Sri Lankan Buddhist monks on the beach (Denish C/Flickr).
An alliance between radical anti-Muslim monks in Myanmar and Sri Lanka spotlights their aspirations to power
Locked up in 2003 for inciting racial hatred in his hometown of Mandalay, Ashin Wirathu has, since his release under a general amnesty in 2012, become one of Myanmar’s most prominent monks, and not one to shy away from controversy.
He is the self-acknowledged leader of the hard-line “969 movement,” which claims to be a non-violent response to nefarious Muslim designs on Burmese Buddhism, but which has been linked to a string of violent attacks against Muslim targets around the country in the past two years.
His message has spread south to Sri Lanka, where he has found ideological common ground with the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a monk-led Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organisation known for its own anti-Muslim campaigns and violence.
Last weekend, Wirathu made his first appearance abroad at the “Great Sangha Council” meeting of the BBS, attended by hundreds of lay supporters and monks in Colombo. In front of towering screens reminiscent of an American megachurch service, he announced that the “969 movement will join hands with the BBS” to stave off the threat of radical Islam, and that “there is a jihad against Buddhist monks,” despite no evidence to support the existence of radical Islamists in either country. The two subsequently signed a memorandum of understanding, the contents of which have not been disclosed.
Sri Lanka is the original home of the Theravada Buddhism practiced throughout most of mainland Southeast Asia, and links between the island and Myanmar in the past have been profound.
Wirathu’s presence in Colombo fits neatly into this historical discourse. Despite its monastic trappings, the BBS is more of a political organisation than a religious one. This is a model that Wirathu appears to be emulating in Myanmar.
In Myanmar, monks are not allowed to vote or hold public office, the legacy of a strong cultural aversion to monks participating in formal politics. In the kingdoms of pre-colonial Burma, the sangha, or monastic order, would act only as a “sober house of second thought,” a check on the power of the monarchy.
Across the ocean, the realities were similar until recently. As Sri Lankan-American political scientist Neil DeVotta noted in a 2007 article, “the vast majority of Buddhists oppose bhikkus [monks] seeking political office because they fear it would compromise the sangha.” In 2004, monks from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) did win seats in parliament, but the party has never won more than a few percent of the popular vote.
But DeVotta claims that the current government is the first in Sri Lankan history to “fully embrace the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist ideology,” and a large plurality of Sri Lankan voters express affinity with these nationalist ideals, even if this has not translated into votes for the monks themselves.
For the BBS – which started out as an offshoot of the JHU – this has prompted a strategic re-orientation away from the profane world of electoral politics. By operating as a mass movement with the president’s ear, it has been able to carve out a niche for itself in which it wields power in tandem with the executive branch, despite its lack of formal participation in politics.
As Myanmar’s nascent, civilianised political system begins to coalesce in the run-up to elections next year, Wirathu and a group of like-minded monks – called the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, or MaBaTha – have taken similar steps, taking an overt interest in politics that would have been unthinkable for monks the recent past.
In recent months, the MaBaTha has proposed legislation limiting religious conversion and interfaith marriage, a clear signal that they, too, desire to walk in Myanmar’s corridors of power. While their proposed legislation has not made it past embryonic stages in parliament, MaBaTha is powerful enough that neither Myanmar’s president, nor its powerful House Speaker, are willing to openly criticise its activities.
Yet in both Sri Lanka and Myanmar, the activities of both nationalist groups – and the political establishments they support – have come under significant criticism from moderates, unhappy with the radical turn their societies have taken at the expense of minorities and their detractors. Whether these voices can successfully drown out those of the sanctified opportunists, however, remains to be seen.