Islamophobia in Asia

What drives Buddhist anti-Muslim feeling?

Islamophobia is rife in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, with Buddhist monks heading up the hate campaigns against Muslims. Yet the roots of the conflict run deep. A report by Rodion Ebbighausen

Sri Lanka was in a state of emergency for almost two weeks in response to days of clashes that erupted around the country after a Buddhist was attacked and seriously injured by four Muslims near the popular tourist town of Kandy.

Radical Buddhists, including the nationalist organisation of monks – Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Force) – led by Galagodaatte Gnanasara, took to social media to mobilise supporters. Their messaging included conspiracies that Muslims were lacing food and clothing with contraceptives to eradicate Buddhists.

A number of mosques, homes and Muslim businesses were destroyed during the clashes, in which two people were killed.

As a result, the government imposed a curfew and blocked social media for 12 days.

Myanmar, too, has been the scene of repeated violence against Muslims since 2012. Although a number of Muslim groups have been targeted, the Muslim-minority Rohingya community has been the most severely affected. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been forced to flee Myanmar since 2017. Radical Buddhist monks have played a key role here, too.   

Thailand's violence-plagued south

Since 2001, Thailand has also been the scene of repeated violence, especially in its southern provinces. The Thai newspaper Bangkok Post reports that at least 6,500 people were killed in the those Muslim-majority provinces between 2004 and 2015. In contrast to Sri Lanka and Myanmar, a number of well-organised Islamic militant groups are actively fighting for the establishment of an independent Islamic caliphate in southern Thailand.

BBS leader Galagodaatte Gnanasara (photo: Getty Images/AFP/I.S. Kodikara)
Organised Islamophobia: radical Buddhist groups, such as the national organisation of monks Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Force), led by Galagodaatte Gnanasara, mobilised their supporters with the help of social media

The Thai government has responded with a heavy hand. Groups such as Human Rights Watch have documented numerous human rights abuses on all sides of the conflict. Nine in every 10 victims of violence in the region have been civilians.  

As in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Buddhist monks are part of the conflict in Thailand. For instance, Thailand has a number of so-called soldier monks who spend time in monasteries, take up the robe and the alms bowl of the order, yet do not put down their arms. In October 2015, the popular Thai monk Phra Maha Apichat took to Facebook to proclaim that a mosque should be burnt to the ground for each Buddhist monk killed in the conflict. He has since been expelled from his monastic community.

Although it is clear that such radical monks in all three countries are in the minority, it is a vocal minority.

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