By Hannah Beech
GINTOTA, Sri Lanka — The Buddhist abbot was sitting cross-legged in his monastery, fulminating against the evils of Islam, when the petrol bomb exploded within earshot.
But the abbot, the Venerable Ambalangoda Sumedhananda Thero, barely
registered the blast. Waving away the mosquitoes swarming the night air in
the southern Sri Lankan town of Gintota, he continued his tirade: Muslims
were violent, he said, Muslims were rapacious.
“The aim of Muslims is to take over all our land and everything we value,”
he said. “Think of what used to be Buddhist lands: Afghanistan, Pakistan,
Kashmir, Indonesia. They have all been destroyed by Islam.”
Minutes later, a monastic aide rushed in and confirmed that someone had
thrown a Molotov cocktail at a nearby mosque. The abbot flicked his fingers
in the air and shrugged.
His responsibility was to his flock, the Buddhist majority of Sri Lanka.
Muslims, who make up less than 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, were
not his concern.
Incited by a politically powerful network of charismatic monks like
Sumedhananda Thero, Buddhists have entered the era of militant tribalism,
casting themselves as spiritual warriors who must defend their faith against
an outside force.
Their sense of grievance might seem unlikely: In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, two
countries that are on the forefront of a radical religious-nationalist
movement, Buddhists constitute overwhelming majorities of the population.
Yet some Buddhists, especially those who subscribe to the purist Theravada
strain of the faith, are increasingly convinced that they are under
existential threat, particularly from an Islam struggling with its own
As the tectonic plates of Buddhism and Islam collide, a portion of Buddhists
are abandoning the peaceful tenets of their religion. Over the past few
years, Buddhist mobs have waged deadly attacks against minority Muslim
populations. Buddhist nationalist ideologues are using the spiritual
authority of extremist monks to bolster their support.
“The Buddhists never used to hate us so much,” said Mohammed Naseer, the
imam of the Hillur Mosque in Gintota, Sri Lanka, which was attacked by
Buddhist mobs in 2017. “Now their monks spread a message that we don’t
belong in this country and should leave. But where will we go? This is our
Last month in Sri Lanka, a powerful Buddhist monk went on a hunger strike
that resulted in the resignation of all nine Muslim ministers in the
cabinet. The monk had suggested that Muslim politicians were complicit in
the Easter Sunday attacks by Islamic State-linked militants on churches and
hotels in Sri Lanka, which killed more than 250 people.
In Myanmar, where a campaign of ethnic cleansing has forced an exodus of
most of the country’s Muslims, Buddhist monks still warn of an Islamic
invasion, even though less than 5 percent of the national population is
Muslim. During Ramadan celebrations in May, Buddhist mobs besieged Islamic
prayer halls, causing Muslim worshipers to flee.
Because of Buddhism’s pacifist image — swirls of calming incense and
beatific smiles — the faith is not often associated with sectarian
aggression. Yet no religion holds a monopoly on peace. Buddhists go to war,
“Buddhist monks will say that they would never condone violence,” said
Mikael Gravers, an anthropologist at Aarhus University in Denmark who has
studied the intersection of Buddhism and nationalism. “But at the same time,
they will also say that Buddhism or Buddhist states have to be defended by
Given that Theravada Buddhists constitute overwhelming majorities in the
five countries where their faith is practiced — Sri Lanka, Myanmar,
Cambodia, Laos and Thailand — it might seem strange that they feel so
besieged. But Buddhism, whose adherents make up only 7 percent of the global
faithful, is the only major religion whose population is not expected to
grow in absolute numbers over the next few decades, according to the Pew
Meanwhile, the number of Muslims, who make up just under one-quarter of the
world’s population, is growing quickly, buoyed by youthful demographics and
high fertility rates. By 2050, Pew projects that there will be nearly as
many Muslims in the world as there are Christians.
Buddhist monks have made much of that trend in their rhetoric, portraying
their faith to be under existential threat.
Sitting in his walled temple compound in Gintota, Sumedhananda Thero gave a
bleak prophecy. “If a man dies, it is acceptable,” he said. “But if a race
or religion dies, you can never get it back.”
The military-monastic complex
Thousands of people gathered in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, in May as
Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk who was once jailed for his hate speech,
praised the nation’s army.
Since August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for
Bangladesh. Behind it all was a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the army and
its allies, with Buddhist mobs and the country’s security forces subjecting
Rohingya Muslims to slaughter, rape and the complete erasure of hundreds of
Ashin Wirathu has rejected the nonviolent teachings of his faith.
Military-linked lawmakers deserved to be glorified like Buddha, he said at
the rally. “Only the military,” he continued, “protects both our country and
At another protest last October, Ashin Wirathu slammed the decision by the
International Criminal Court, or I.C.C., to pursue a case against Myanmar’s
military for its persecution of the Rohingya.
Then the monk made a startling call to arms. “The day that the I.C.C. comes
here is the day I hold a gun,” Ashin Wirathu said in an interview with The
New York Times.
Experts at the United Nations say top Myanmar generals should be tried for
genocide. Yet few members of Myanmar’s Buddhist clergy, who have long served
as the nation’s moral conscience, have condemned the bloodshed. Instead,
they refer to the Rohingya as subhuman invaders despoiling a golden Buddhist
In late May, the civilian government of Myanmar, which shares power with the
military, issued an arrest warrant for Ashin Wirathu. The charges were not
for hate speech against a minority religion. Instead, the monk is being
accused of seditious comments against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel
laureate who is the nation’s de facto civilian leader.
Even though Ashin Wirathu has not made much of an effort to hide, and
continues to post videos on social media, the police say they cannot find
him and will try him in absentia.
Monks like Ashin Wirathu inhabit the extremist fringe of Buddhist
nationalism. But more respected clerics are involved as well.
At 82 years old, the Venerable Ashin Nyanissara, known more commonly as
Sitagu Sayadaw, is Myanmar’s most influential monk. In 1988, Sitagu Sayadaw
was one of a coterie of monks who blessed the nation’s democracy movement,
which sent hundreds of thousands of people to the streets in peaceful
protest. Myanmar’s military rulers responded by massacring hundreds.
That act of violence stained the junta. Another round of crushed
pro-democracy protests led by the country’s monks, in 2007, hastened a
political transition in which some power is now shared with Ms. Aung San Suu
Kyi’s civilian government.
After the 1988 crackdown, Sitagu Sayadaw slipped into exile in Tennessee
before returning home to open Buddhist academies and a monastic university.
President Obama and Pope Francis have met with him. Sitagu Sayadaw sits on
interfaith councils, and his missionary society runs meditation centers in
Texas, Florida and Minnesota.
But just as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were fleeing their torched
villages, Sitagu Sayadaw sat in front of an audience of army officers and
said that “Muslims have almost bought the United Nations.”
The army and monkhood, he continued, “could not be separated.”
Sitagu Sayadaw was pictured in May on a Facebook page linked to the Myanmar
military, grinning among soldiers. He has offered up his faith’s greatest
sacrifice: an army of spiritual soldiers for the national cause.
“There are over 400,000 monks in Myanmar,” he told the commander of Myanmar’s
armed forces. “If you need them, I will tell them to begin. It’s easy.”
“When someone as respected as Sitagu Sayadaw says something, even if it is
strongly dismissive of a certain group, people listen,” said Daw Khin Mar
Mar Kyi, a Myanmar-born social anthropologist at the University of Oxford.
“His words justify hatred.”
There are some monks, albeit a minority, who are countering the monastic
In Yangon in recent weeks, peace advocates handed out white roses to Muslims
in order to promote interfaith harmony.
“The extremists are only a small part of Buddhism in Myanmar, but they have
loud voices,” said Ashin Sein Di Ta, the abbot of the Asia Light monastery.
“We should say clearly that if any monk, even respected ones like Sitagu
Sayadaw, advocate killing, they should be defrocked.”
But in a country where senior monks are so respected, it remains hard to
question their authority.
Prevailing anti-Muslim sentiment worldwide has heightened prejudice, with
social media playing a corrosive role. During the height of the junta’s
power, unauthorized fax machines were illegal in Myanmar, and the media was
censored. Today, much of the population is on Facebook, ill-equipped to sift
hyperbole from fact.
“I’ve been interviewing so many monks, and it is clear that Facebook is what
has been driving their hate,” said Ms. Khin Mar Mar Kyi of the University of
Oxford. “Monks learned that Islamophobia existed in the West, and they felt
like it justified their feelings.”
One nation, under Buddha
Spread on social media, this is how the tale goes: Once, great Buddhist
empires dominated Asia. Then, beginning in the 7th century, Muslim invaders
began tearing across the continent. Buddhist rulers in present-day Pakistan,
Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia succumbed to Islam.
The indignities continued into this century when, in 2001, the Taliban blew
up the giant Buddha statuesat Bamiyan in Afghanistan.
It is not just monks who feel the need to guard their faith. This is a time
of profound social change in Myanmar, and some women, in particular, are
yearning for a moral force to counter what they see as a rising materialism
among the nation’s youth. Monasteries, they fear, are no longer as alluring
One group that has harnessed this anxiety is the Committee for the
Protection of Nationality and Religion, or Ma Ba Tha, which runs Sunday
schools and other community events popular across Myanmar. Formed in 2014
with the aim of protecting Buddhism, Ma Ba Tha has pushed successfully for
laws that make it hard for Buddhist women to marry outside their faith.
In Myanmar, as in Sri Lanka — where Muslims have been accused of
manufacturing underwear that makes Buddhist women infertile or of sprinkling
birth control pills into curry consumed by Buddhists — Buddhist figures have
often expressed their hatred of Muslims in sexual terms.
In 2012, reports that a Buddhist woman had been raped by Muslim men
triggered fatal communal clashes in Myanmar. Buddhists in both countries
claim that Muslims are waging a “reproductive jihad.”
“There is this idea of a hyperfertile Muslim man with his many wives,” said
Iselin Frydenlund, an associate professor of religious studies at the
Norwegian School of Theology. “Ma Ba Tha tapped into this trope, and pure
Buddhist women were held up as the symbols of the nation who were in danger
of rape by Muslim men.”
In fact, it is Myanmar’s armed forces that have used rape as a weapon of war
in its battles against various ethnic insurgencies. The United Nations has
blamed the Myanmar military for “sexual atrocities reportedly committed in
cold blood out of a lethal hatred for the Rohingya.”
Ma Ba Tha monks reject such findings, and they have been able to continue
their hate-mongering even though the group was technically outlawed in 2017.
“I don’t think anyone would rape Bengali women because they are ugly and
disgusting,” said one Ma Ba Tha monk, U Rarza, referring to the Rohingya by
a pejorative term.
The Buddhist right returns
When suicide bombers linked to the Islamic State blew up churches and hotels
in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, Buddhist nationalists felt vindicated.
“We have been warning for years that Muslim extremists are a danger to
national security,” said Dilanthe Withanage, a senior administrator for Bodu
Bala Sena, the largest of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist nationalist groups.
“Blood is on the government’s hands for ignoring the radicalization of
Islam,” Mr. Withanage said.
After a few years of moderate coalition governance, a fusion of faith and
tribalism is again on the ascendant in Sri Lanka. The movement’s champion is
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defense chief who is the leading candidate for
president in elections due this year.
Mr. Rajapaksa has pledged to protect religion in the country with the
longest continuous Buddhist lineage. He is determined to reconstruct Sri
Lanka’s security state, which was built during the country’s nearly
three-decade-long civil war with an ethnic Tamil minority.
From 2005 to 2015, Sri Lanka was led by Mr. Rajapaksa’s brother, Mahinda
Rajapaksa, an unabashed nationalist who justified the brutal end to the
civil war by portraying himself as the nation’s spiritual savior.
Temples decorated their walls with pictures of the Rajapaksa brothers. Money
flowed for radical Buddhist groups that cheered on sectarian rioting in
which Muslims died. One of the founders of Bodu Bala Sena, or the Buddhist
Power Army, was given prime land in Colombo, the capital, for a high-rise
Buddhist cultural center. The national telecom service added Bodu Bala Sena’s
theme song to its collection of ringtones.
Last year, Bodu Bala Sena’s leader, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, was
sentenced to six years in prison. But in late May, amid a changing political
climate, he received a presidential pardon. On Sunday, he presided over a
meeting of thousands of monks intent on making their political presence felt
in the upcoming elections.
Before his imprisonment last year, Gnanasara Thero placed his campaign in a
historical context. “We have been the guardians of Buddhism for 2,500
years,” he said in an interview with The Times. “Now, it is our duty, just
as it is the duty of monks in Myanmar to fight to protect our peaceful
island from Islam.”
(This Article appeared in the “New York Times” of July 8th 2019 and is reproduced here with due acknowledgement. Dharisha Bastians contributed reporting from Colombo, Sri Lanka and Saw Nangfrom Yangon, Myanmar)