Fear, Loathing, and Terrorism in Buddhist Countries

A guy named Andrew Brown writes in the Guardian UK,

It’s a commonplace that wars and religions are closely associated. Since about 1945 there has been an increasing tendency for wars to be fought along religious, as well as ethnic, economic and cultural lines, though I don’t think many people realise that the most warlike religion in the modern world, measured by the proportion of countries at war where it has a significant following, is actually Buddhism.”

My first reaction to this was, Hey, wait a minute, pal. Then, well, maybe there’s some truth to that. When I took a closer look at the statement, I went back to my first reaction.

To say, “increasing tendency for wars to be fought along religious, as well as ethnic, economic and cultural lines”, is to say nothing really, except that there are many reasons why wars are being fought. And, what does he mean by war?

According to Buddhanet, the top ten countries with the largest Buddhist populations are Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Laos, Vietnam, Japan, Macau, Taiwan. And according to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), a data collection project on organized violence housed at Uppsala University in Sweden, which evidently is relied upon by the United Nations, only two of those countries have ongoing military conflicts: Burma/Myanmar (internal conflict since 1948) and Thailand (South Thailand insurgency since 2004).

So I don’t think Brown’s claim is valid.

That does not mean that bad stuff isn’t happening in some Buddhist countries. It is. Some very bad stuff.

Burma: Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)
Burma: Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA)

I’ve previously written about the situation in Burma (here, here, here, and here). A week ago, Human Rights Watch accused Burmese security forces backed by Buddhist monks of having “committed crimes against humanity” by waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing that has displaced more than 125,000 Rohingya Muslims. Wednesday, the Dalai Lama finally issued a public condemnation of violence there. In December, a number of Buddhist leaders wrote an overly-polite (to my mind) letter expressing their concern about the growing conflict.

I’ve also commented many times on the situation in Tibet (most recently in this post), and it not only qualifies as a conflict, but as far as I’m concerned, it is a war against the Tibetan people. I don’t know much about the insurgency in Thailand except it is led by an Islamic separatist group.

In Sri Lanka, suppression of racial minorities is nothing new. Buddhism is the de facto state religion. The treatment of Sri Lankan Tamil people by the Theravadin majority resulted in a long civil war that officially ended in 2009, however tensions between the two groups still persist. Recently I’ve learned of a couple of hard-line Buddhist Nationalist groups targeting Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka.

One, called the Bodhu Bala Sena, or BBS, which means “Buddhist Strength Force,” has been involved in several incidents of sectarian violence. In one altercation, a mob of hundreds of Buddhist extremists set fire to a clothing store and warehouse in the capital of Colombo. They claim that Muslim students receive favorable treatment in schools, that Muslims use illegal methods to kill livestock, accuse Muslims of building too many mosques, and having too many children.

Another ultra-nationalist Buddhist group, Sinhala Echo, founded by a monk named Akmeemana Dayarathana, makes similar claims, but does not seem to have been involved in any violence.

These things are troubling. Buddhist groups like Bodhu Bala Sena and Sinhala Echo shame the Buddha’s dharma. Equally troubling are journalists like Andrew Brown who don’t do their homework and write inflammatory statements, I suppose to create a stir. Brown, surprisingly, was winner of the 1994 “John Templeton European Religion Writer of the Year” award. Currently he is editor for the Guardian’s Comment is Free Belief section. I suspect he is a Christian.

I make that last comment because many Christian writers have a bad habit of criticizing other religions without having any real knowledge about those religions. A recent case in point is an article I read by Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College and The King’s College, “Comparing Christianity & Buddhism.” There are so many inaccuracies in this piece it would take an entire post to go through them all. I suppose what really rankles me about what Kreeft wrote was his superior tone and statement at the end: “But Buddhists even more desperately need to hear what they do not know: the news about God and His love.”

I couldn’t disagree more, but that would another post, too. While I am critical of the beliefs of the Abrahamic religions, I certainly don’t approve of intolerance or violence against their believers. The actions of ultra-nationalist groups using the dharma as an excuse for their fanaticism should be strongly (not politely) condemned by all Buddhists.

If you want to read more about the these situations, I recommend this at CNN and this at thinkprogress.org.

Lastly, if you search Google Images using the search terms “Buddhist terrorist,” “Buddhist terrorist groups,” or something similar, you will see a great many disturbing images, especially of the recent atrocities in Burma. They may be difficult to look at, but they will definitely disabuse you of any idealistic notions you might harbor about Buddhism in some of the countries I’ve mentioned in this post.  

Fear is another root of violence and terrorism. We terrorize others so they will have no chance to terrorize us. We want to kill before we are killed. Instead of bringing us peace and safety, this escalates violence. If we kill someone we call a terrorist, his son may become a terrorist. Throughout history, the more we kill, the more terrorists we create.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism