Religious studies professor Michael Jerryson of Youngstown State University in the United States says Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand are worried: "I've heard from monks in all three countries that they see Buddhism being under threat" and fear that "Islam and Muslims are trying to take over their country."
In part, those fears can be traced back to the particular histories of each country, in which Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion. Adherents of Theravada claim that it is the oldest form of Buddhism and thus the one with the closest relationship to the teachings of Buddha.
Buddhism and nationalism
Myanmar and Sri Lanka both were under British control during the age of European colonialism. "When the British colonised these countries, they disrupted a historically supported state-Sangha (the Buddhist community) relationship," said Jerryson. Although Thailand was not colonised, it was surrounded by French and British colonies and feared losing its independence. "[People] asked, who is going to protect Buddhism?"
That fear led to the formation of movements linking the ideas of nationalism, imported from Europe in the early 20th century, to Buddhism in the fight for independence and, ultimately, to save Buddhism.
Although the fundamental reasons and political factors for such movements were different in each country, according to Jerryson the result was the same: "a more robust form of religious nationalism and religious identity in the form of Buddhism."
To this day, it is impossible to separate national identity from the religious belief that dominates each country: "To be a true citizen of Myanmar means to be a Buddhist."
The need for a counter narrative
Thus the Buddhist belief that it is under threat is deeply rooted and an integral part of Buddhist identity. Jerryson said anti-Muslim sentiment is in part fuelled by "a transnational Islamophobic rhetoric coming from the West" and can be found in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. "[Many people in the West] do see religion like Buddhism as being peaceful whereas a religion like Islam being violent which is unfortunately incorrect," he explained. "And I think this damages the people and their history and cultures."
"Every global religion has instructions, has doctrine that encourage people towards peaceful interactions and peace within themselves," Jerryson said. "But every religious system including Buddhism has histories of violence."
Those who measure a sense of threat by what is happening in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand must eventually come to the conclusion that the concept is flawed, said Jerryson: "It simply doesn't fit, it doesn't fit at all."
Only about 10 percent of Sri Lanka's 20 million citizens are Muslims; in Myanmar that number is roughly 4 percent (of 51 million residents) and in Thailand it is about 5 percent (of 67 million residents). "These population sizes have not changed dramatically for over four decades," said Jerryson.
Thus, the widely propagated claim that Muslims are overtaking Buddhists demographically is incorrect, although it is true that Muslim populations are growing in some regions. Such demographic changes have been brought about by, for instance, the fact that large numbers of Buddhists have fled southern Thailand due to increasing violence. In Rakhine State in Myanmar, Muslim birth-rates are also higher than those of Buddhists.
Jerryson believes that a counter narrative is needed to alleviate growing tensions between Muslims and Buddhists. In the process, the establishment faces two major hurdles. First among them is the authority of Buddhist monks. People believe what the monks tell them, he said: "The counter narratives need to come from those who are seen to have power within those cultures."
The second obstacle, according to Jerryson, is the fact that Western politicians, NGOs and journalists seem to be forcing Burmese, Singhalese and Thais to accept a predominantly Western counter narrative and that this often has the opposite of its intended effect. "We need to start working more at negotiating, talking with Buddhist monks in these countries who are seen as having the authority to provide narratives and counter narratives," he said.
© Deutsche Welle 2018