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Rise of violent Buddhist rhetoric in Asia defies common stereotypes

In many recent cases around Asia, this Buddhist aggression has been targeted toward Muslims

AFP | PTI  |  Hong Kong 

Bhuddist terror
Wirathu (Photo:

may be touted in the West as an inherently peaceful philosophy, but a surge in violent from small but increasingly influential groups of hardline monks in parts of is upending the religion's tolerant image.

Buddhist mobs in last week led anti-Muslim riots that left at least three dead and more than 200 Muslim-owned establishments in ruins, just the latest bout of communal violence there stoked by Buddhist nationalists.

In Myanmar, ultra-nationalist monks led by have poured vitriol on the country's small Muslim population, cheering a military crackdown forcing nearly 700,000 Rohingya into

And in neighbouring Thailand, a prominent found himself in hot water for calling on followers to burn down mosques.

What has prompted this surge in aggressive from followers of a faith that is so often equated, rightly or wrongly, with non-violence?

For many in the West, schooled in via the beatniks, Hollywood, classes, tropical holidays and inspirational Dalai Lama quotes, the visceral response of these monks can be a shock.

But Michael Jerryson, an expert on at who has just completed a book exploring and violence, says throughout history some Buddhists -- like any faith -- have used to justify violence.

"There's a common mindset, whether it's Sri Lanka, Myanmar, .. that Buddhism is somehow under threat," he said, describing the latest incarnation of violent Buddhist

"Each area has its own history, its own causes and instigators, but these instigators are also interlinked."

In many recent cases around Asia, this aggression has been targeted toward Muslims.

After the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha statues in and the "war on terror" rhetoric, Jerryson says, warped historical grievances have "collided with recent Islamophobia".

Despite centuries of largely peaceful co-existence and trading, Buddhist fundamentalist groups portray Islam as invasive, toppling ancient Buddhist empires in and and now threatening the same for modern Buddhist nations through jihad or high birth rates.

Myanmar's has built a following railing against Muslims in incendiary sermons both in person and on -- which closed down his page in January.

While Muslims make up less than four per cent of Myanmar's population, paints a millenarian portrait of an Islamic plot to eradicate Buddhism.

His Ma Ba Tha group was instrumental in pushing laws to restrict interfaith marriages and changing

In Sri Lanka, Buddhist militancy has gone mainstream, with clergy seen clashing with riot police and leading anti-government protests.

During the brutal 26-year civil war, the ire of ultra-nationalists among the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority was focused on the island's Tamil Hindus.

But after the were beaten in 2009, hardliners turned on Muslims, who make up some 10 percent of the population.

Galagodaatte Gnanasara, the movement's most prominent leader, is on bail facing hate speech charges and insulting the Koran.

In Thailand, anti-Muslim hardliners have had less success.

Thai says years of corruption scandals have undermined faith in the clergy.

"Subsequently, local monks' ethnic prejudices carry far less weight with the public and state authorities than their counterparts in and Sri Lanka," she told AFP.

But there have been flashes of tension such as in the country's Malay Muslim-majority south, where a brutal insurgency has killed more than 6,500 civilians in the last decade.

Most of the dead are Muslim civilians, but Buddhist monks have also been targeted by militants, fuelling animosity towards Islam.

First Published: Mon, March 12 2018. 21:40 IST