Unacceptable intolerance

Unacceptable intolerance

Distressing news from Sri Lanka last weekend revealed that some Buddhists there have organised an aggressive and offensive anti-Muslim movement. Monks have supposedly been at the forefront of organising the movement, called Bodu Bala Sena _ or Buddhist Power Force. They have attracted thousands of followers who have staged numerous intimidating and provocative acts to harass the island nation's minority Muslim community.

The Bodu Bala Sena is similar to the 969 movement of Myanmar. Their ideology, actions and speeches are virtually identical. The only real difference is important. The Sri Lankan group has not actually committed violent acts. In Myanmar, the 969 group has been accused of inciting and then supporting attacks which have killed hundreds of Muslims, and burnt down villages and homes across the country.

In both cases, Buddhists should be dismayed at the abuse of their religion. The media reports from Sri Lanka identified the founder and chief pulpit-pounder of the anti-Muslim campaign as 37-year-old Galagoda Atte Gnanasara. He summarises his beliefs and bias concisely. "This is a Buddhist nation," he says of Sri Lanka. "Not everyone can live under the umbrella of a Buddhist culture."

The Buddhist Power Force was founded in 2012, as Sri Lanka was concluding a long, bloody war with Tamil Tiger separatists. Before that, there was no obvious warning that nationalist Buddhists even had a problem with the country's Muslims. During the war, the Muslim community was reliably pro-government. Because of their Tamil origins, Muslims played an important part in the Sri Lankan intelligence service.

Muslims believe that the defeat of the Tamil separatists made a few people, including the monks, look for something else to oppose. Sri Lanka's Islamic community, like in Thailand, is around 10% or less of the population. As in Thailand, a large percentage of Sri Lanka's Muslims are ethnically different to the Sinhalese majority, and speak Tamil among themselves.

The difference, of course, is that in Thailand virtually every Buddhist not only believes that the nation can shelter those of other races and faiths, they are proud of it. Indeed, it is a mystery how Sri Lanka's Galagoda Atte Gnanasara and Myanmar's Bhikkhu Wirathu, as monks in saffron, came to become so strongly bigoted, racist and confrontational. Their words and their support for violent action certainly are not found in the teachings of the Buddha.

A leading Muslim spokesman, Mujibur Rahman, said flatly to the media that Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa "needs a new enemy". Mr Rahman believes the president must keep up a self-built image "as a Sinhalese Buddhist hero and saviour". But even if that questionable judgement is correct, it fails to account for the strong Buddhist participation.

Like most bigots, Gnanasara, a fiery speaker, claims to see himself as a protector of the nation and the religion. He brags that, "The secret to my popularity is that I speak the truth." The membership of his Bodu Bala Sena is a secret, but he has attracted thousands to his meetings, and to events in the streets where Muslims are derided, mocked and attacked.

Such profoundly anti-Buddhist actions are regrettable. Buddhists, both lay people and monks, must persuade both the leaders and followers of hate groups like this to cease and desist. It is they, not the peaceful Muslims of Sri Lanka and Myanmar, who do the most harm to their countries.

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