By Chandani Kirinde
(Chandani Kirinde is a senior political and history columnist and a long-serving parliamentary correspondent in Sri Lanka).
What prompted the US government to put in place a “Buddhist policy” in Southeast Asia during the Cold War and how successful were these clandestine efforts at using a predominant religion of the region to counter the spread of communism? And did Sri Lanka play a role in shaping the US policy of co-opting Buddhists into an anticommunist program during the Cold War?
These are questions which Eugene Ford, a Yale University historian, raises in his book “Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia.” To find the answer, the author has carried out exhaustive research using both US and Thai archival material and has brought to light the little-known aspect of the “Buddhist Policy” adopted by the US which Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) too, most probably unwittingly, played a role in shaping.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, relations between the US and the USSR had turned frosty, and the common front put together to fight Germany and its allies had given way to the Cold War. The two superpowers, having curved out for themselves parts of Europe after the end of the war were eager to ensure that in Asia too their spheres of influence remained strong.
With the influence of communism gaining a foothold in countries in Southeast Asia, the US was hard pressed to come up with a new strategy to keep the influence of the Soviet Union and China at bay. With Buddhism being the dominant religion in several countries in the region, the “Buddhist Policy” was put in place to co-opt Buddhists into an anticommunist program. The program was to be implemented through the Asia Foundation; an organization covertly backed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
While the Asia Foundation’s role in Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and several other Southeast Asian countries are the focus of Ford’s book, Sri Lanka, which mooted the idea of a global fellowship of Buddhists in the aftermath of the WWII, seems to have unwittingly, assisted the US strategy with the establishment of the first “truly international” Buddhist organization, the World fellowship of Buddhists (WFB), the origins of which lay in the All-Ceylon Buddhist Congress (ACBC).
In December 1947, at a meeting of the ACBC, a historic resolution was adopted to invite Buddhist representatives from all over the world to a conference in Ceylon in order to prepare for the 2500th anniversary of the birth, enlightenment and death of Lord Buddha. (Buddha Jayanthi). The epochal event was to be commemorated in 1956-57 with simultaneous celebration in all Buddhist countries. The WFB was to be established by 1950 to prepare for the celebrations.
However, two years after the 1947 resolution was adopted, there was little progress and it might have died a natural death “but for the persistence of Dr G. P. Malalasekera, a Pali scholar affiliated with the University of Colombo and a prominent Congress member.”
“In 1949 Dr Malalasekera had visited Honolulu to attend a Conference of Philosophers. His tour of the mainland United States and England after the conference led Dr Malalasekera to view Buddhism as likely to spread in the West.
Speaking to the Ceylonese press after his return, in August 1949, he had remarked “Buddhism offers the people of the West a new way of life, which was what they wanted most just now, and Ceylon is admittedly the only country which retains this philosophy in its purest form,” Ford writes.
After his return, the plans for the 1950 conference were revived under Dr Malalasekera’s leadership and invitations sent out to Buddhist majority countries to attend received an overwhelming positive response. The book states that the US Embassy in Colombo noted that the “call to world Buddhists was answered more enthusiastically than was hoped for even by Dr Malalasekera.”
Thus, the first international Buddhist conference convened in Ceylon on May 25, 1950, with an opening religious ceremony at the Dalada Maligawa (the Temple of the Tooth) followed by a reception held at the Colombo Racetrack. Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake was among those who addressed the gathering.
Dr Malalasekera, enthused by the success of the conference, had remarked to a US official sent to report on the event that “this was the biggest thing in the history of Buddhism.” The official reporting back on the event stated: “While the total impression produced by the conference is certainly not one of sinister intentions but rather the contrary, it should be realized that for better or worse, a new politico-religious organization with worldwide connections and a powerful appeal to the masses of Southeast Asia has been born.”
Ford writes that the WFB certainly represented the most significant institutional expression of a new postwar pan-Buddhist solidarity and would thereon provide a regular forum for international Buddhist relations through a series of biennial conferences held in different locations through the Buddhist world- in Colombo, Kathmandu, Rangoon (Yangon) and Phnom Penh among other locales.
Dr Malalasekera was elected the WFB’s first president and in this capacity, he undertook a tour of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 1951. While in Vietnam he addressed students and monks at the University of Hanoi on May 27, 1951, where he spoke on decolonization – a topic of obvious concern to Vietnamese listeners still under French rule – to what he discerned as Buddhism’s rising global profile.
“Through its emphasis on Buddhism’s palliative applicability to secure conflicts, the WFB had created openings for divisive secular politics, often with Cold War overtones, to intrude into its conference deliberations,” Ford notes.
A US Embassy memo from Rangoon (Yangon) in July 1951 indicates by that time the US had adopted a policy of active covert engagement with Buddhists in Burma. The timing suggests that Dr Malalasekera’s May 1951 speech in Hanoi may have played a role in precipitating this US decision.
“In the absence of conclusive evidence, we can only speculate on the relationship between the July 1951 proposal and the subsequent beginnings of the new Asia Foundation’s program in Burma. A causal link seems possible but cannot be confirmed,” the book says.
The US Buddhist Policy was to be carried out covertly through the Asia Foundation which came into being in September 1954 replacing the Committee for Free Asia, which had been active in Burma since 1952. It was covertly funded by the CIA and was involved in assisting Burma in the preparations for the celebration for the 2500 Buddha Jayanthi. After launching its Burma (Myanmar) operation, the Foundation set up offices under its new name in each of the mainland Southeast Asian countries and Ceylon.
By January 1957, the Operations Coordinating Board (OCB) which was tasked with creating a general policy framework for Buddhism had prepared a draft on concrete measures to be taken to put the plan into action. By late February the same year, copies of the plan had been distributed within the State Department and the US Embassies in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand Laos and Cambodia.
By then a landmark election held in 1956 in Ceylon had seen the emergence of Buddhist monks as influential actors in politics, a development taken note of by the United States. A CIA representative during a briefing of officials had emphasized that “the religious question had played a significant part in the election in Ceylon.”
Ford states that American officials were well aware that Buddhist principles called for political noninvolvement. Nevertheless, the secret policy… was to employ or leverage Buddhist influence as an anticommunist asset, casting Buddhist in a political role. The effort was recognized as sensitive, so officials repeatedly emphasized the need to conduct these operations discreetly and covertly in respect to their targeting of Buddhist clergy.”
Despite US efforts Southeast countries were soon divided into communist and non-communist states but had not for the “Buddhist Policy”, countries such as Thailand and Burma too may have come under the influence of communism and the complexities of the Cold War may have turned out differently.