Buddhist-Muslim Violence in South and South-East Asia: The Local Becomes Regional, or a Clash of Civilizations?
This month the UN released a report addressing “serious” human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar at the hands of the Buddhist majority, and the two-year anniversary of Sri Lanka’s deadly Aluthgama and Dharga Town riots, allegedly incited by Buddhist monks and targeting Muslim homes, property, and lives. Farther east, Thailand’s Deep South struggles into its twelfth year of violence, which has seen soldiers escort teachers to schools and monks on their alms rounds amidst clashes with Salafists and Malay Muslim nationalists, while less recently Muslim hardliners in Jakarta have bombed Buddhist temples and Myanmarese embassies.
Drawn on a map, these clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in South and South-East Asia begin to resemble something of a “fault-line” between the Buddhist and Muslim worlds, such as those famously described by Samuel Huntington in his ground-breaking and now generally dismissed book, The Clash of Civilisations. While his theory is now generally considered a simplistic and poor analysis of the global conflict post-Cold War, there are still those who see some explanatory value in his work and the apparent transnational conflict between two of his “civilisations.” Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia might well serve to reinforce their convictions. This would, however, be a foolish mistake and one that policy-makers should avoid at all costs. While these countries may share both historical connections on religious lines and contemporary relationships between extremist groups, the conflicts we see today have recent, contingent, and independent origins, not some essential tension between fundamentally opposed “civilisations.”
Huntington’s theory famously supposes that the world is divided into a number of great “civilisations” transcending national boundaries, and that these civilizations have such fundamental differences that, in the post-Cold War era, their differences will inevitably lead to conflict. Advocates claim that such differences between the civilizations of “the West” and “Islam,” can help to explain the recent rise of violent Islamist terrorism and the War on Terror.
This theory has been thoroughly criticized, not least because it supposes some essential values shared by all “Islamic” civilizations from North Africa to Indonesia that affect intercommunal relations more profoundly than any local cultural, economic, or political factors. Despite these criticisms, it is tempting to see something of a pattern in the waves of Buddhist-Muslim violence sweeping South and South-East Asia and to attribute this pattern to another clash between fundamentally different “civilisations,” Buddhism and Islam. There is some evidence to support this analysis, both historical and contemporary: Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand were all part of the “Pāli cosmopolis,” that shared a religion and liturgical language and frequent movement of people, goods, and ideas throughout the region. A more contemporary connection is the 2015 announcement of an alliance between Myanmar’s notorious 969 movement and Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Sēnā (BBS) in a bid to create a regional anti-Muslim network. Interestingly, they have also reached out to India’s Hindutva Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a potential member of this network, as the BJP is also fiercely anti-Muslim (the BJP has rejected this offer).
However, despite these connections, Buddhist-Muslim violence in South and South-East Asia is far from the inevitable product of a clash of different “civilisations.” A closer examination reveals that the conflicts are instead highly contingent, and not reflective of broader histories in which Buddhists and Muslims frequently coexisted peacefully. While Sri Lanka, for example, has previously experienced anti-Muslim violence in its 1915 riots, these riots began as local protests against perceived advantages held by Muslim traders, not against any ideological or theological differences. Since this time, Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka have been preoccupied not with violence against Muslims, but against Tamil separatists in the long and bloody civil war (1983-2009) that split the country. It is only since the fall of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009 that nationalists like Galagoda Gnarasara and the BBS have turned their attention to Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority, claiming that Muslims are “terrorists” who will bring “creeping shari’ah” to Buddhist Sri Lanka. As well as drawing on tropes like “terrorism,” “extremism,” and “radical Islam” to legitimize their campaign against Muslims, the BBS also deliberately associates them with the earlier threat of the LTTE, claiming that Muslim terrorism will be an even greater threat than that posed by the separatists, and that pious Buddhists should take up the mantle of the semi-mythical king, Dutthagāmini, famous for slaying Tamils and thereby saving Buddhism. In this context, and given the centuries of coexistence that preceded even the 1915 riots, the idea that Buddhism and Islam are fundamentally at odds in Sri Lanka appears less convincing and a more plausible explanation begins to emerge: nationalists like Gnanasara and the BBS simply need a new enemy to fight in the wake of the LTTE.
Anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar, despite 969’s recent ties to the BBS in Sri Lanka, has similarly local origins. Rohingya Muslims are denied citizenship by the Myanarmese junta, which considers them to be illegal immigrants from Bengal. They are considered to be among the most persecuted people in the world, not just by the state but also by groups of Buddhist civilians and monks like the 969. Wirathu, the spiritual leader of the movement who denies that the group is anti-Muslim, stating instead that they are attempting to protect Rakhine Buddhists from Bengali terrorists. Here again, we see no ideological differences or clashes of conflicting values, but intercommunal violence justified by reference to colonial-era migrations, tensions inflamed by successive waves of crime and vigilantism, and contemporary references to the looming specter of Muslim terrorism.
The alliance between the BBS and the 969 shows that these groups clearly understand themselves to be taking part in a Huntington-esque clash of civilizations, and are actively seeking to reinforce the “fault lines” between Buddhism and Islam in South and South-East Asia through transnational links. The crucial point here, however, is that the BBS and the 969 movement are actively seeking common ground against what they perceive as a common foe, despite the local origins of their respective clashes with Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Similar cases may be made for the Buddhist-Muslim violence in Southern Thailand, or even in Indonesia (even despite claims that violence was carried out as justice for the Rohingya). The fault line between Buddhist and Muslim worlds is not an inevitable result of essentially clashing civilizations, but an actively constructed transnational phenomena serving to reinforce the legitimacy of the local conflict: by claiming that Buddhism and Islam are fundamentally at odds beyond the local context, the local conflict appears more inevitable and therefore more necessary. By forming transnational alliances and creating a narrative of a Muslim threat across the broader region, the local actors can more effectively claim that it’s “us or them,” and thereby more effectively recruit others to their local cause.
Policy-makers concerned with Buddhist-Muslim violence in South and South-East Asia should neither be convinced by this narrative nor inadvertently legitimize it by accepting its terms. Operating under the false assumption that this is a regional phenomenon with common causes (and the hope of a common solution) can only serve to reinforce the belief held by hardliners on all sides that they are engaged in a broader struggle, and therefore can only serve to increase their ability to recruit others to their cause. The key to resolving intercommunal violence in South and South-East Asia lies in understanding and addressing the local issues, with all their subtleties and nuances. Engaging with the claims of fundamental conflict between Buddhists and Muslims made by, for example, the BBS in Sri Lanka, can only legitimize their fearmongering. Instead, policy-makers should be attempting to defuse those local tensions which fuel anger and resentment against Muslims on the grounds of a poor economic outlook, for which it is easy to blame the perceived outsider group; weakened institutional integrity after years of violence and wartime corruption and widespread chauvinism borne of fear and hatred during the long civil war, so easily directed against a new “threat.”
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