- By Jake Scobey-ThalJake Scobey-Thal is assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy. Previously, he worked as a freelance reporter in Myanmar and as the Asia Associate for Human Rights Watch. His articles have appeared in The Nation, Next City magazine, and Salon among others. He holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Pennsylvania.
The photo of the two monks above looks innocent enough. One of the men presents the other with a birthday present. It’s difficult to make out, but it looks to be some sort of gold figurine on a red velvet base. In fact, the photo would be totally uninteresting if it weren’t for the fact that these men are two of the world’s most important leaders of a dangerously radical brand of Buddhism.
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.