The man on the right is Burma’s Ashin Wirathu. Known as the “bin Laden of Buddhism,” Wirathu leads the country’s 969 movement, which sees the country’s Muslim minority as an existential threat to its majority Buddhist population. The man on the left is Sri Lanka’s Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, the face of hardline Buddhism in the island nation.
Together, these two robed radicals anchor a powerful, violent, and new political force in Asia.
Over the course of the past three years, Burma’s former military government has embarked on a series of significant democratic reforms, but the departure from military dictatorship has also coincided with a flowering of a radical Buddhist nationalism that has crystallized in communal violence against the country’s Muslim minority. Wirathu has emerged as the public face of that movement, and the monk’s anti-Muslim rhetoric has helped incite attacks on Burma’s Muslim civilians — particularly its ethnic Rohingya — over the past 18 months. Last year, TIME magazine featured Wirathu on its cover under the headline “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”
But Wirathu is not alone in setting out a dangerous new vision for a religion grounded in the principle of non-violence. Gnanasara, who serves as a spiritual leader of sorts, is using his position to stoke the same type of religious bigotry in his home country of Sri Lanka.
Gnanasara is the co-founder of Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Sena, or Buddhist Power Force. The group, which was formed in 2012, agitates against what it sees as the threat Islam poses to Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-Buddhist identity. As in Burma, Muslims in Sri Lanka are a small, largely peaceful minority. But that hasn’t stopped Gnanasara’s group from stoking fears of extremism.
According to a January report by the Associated Press, Buddhists in Sri Lanka have “attacked dozens of mosques and called for boycotts of Muslim-owned businesses and bans on headscarves and halal foods. At boisterous rallies, monks claim Muslims are out to recruit children, marry Buddhist women and divide the country.”
In August 2013, a group of Buddhist monks attacked a mosque in the capital of Colombo. The mob struck the mosque while congregants were engaged in prayer, breaking windows and damaging the building. Both Muslims and Sinhalese Buddhists were injured in the clashes that followed the incident.
The vilification of Muslims is not simply base intolerance; it also serves a convenient purpose for Sri Lanka’s largely Sinhalese powerbrokers. Five years after the end of the civil war with the Tamil Tigers, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political machine needs a new scapegoat for the everyday frustrations of their constituents, many of whom have grown unhappy with the government’s heavy-handed security policies and its failure to deliver robust growth. The government seems to be “tacitly encouraging, and in some cases directly supporting, the anti-Muslim campaigns led by militant and often violent Buddhist organizations,” according to a November 2013 Crisis Group report.
If Gnanasara is indeed in Burma — the photos have emerged only on minor Sri Lankan news outlets — his visit comes at a sadly appropriate time. The Burmese government is considering a law governing inter-faith marriage law that would “protect” Buddhist women by requiring their non-Buddhist suitors to convert and gain permission from the women’s parents if they wish to wed. Wirathu has campaigned aggressively in support of the law.
Despite pushback from local activists, public officials in both Sri Lanka and Burma have been loath to challenge Wirathu and Gnanasara. It seems these two men, and the radical brand of Buddhism they represent, are here to stay.
Rohingyas need attention
by MASHHOOD ROOHUL AMIN
Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have been the target of atrocities perpetrated by the local population. The international community has all along been indifferent to their plight. World leaders who claim to be the protagonists of human rights have done nothing to alleviate the sufferings of these people. More international issues have lately cropped up placing the Rohingya problem on the back burner. Syria, Ukraine and Iran are a few of them.
Although Myanmar claims it is moving toward democracy and human rights icon Suu Kyi, who had endured hardships for two decades under Burma’s former military junta, is now a parliamentarian things have not changed, instead they have worsened.
It is an irony that Suu Kyi had been fighting human rights violation all along her life but when she got an opportunity to act she chose to keep silent at the brutalities perpetrated on the Rohingya Muslims.
Doctors Without Borders had announced on Feb. 28 they had been expelled from Myanmar, adding that the decision had put tens of thousands of human lives at risk. Later, the government said the group might be allowed to resume operations anywhere in the country but the Rakhine state.
The humanitarian group is considered as a lifeline to the impoverished country as it has operated there for two decades. Denying it access to Rohingya Muslims is a gross violation of human rights that warrants international attention.
According to a UN report, a large number of Rohingyas were killed in January in an attack by Buddhist nationalists. These groups are running political campaigns urging the government to do whatever it can to persecute Muslims.
It also exposes the true face of the Myanmar government, which pretends to sympathize with the Muslim community and at the same time provides tacit support to nationalist groups to carry out ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas.
Experts believe the Myanmar government will continue its brutal policies toward the Rohingyas, who are considered to be one of the most neglected ethnic groups in the world, until and unless the UN and the European states slap economic sanctions on the country. The world must act to save the Rohingyas before it’s too late.