Legacy of civil war should serve as a warning of the costs of ethnic and religious conflict
Across Asia, religious fundamentalism is posing a growing threat to liberal society. Even Sri Lanka, a country that has only recently emerged from a bloody civil war involving religious as well as ethnic differences, may once more be at risk.
Islamist militancy is generating the most headlines. In Bangladesh, for example, liberal commentators have been killed by alleged Islamic fundamentalists. In Malaysia, self-declared atheists have been bullied by militant Islamic organizations. In Indonesia, Muslim fundamentalists have seized the political initiative.
But a virulent strain of Buddhism has also emerged as a danger in parts of Asia, particularly in Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka. The threat to liberal societies may be less dramatic but is nonetheless real.
These majority-Buddhist countries have similar experiences of a religion that is the embodiment of tolerance and pacifism giving rise to extremism and the baiting of minorities.
In the most shocking example, a brutal military campaign triggered by attacks by Muslim militants led to the exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh.
In Sri Lanka, a nation of 21 million people, tensions focus on differences between the mostly-Buddhist ethnic Sinhala, who account for around 74% of the population, and an ethnic Tamil minority, composed of Hindus and Christians. A Muslim community, mostly descended from Arab and Malay traders, adds to the mix.
Sri Lanka’s brand of religiously-influenced nationalism began in the years after independence (1948), as a Sinhala Buddhist coalition led by Solomon Bandaranaike sought to redress Sinhala complaints that the British colonial government had favored Tamil Christians for government jobs.
This resurgence of Buddhist nationalism was opposed by Tamils, who criticized legislation making Sinhala the official language of government administration. Protesting Tamil lawmakers were assaulted by Sinhala thugs, beginning a spiral of ethnic tensions and violence.
Tamil militancy led to civil war that cost over 100,000 lives over nearly three decades before the insurgents were finally defeated in 2009.
But many Buddhists remain uneasy and restless, with the economy in a fragile state. Extremism thrives in situations of general malaise or uncertainty, and both Islamic fundamentalism and Buddhist extremism can be traced to economic anxiety and political tumult. To complicate matters, Buddhists in Sri Lanka, along with Myanmar and Thailand, follow the Theravada tradition, that is more conservative than the alternative Mahayana tradition.