Why Are Buddhist Monks Promoting Violence in Sri Lanka?
Guest post by Matthew Isaacs
In a state marred by conflict, a wave of religious violence threatens the sovereignty of the nation, international actors talk of intervention, and commentators speak of a move towards authoritarianism or a slide back into war. What optimistic politicians once portrayed as fertile ground for Western-style democracy, realists now decry as a land of perpetual strife among extremist religious groups.
I’m talking of course about Sri Lanka.
As the West focuses on the expansion of Islamic militancy in Iraq, the tide of anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka has reached unprecedented proportions. Last week a mob of Buddhists ravaged a neighborhood in the southern town of Aluthgama, killing four Muslims and injuring dozens more. All signs point to the Buddhist Power Force (Bodu Bala Sena, BBS) as responsible for the incident. Though increasing in scale, the trend of violence against Sri Lanka’s religious minorities – both Muslims and Christians – has been on the rise for over a decade.
On January 21st of last year, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Religious Affairs, K. D. S. Gunawardena, gave a speech in which he proudly declared an end to decades of communal violence. While Gunawardena was speaking in Colombo, a group of Buddhist monks were parading the streets of Kuliyapitiya in northwestern Sri Lanka calling for the deportation of all Muslims. Commentators once optimistic about the future of post-civil war Sri Lanka now ask if Muslim identity is a liability in the island state.
To outsider observers, the Buddhist majority’s sudden targeting of religious minorities may come as quite a shock. For the bulk of its post-independence history, Sri Lanka has been dominated by the conflict between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Though the Sinhalese (74% of the population) are mostly Buddhist and the Tamils (12%) are generally Hindu, the decades long civil war ending in 2009 was largely secular in nature. Conflict began over the question of Sri Lanka’s official language and escalated to issues of territorial control. It was a conflict between religions but it was rarely a conflict about religion.
Since the mid 2000s, however, Sri Lanka has seen hundreds of violent incidents between Buddhists and Christians or Muslims. Generally, one out of three such incidents involves Buddhist monks in some capacity. Moreover, the US State Department cites several incidents in which victims have been threatened for reporting religious violence to the police, suggesting that many more incidents may go unreported.
To find the underlying causes of this violence, one need only look at the changing position of the Buddhist clergy in Sri Lankan society. Over the last several decades, Sri Lanka’s traditional Buddhist leadership, composed of nearly 30,000 monks and known collectively as the sangha, has become more fractured and more political. For centuries, the sangha has been divided into a number of sects and regulated by a high council. The high council was traditionally responsible for dispensing material support from the state and regulating the behavior of the monks in each sect. This hierarchy ensured a degree of doctrinal consistency across the sects by granting senior monks the authority to discipline their subordinates.
This system changed dramatically in the mid-20th century, when the Sri Lankan state withdrew its material support to the sangha. The loss of support made the sangha dependent on lay worshippers while also undermining the power of the high council. Without enforcement from above, the religious hierarchy came to lack authority. As a result, individual monks were granted the autonomy to deviate from their community.
The economist Laurence Iannaccone of Santa Clara University has argued that more radical religious organizations tend to extract the most resources from their adherents. Doctrinally strict religions tend to reduce the number of “on-the-fence” adherents while encouraging ardent believers to become as involved as they can.
In Sri Lanka, the dismantling of the Buddhist hierarchy coupled with a shortage of material resources encouraged many monks to embrace radicalism. Variation in this behavior can even been seen at the local level. Monks from historically wealthy temples tend to support a more traditional interpretation of Buddhism, while monks from historically poor temples tend to embrace a more radical message.
The effect of this resource competition has been a general increase in both the radicalism and political activism advocated by monks. Especially since the 1970s, a growing number of monks have endorsed radical ethnic politics as a means of self-promotion. It was during this period that a series of influential monks began to preach against religious minorities.
Most prominent in this regard are the National Heritage Party (Jathika Hela Urumaya, JHU) and the BBS, both organized composed entirely of monks. Established in 2004 and 2012, respectively, the JHU operates as a traditional political party while the BBS has avoided institutional politics in favor of staging large-scale protests. Though the BBS has taken a more active role in anti-minority protest events, the JHU has introduced legislation banning religious conversion and has called for the arming of Sinhalese Buddhist civilians. Just this week, the General Secretary of the JHU, Patali Champika Ranawaka, responded to criticism of the violence in Aluthgama by accusing the United States of “strengthening the global Taliban movement” by permitting Muslim extremism in Sri Lanka.
Organizations like the JHU and the BBS are internally divided and composed of monks seeking individual notoriety by appealing to the ethnic insecurities of their base. These organizations are evidence of the extent to which the Buddhist religious economy has become a free market dominated by entrepreneurs whose fortunes are limited only by their radicalism and rhetorical skills. Faced with a resource deficit and the autonomy to preach as they please, Sri Lanka’s Buddhist clergy have both the means and the motive to promote radical anti-minority rhetoric. The island’s political environment will continue to reward such rhetoric as long as competition among Buddhist monks is encouraged by a “free market” approach to religious leadership. Alternatively, should political actors move to undo the fragmentation of the sangha, the competitive incentives so important for encouraging anti-minority violence could be curtailed.
Matthew Isaacs is a PhD candidate in Politics at Brandeis University. His dissertation examines the relationship between formal religious organizations and the political representation of ethnic identity.