violent acts produce more violence as
Arendt (1970) argued. As examples above demonstrate, violent acts and violent
rhetoric of the past are often recalled or re-enacted. When religion and identity are
believed to be in danger this creates fear and mistrust, which in turn generates
hatred and reinforces organized violence. In both Burma and Sri Lanka, we now
see crowds or mobs that use violence justified as being in the defence of religion.
These young men may not be able to give sophisticated religious explanations of
their acts but rather express their beliefs through plain hatred. They have either
abandoned their moral subjectivity and identity, or subsumed it in a de-
personalized crowd, as stated by Dawes (2013, 52). He has termed this process de-
individuation. While it legitimates the levelling of the enemy and his identity,
violence somehow contradicts the aim of the monks, namely, an uncompromising
moral subjectivity in order to ward off the dangers against religion. Violence also
compromises Buddhisms aim to alleviate suffering, avoid hatred and disseminate
knowledge of dhamma.
Globally, the moral subject is increasingly seen through a politicized
religious lens as politics have become more spiritual. While this process may
transmit and translate similar kinds of imaginaries, I am not convinced that we can
term it a global cosmic war or global rebellion as Juergensmeyer (2008) suggests.
Such a conclusion would imply that the cosmological imaginaries own logic, i.e.,
of a religion in danger and cosmic war in order to defend religion and identity,
would be used to explain theoretically the phenomenon. The religious radical
movements often define their struggles as global while they act in locally or
regionally defined contexts.
Thus, while Juergensmeyers focus on a global perspective is important it
may shadow an understanding of how global concerns are localized and
translated into a specific political conjuncture. The examples from Burma and Sri
Lanka demonstrate that the internal socio-cultural complexities, ethnic differences
and political conjunctures are decisive for an understanding of the relationship
between religion and violencedespite the fact that monks in the two countries
communicate and share an ideology. Moreover, when religious violence is
generalized (e.g., a strain of violence found at the deepest level of religious
imaginations: Juergensmeyer 2001, 6), we risk overlooking and identifying those
agents who use religion in order to justify violence and their own political agenda.
In both countries, xenophobic nationalism has divided the monks. The majority of
monks are perhaps against the aggressive activism but remain silent from fear or
in order not to create division within the sangha. It is difficult also to disagree
when Buddhism is said to be in danger. However, it is important to notice that
Buddhism and religious differences has for a long time been a part of identity

politics in Burma and Sri Lanka. In Burma as part of a struggle between those who
want a unitary nation state versus those who struggle for an ethnic federal state; in
Sri Lanka as part of the conflict between Sinhalese nationalism and the Tamil
rebellionand in both countries religion has been involved in a long civil war.
Thus, civil strife and violence have affected inter-faith relations. Furthermore, an
important aspect of the complexity is the agency of charismatic and political
monks who also have personal agendas of mobilizing a large lay following and to
legitimize their activities with claims of moral righteousness. The most important
aspect, I suggest, is however the relations between the activist monks and high-
level political persons and parties. It is now certain that the recent riots were either
co-organized or induced by political persons or authorities This is very much in
accordance with the findings of Tambiah (1996). The violence appears at mob
level. Thus, religions may have references to violence, but what makes religious
movements violent is politically orchestrated practices. Thus, religion is used to
legitimize a specific political agenda. However, this does not make the global
relations less important.
How do we then understand global relations in this context? I suggest that
there is a global focus on moral subjects and identity politics (cf. Touraine 2007
and Friedman 1994)defined by cosmological imaginarieswhich is transmitted
globally but downloaded to many different political agendas. These agendas are
mostly anti-secular and anti-Western, i.e., against Western hedonism, culture
which often includes human rightsand political-economic hegemony. However,
this does not make these movements entirely anti-modern but rather selectively
modern. They employ modern social media intensively to spread their message
and rumours and to mobilize and recruit followers. They are successfully
converting traditional religious imaginaries to a modern context. Global
transmission through modern media of ideas, such as protection of religion and
identity, are trans-located, translated, and nationalized. Thus, in order to find the
global perspectives we have to study the local processes and their international
relations and how similar concerns are transmitted and reformulated locally.
Cosmological imaginaries appeal to morality and spirituality, to cosmic
values in the form of legitimate issues and a foundation of a modern identity.
Cosmological imaginaries also quest for political spirituality through moral
leadership of charismatic leaderssuch as Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama, and
leading monks is southeast Asia.37 At the same time, such imaginaries provide the
fulcrum of a religion-in-danger and thus substantiate means of defence, including
violence, destruction, and levelling of opposing faiths. Thus, the sacred or supra-
mundane world must engage in the secular world and mobilize a force of moral
subjects. Further, religious nationalism appeals to the defence of ethnicity, culture,
and nation while it considers religion to be the core substance of such modern
identities. When religion is threatened, it becomes easier for radical movements to
mobilize based on a mixture of passions, fear, rumours, and provoking incidents.
Cosmological imaginaries guide practices and empower laypeopleand mobs.
However, these groups are also likely to become the unintentional political

instruments of political parties and regimes. This being said, most religious
practices used by laypeople and Buddhist monks are still very peaceful and
engage in humanitarian aid. Headlines which features words such as terror and
violence in conjunction with religion should therefore be used with caution, as
one should take for granted neither that there exists a natural kinship here nor
that all followers subscribe to radicalism and violence.

1. The author has conducted research in Burma, but not in Sri Lanka, which is used
in comparison to illustrate how religious ideas travel historically and globally.
However, the research is preliminary. It was part of the project Buddhism and
Modernity: Global Dynamics of Transmission and Translation, Aarhus University.
Interviews with monks and lay people took place from 2012 to 2014. However,
the anti-Muslim violence is a very delicate and difficult subject to handle and
many details remain clouded.
2. The more militant examples are al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boku Haram in Nigeria
and ISIS (Islamic State) in Iraq and Syria, as well as other groups in Syria and
Lebanon with different political agendas. The Muslim Uighur and their violent
actions are part of a struggle for ethnic autonomy, as the monks self-
immolation in Tibet. There are also Mujahidins in Southern Thailand, Bangladesh
and Rakhine State, Myanmar. Besides these Muslim organizations, there are
numerous different anti-secular global religious movements, both Christian and
3. Juergensmeyer (2008, 7) cites a monk from Sri Lanka saying that he was not
against democracy but against Western ideas of nationalism.
4. See Christina 2001 and Gravers 1999. Armed ethno-nationalist organizations
demand a federal constitution in the ongoing negotiations of a nation-wide
ceasefire (see Gravers and Ytzen 2014).
5. The military and the present government use the formal term Myanmar for
Burma (Bamar). Burma, derived from Bamar, is the British pronunciation and was
changed in 1989 in order to erase the colonial heritage. Rangoon is now Yangon,
Pegu is Bago, etc. Bamar/Myanmar derives from the same linguistic root, but
Myanmar signifies the modern, independent post-colonial nation and culture.
6. On the confrontation between Christians and Buddhists, see Ni Ni Myint 1983;
Gravers 2007. There was a Buddhist Karen rebellion against the British in 1857.
The word kala is used for people from India. Today it is derogatory, means black
aliens and is used for Muslims. The British came from India and were called kala
pyu, which means white foreigners. The Karen still use the term khola, for white
foreigners and khola suu (black foreigners for Muslims).
7. U Ottama seems to have sanctioned violence as a of defence Buddhism with
reference to Jataka stories of the life of previous Buddhas (Smith 1965, 97).

8. On Buddhist nationalism in the 1930s, see Cady 1958, Smith 1965, Maung Maung
1980, Mendelson 1975, Schober 2011. On the Hsaya San Rebellion see Aung-
Thwin 2008.
9. U Saw was hanged for organizing the assassination of Burmas national hero
Aung San in 1947. U Saw and a right-wing organization of young nationalist
monks, the All-Burma Hpou`ngyi Council, were perhaps involved. See Mendelson
(1975, 214).
10. Cady (1958, 3959) writes that there was an almost universal prejudice even
among respectable people against them (i.e. immigrants from India). U Saws
agents were seen in the streets during the demonstrations.
11. See Berlie 2008.
12. Muslim women would never be allowed by their community to marry a Buddhist
or convert
13. Baptist missionaries were evicted and their schools nationalized in 1962 65. This
was part of a nationalist purification of foreign influence including English in
schools, Western culture and newspapers. Christian Karen, Kayah, Kachin, and
Chin who were engaged in insurrection against the state were seen as the
stooges of neo-colonial forces and indeed received support from abroad.
14. Lay people do not normally live inside monasteries.
15. See Maung Maung Than 1993. In 1990 the military collected 440 million Kyats
among laypeople for pagoda constructions and renovation (ibid., 39). The
Ministry of Religious Affairs imposed control over Christian denominations,
Muslims and Hindus.
16. Significantly, the 75th anniversary was celebrated nation-wide in august 2014.
His patriotic fervor and courage inspired younger generations (The Irrawaddy,
September 10, 2014).
17. The Ministry of Religious Affairs says 226,508 monks and 25,834 novices. The
figures are uncertain and some estimates say 0.5 million monks.
18. Hpou`n means glory, charisma and derives from punna: merit. Hpoungyi means
monk (great glory). On the Saffron Revolution see further Gravers 2012.
19. On the royal style donations from the military, see Schober 1996.
20. On the Muslims, see Berlie 2008. Rangoon has 70 mosques. The Muslim
community is a mix of a Sunni majority and a better-off Shia minority. Muslims
comprise about 5% of Burmas 52 million. Berlie (2008, 23) estimates that 30% of
Muslims are married to Buddhist women. On the Rohingya see Thawnghmung
21. The Dhamma flag, with five colours symbolizing Buddha and dhamma, was
invented by Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky, founders of Theosophy, in
Ceylon in the late nineteenth century: it is widely used on monasteries.
22. The authorities slowly quelled the riots and arrested 49 for murder, violence, and
arson. Two died and 14 were wounded.
23. The book urged Buddhist to cut business contacts, social relations, and marriage
ties with Muslims. The book was printed illegallyor at least without official
permission. All publications were strictly controlled by the military at that time.

The number 786 is a numerological reference to Allah, the most gracious and
24. This image was reproduced in the cover of Time magazine 2013 with the
caption: The Face of Buddhist Terror on a photo of U Wirathu.
25. In October 2014, he claimed that his Facebook account had been hacked and all
postings from 2014 deleted.
26. According to The Irrawaddy (September 12, 2013)
27. U Nyanissara is one of Burmas most revered monks. In 1980, he established the
Sitagu International Mission Center, including a centre and pagoda in Texas. His
organization runs hospitals and he helped the victims of the cyclone in 2008.
He is also involved in development projects. Recently, he visited Iran and
promotes an inter-faithdialog. However, he may well share the nationalist ideas
of U Wirathu. On the Sitagu monk, see The Irrawaddy 67, 2008, 10 13.
28. See Myanmar Freedom Daily, 16 January 2014.
29. U Wirathus speech to the Budo Bela Sena in September 2014. The president
allowed his visit despite protests from Muslims, or the sabotage by extremists,
as U Wirathu called the protests (The Irrawaddy, September 29, 2014). Ramya
Balaya is another nationalist organization of monks with the same agenda as BBS
and the same aggressive actions.
30. See The Morning Star, March 12, 2014.
31. Seventy percent of Sri Lankas 20 million are Buddhists. The percentage of
Muslims with an Indian origin is small, much smaller than in Burma.
32. See The Guardian, June 16, 2014.
33. The Sangha consists of three sects or nikaya. The largest, the Syam Nikaya, has
about 19,000 monks as nearly the same number of novices.
34. Dharmapala is still venerated on Dharmapala Day as a great son of the nation.
He is buried at the ruins of Sarnath, the site of the Buddhas first sermon
35. For details on the history, Buddhism, the chronicle and violence, see, Deegalle
(2003); Tambiah Stanley (1992); Kapferer (1988); Spencer (1990a), and Spencer
(1990b). Here the space is too limited for details of the complex history including
the Tamil uprising in 1976 and the ensuing civil war.
36. For details, see Deegalle 2004 and Juergensmeyer 2008.
37. See Gravers (forthcoming) for examples. In Burma and Thailand charismatic
monks have gained a large transnational following of poor villagers from ethnic
minorities as well as big business people and President Thein Sein himself.

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Aljazeera www.aljazeera.com/news/asia
The Guardian www.theguardian.com/world
The Myanmar Freedom Daily (closed 2014).
The Irrawaddy www.Irrawaddy.org.archives
The Morning Star www.morningstarnews.rg/

Mikael Gravers is Associate Professor in anthropology and ethnography, Institute

of Culture and Society, Aarhus University, Denmark.
Address: Anthropology, Moesgard, 8270 Hjbjerg, Denmark. E-mail: