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Buddhist Peace Initiatives in Times of Religious Intolerance

Buddhist radicalism is on the rise in countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Buddhist anti-Muslim rhetoric, violence against Muslim minorities and hate speech against UN officials are now global media sensations. Less known is the growing number of religious peace initiatives, by both Muslims and Buddhists, to address the situation. Recently, practitioners and scholars met in Bangkok to discuss ways forward.


Anti-Muslim violence

Both Sri Lanka and Myanmar have witnessed severe verbal and physical attacks on their Muslim minorities since 2012. For further reading on this, see for example The New York Times, The Democratic Voice of Burma, and Reuters. While it has been hard to prove who the perpetrators are, two things remain clear: 1) the attacks take place in an atmosphere of strong anti-Muslim rhetoric from certain Buddhist monk-led nationalist groups and 2) the (largely unknown) orchestrators and perpetrators of violent attacks operate with impunity. A common interpretation of the source of these attacks in both Sri Lanka and Myanmar is that of the “cronies”, that is, the economic elite, as well as the “evil state” and “evil politicians,” implying politically orchestrated violence between different religious communities. While this certainly might be the case, it should be noted that it has been difficult to establish links between the violence and different state agents, though in both countries some leading politicians and military officials have well-known relations with some Buddhist monks associated with the nationalist movements. For further reading on the situation in Myanmar, see the East-West Center.

However, what remains clear is that both states have failed systematically in protecting their Muslim minority groups. In addition to representing violations of the right to life, the right to non-discrimination and the right to freedom of religion or belief for each individual, the escalating levels of religious intolerance also represents a serious threat both to local communities as well as to the states themselves. The new Buddhist radicalism is transnational in the sense that Buddhist radical groups in Myanmar and Sri Lanka see their own challenges not only from a local point of view, but understand these within a regional, or even global, framework.

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