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Political Transition and Religious Radicalization in Burma and Sri Lanka

Research project
Avslutad forskning
Project owner
School of Global Studies

Short description

In Burma and Sri Lanka, an upsurge of hate-speech and violence against Muslim minorities started in 2012. Organizations led by Buddhist monks have played a central role here, framing Islam and Muslims as a threat against the Buddhist religion and people. This project strives to understand why Muslims have become the target of Buddhist groups, how the groups have mobilized and what messages they spread, and the implications for conflict dynamics in the two countries.

Background and research aims

Burma and Sri Lanka are Buddhist majority countries that have gone through major transformations recently. Burma has moved from dictatorship to partial democracy and Sri Lanka from civil war to peace. In both countries, however, we have since 2012 seen an upsurge of hate-speech and violence against Muslim minorities. Organizations led by Buddhist monks have played a central role here, framing Islam and Muslims as a threat against the Buddhist religion and people. This project strives to understand why Muslims have become the target of Buddhist groups, how the groups have mobilized and what messages they spread, and the implications for conflict dynamics in the two countries.

Research outcomes

The research team consisted of four scholars: two peace researchers (Orjuela and Herath) and two anthropologists (Houtman and Holgersson Ivarsson), who spent extended time in Burma and Sri Lanka. The researchers carried out in-depth interviews, observations, and studied media and secondary sources. In total, we carried out ca 170 in-depth interviews. Among the respondents were representatives of the radical Buddhist groups, other Buddhist monks, Muslim and other religious leaders, civil society representatives, peace activists, ordinary Buddhists and Muslims in villages and towns, and youth. The researchers also carried out participant observation in order to gain a deeper understanding of the role of rituals in Buddhist identity formation, how youth navigate off-line and on-line life in a context of Buddhist radicalization, and how counter-forces to the radical Buddhist groups work for interfaith understanding and minority rights.

Some of the conclusions drawn by the project were: 

  • Insecurity in the formulation of Buddhist identity is a major backdrop for religious conflict. While accounts in Western media have recently pictured Buddhist monks and laity as aggressors, a closer look at the discursive construction of the Buddhists reveal that they see themselves as a historically victimized community. In such a perspective, the current conflicts are spurred by perceptions of Islam and Muslims as an existential threat against the community of Buddhists. Interviews with monks reveal that long-standing fears are harbored also by monks not directly supportive of the new radical Buddhist nationalist groups. 
  • One reason for the insecurity around identity and sense of threat against Buddhism uncovered by the project relates to the fact that Buddhists do not sacralize the family and family relations. Through our study, we have explored how life-cycle rituals in Buddhism – unlike in monotheistic religions – are not performed by religious clergy, something which can give rise to a sense that Buddhism is in decline and vulnerable. 
  • The project has also shown how social media contains and (re)produces a form of “everyday nationalism” and contributes to new norms for ethnic and national identity. As early adopters of new media techniques, youth are not yet fluent in digital skills, yet their ability to engage with others online generates a new kind of freedom for them, new intergenerational contests over authority, and new social and moral dilemmas. 
  • Moreover, the project has highlighted that the new Buddhist nationalist movements and recent episodes of violence in Myanmar and Sri Lanka have prompted the mobilization of counterforces. These consist of a diverse set of actors, some of whom have an earlier background promoting peace and democracy, and some who are more recently mobilized. Religious leaders play an important role in this countermovement, particularly Buddhist monks who challenge the view that Buddhism is under threat by Islam and Muslims. Representatives from all faiths engage in initiatives promoting understanding between religious groups and involved in mediation and prevention of hate-speech and violence. Yet other activists focus on minority rights and protection, and carry out advocacy or provide legal assistance. Importantly, the challenges against anti-Muslim propaganda and violence take place also online, as peace activists and religious leaders engage in counter-speech against the messages by radical Buddhist nationalists. 

These findings indicate that in order to resolve and prevent religious conflicts, we need a deeper understanding of the basis for fears and grievances held by different actors. The findings call for a more nuanced picture of the role of Buddhism and Buddhist clergy in society and in conflicts, recognizing the diversity of views. An empathetic engagement with both religious leaders and ordinary people can help to uncover the causes of conflict, and thereby finding ways of preventing further escalation. It is also clear from our research that we need to better understand the role of social media, and the role it plays in shaping everyday nationalism, particularly among youth. As youth live part of their lives online, a gap between generations is reinforced, while conflicts between religious groups can be further entrenched. However, peace messages that challenge violent nationalist discourse can also thrive in social media. Understanding nationalist mobilization – as well as the mobilization of forces for tolerance – requires an understanding of social media spaces.
 

Members

Camilla Orjuela

Carolina Holgersson Ivarsson

Dhammika Herath

Gustaaf Houtman

Publications

Carolina Holgersson Ivarsson (2018) Lion’s blood: social media, everyday nationalism and anti-Muslim mobilization among Sinhala-Buddhist youth, Contemporary South Asia, DOI: 10.1080/09584935.2018.1528210

Camilla Orjuela (2020) Countering Buddhist radicalization: emerging peace movements in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, Third World Quarterly, 41:1, 133-150, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2019.1660631

Dhammika Herath (2020) Constructing Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar: Imaginary of a Historically Victimised Community, Asian Studies Review, 44:2, 315-334, DOI: 10.1080/10357823.2020.1717441

Dhammika Herath, Malfunctioning of Liberal Democratic Institutions in Sri Lanka: Ethics and Values-1948-2018. Modern Sri Lanka Studies, Vol VII, No 1, 2016.

Gustaaf Houtman, Lifecycle ceremonies and Buddhism in Burma. Proceedings of the 2nd Burma Review and Challenges International Forum, 7-9 JULY 2018, Nagoya, Japan, Pressing Academic and Policy Issues in Burma/Myanmar.  

Gustaaf Houtman, Lifecycle rituals and Buddhism in Burma: The ‘Brahmanic’ master of Abhiseka (Beiktheik saya) and ‘Secular’ Auspiciousness (Loki Mangala). Department of Historical Research and National Library. Reorienting Myanmar Studies in Myanmar: Proceedings of the conference on Myanmar Studies, 5-6 February 2019, Yangon, pp 141-169.