Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar

For those seeking an excellent summary and analysis of recent issues on the religious complexities in Burma ‘Contesting Buddhist Narratives: Democratization, Nationalism, and Communal Violence in Myanmar’ is available to download for free. Written by Matthew J. Walton (Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford) and Susan Hayward it is, to date, the most thorough analysis of nationalism and inter-religious tensions in Burma. It is published by the Honolulu: East-West Center.

Myanmar’s transition to democracy has been marred by violence between Buddhists and Muslims. While the violence originally broke out between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, it subsequently emerged throughout the country, impacting Buddhists and Muslims of many ethnic backgrounds. This article offers background on these so-called “communal conflicts” and the rise and evolution of Buddhist nationalist groups led by monks that have spearheaded anti-Muslim campaigns. The authors describe how current monastic political mobilization can be understood as an extension of past monastic activism, and is rooted in traditional understandings of the monastic community’s responsibility to defend the religion, respond to community needs, and guide political decision-makers. The authors propose a counter-argument rooted in Theravada Buddhism to address the underlying anxieties motivating Buddhist nationalists while directing them toward peaceful actions promoting coexistence. Additionally, given that these conflicts derive from wider political, economic, and social dilemmas, the authors offer a prescription of complementary policy initiatives.


Wirathu rejects ‘self-immolation’ rumours

Thích Quảng Đức

As reported by the Democratic Voice of Burma Ashin Wirathu has dismissed rumours on social media that he intends to perform a self-immolation if the proposed ‘Race Protection Laws‘ are not adopted in Burma by the end of November. Reports circulated that the controversial monk would douse himself in petrol and set himself on fire on Decmber 2nd if the laws were not adopted.

Acts of self sacrifice have a long history in Buddhism, going back to the Jatakas. The most famous Buddhist self-immolation in the textual tradition is perhaps that of Bhaishajyaraja in the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra). The most notable image is that of Thích Quảng Đức as a protest against the war in Vietnam.

Ashin Wirathu commented on the rumours ‘I did not say that or made any written statement about it – I have rejected these rumours on my social media pages.’ His comments were said to be made at a meeting of the Burma Race and Religion Protection Organisation.

‘A lesson for the Dalai Lama’?



An interesting article has appeared in OpenDemocracy titled ‘A lesson for the Dalai Lama’ by Johannes Nugroho. It summarises and analysis some of the issues in Tibetan Buddhism about the so-called Dorje Shugden controversy.

Dorje Shugden is a Tibetan Buddhist deity which is meant to protect members of the Gelugpa school. From 1978, the Dalai Lama (who is a Gelugpa), began to outlaw the use of Dorje Shugden as a protector of the purity of the Gelugpa school against influence from other Tibetan schools of Buddhism, particularly Nyingma teachings.

There are interesting themes to be noted in this controversy. As Nugroho suggests:

Many supporters of the Dalai Lama have also voiced their opinion that the NKT [the UK-based New Kadampa Tradition founded by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso who advocates the use of Dorje Shugden] does not qualify as Tibetan Buddhist practice, implying that it is heretical. However, the concept of heresy itself goes against the core of Buddhist teaching which is far from being doctrinal in nature.

I’m not sure that the notion of heresy is as much of an aberration in Buddhist history as Nugroho seems to think and I would have much to say about the nature of Buddhist doctrines. However his points are well made. His main idea is that there intricate cultural patterns at work within Tibetan Buddhism and that Western liberal converts often disguise and blur some of these cultural intricacies. However, he takes these arguments further:

There is undeniably a great difference in cultural values between Tibetan Buddhists who grew up within their community in India and the western converts who were raised with liberal western values. But this is no longer the end of the story.

The lesson for the Dalai Lama that Nugroho proposes is the following:

There is no doubt that the conflict over Dorje Shugden will continue to haunt the Dalai Lama, unless he somehow reconciles himself with the Shugden followers.

Twenty five years on after his Nobel Prize, he must also realize the world has changed, and so has Tibetan Buddhism. From a faith being practiced by a remote land-locked nation, it has become a fast growing religion in the west, as well as a model of tolerance.

Further, with the advances in technology and the internet, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the Tibetan and the global audiences, and to try and approach them differently.

‘The Buddha doesn’t belong in temple’, says statue breaker



An odd episode, reported by various news outlets about a New Zealand resident destroying an ancient statue of the Buddha at the Bayon temple in Cambodia. Here’s one version of the story:

The New Zealand resident who broke a Buddha statue in Cambodia says she did so because it was inside a temple dedicated to another deity.

Willemijn Vermaat, 40, who moved to Wellington from the Netherlands eight years ago, had been on a four-week holiday to Laos and Cambodia when she entered the 12th-century Bayon Temple in Siem Reap late on her final night.

She was later questioned by the Apsara Authority about pushing over a Buddhist statue, which broke into four pieces, but she said it was out of her control.

Delayed by rain, she said, she was standing in the temple entrance way after permitted viewing times when something strange happened to her.

“I was drawn to go into the inner sanctuary where the Buddha statue was,” she said. “When I got in there I got a very strange feeling that something was talking to me, but it was like it was my own thoughts.

“It was telling me I had to clean up the temple because there was too much rubbish, from the monks and other people.”

She said the voice identified itself as the Mesopotamian goddess Inana, who told her the temple was not a temple of Buddha, rather one belonging to her.

While cleaning, Vermaat, who has a PhD in linguistics, was discovered by three monks, who allowed her to walk away even though she had been in there after the 6.30pm cut-off time for visitors.

The monks then alerted the Apsara Authority, which started searching for her. “I was hiding in the jungle until I didn’t hear them searching for me any more. So I returned to the inner sanctuary and I had to meditate.

“I was told I had to move the Buddha but I said I didn’t want to as it’s such a great religion and nothing to make fun of. So I tried to sit on his lap but that didn’t work so I pushed him out, and I was apologising to him, but that must have been when I broke it.”

Breaking it was not intentional but it was quite heavy and hard to move, she said.

It did not look like an old statue, rather one that had been put there for decorative purposes.

The Cambodian Daily reported it dated from the reign of Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century and had already been broken into several pieces when rediscovered, but was restored in 1988 so that it could be put on display at Bayon.

But other Cambodian media said it was a replica made in 1988.

Vermaat said she felt bad about breaking the statue but it should not have been in there as it was not a Buddha temple and did not look anything like the many other Buddhist temples she had seen in Asia.

The voices abruptly stopped soon after her meditation so she walked out of the temple.

“I went to where I was supposed to meet my tuk-tuk driver and one of the guys from the authority was there and then eight or so others came and took me to my guest house.

“Two of them took my statement and I told them I had pushed over the Buddha but then they let me go.”

She had spent so long in the temple that she had missed her evening flight to Bangkok but flew out the next day.

Vermaat said she was not fazed by people who thought she might be crazy. “They can take it as they want, there are things in this world that we cannot always explain.”

Pilgrims, healers and wizards: Buddhism and religious practices in Burma and Thailand


At the British Museum, London, from 2nd October 2014 – 11th January 2015:

Pilgrims, healers and wizards: Buddhism and religious practices in Burma and Thailand

Featuring objects from the 18th century to the present, this exhibition shows the variety of religious practices in Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, and how Buddhism, spirit worship, divination and other activities interact.

Western views of Buddhism in the 19th and early 20th centuries presented it as an austere, monolithic religion focused on meditation and nirvana, the escape from the cycles of rebirth. In reality, practitioners in Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand have long sought to improve their lives through a fusion of overlapping activities such as spirit worship, divination, numerology and homage to the Buddha. People select these rituals according to their personal needs to cope with everyday life, to form individual spiritual pathways to felicitous rebirths or to strive for nirvana.

This exhibition draws on the strengths of the British Museum’s mainland Southeast Asian holdings, primarily Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand – countries that have a long history of interaction and share some fundamental religious beliefs and practices. Objects range from model stupas (Buddhist relic mounds), silver, banners, textiles and images of the Buddha to popular posters, glass paintings and mass-produced, stamped cloths with protective diagrams (yantra), reflecting the many outlets for religious expression. The show explores how the various beliefs, revealed in lively daily practices, comprise the main religious systems in the region.

Speech by the Ven. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thero of the BBS


The speech given last week at the Great Assembly in Sri Lanka by Ven. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thero, the leader of the Bodu Bala Sena has appeared online. This is the same assembly at which U Wirathu appeared, as is clear from the text of the speech. This is the meting that formed the basis of the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Bodu Bala Sena of Sri Lanka and 969 of Burma (pictured above).

It is translated by C. Wijeyawickrema. As he explains, it is not approved by the Bodu Bala Sena and in brackets appear his own interjections and explanations which I have left in the text below.

It appears here without comment here for those wishing to have access to these developments in South and Southeast Asian Buddhism.

‘Ven. Gnanasara message to the world

  1. We met the challenge and we are now challenging the challengers!

Within 2+ years we defeated all forces acting in collusion to kill us; these forces even played tricks to separate our president Ven. Kirama Wimalajothi from us; English media write such ugly, dirty, venomous things against us because unlike in the Islamic world, we do not ask for the heads of those who write such nasty unreasonable things.

  1. We do not get money from Norway or from any other organization. We are helped by dedicated people who appreciate and value our service.Young Sri Lankans working long hours in South Korea treated us like kings when we visited them for 6 days and collected money for us for this Conference. Good people are there, they are like Kalu Nika.

We know that some monks had no money for their bus fare and sold their Atapirikara to come to this Conference. We know some had to wake up at 3:00 in the morning to come here.

  1. We cleared, cleaned and sanitized the Sri Lankan jungle, a society gone wild and crazy. Our roots, bases of our Sinhala Buddhist civilization, are severely damaged or got severed during the past 66 years due to stupid acts of politicians.Party politics has been the bane of our country.
  2. We have now prepared the country for the intellectuals, the educated, to fulfil their part of the bargain. They should no longer try to sit on the fence or evade responsibility and their duty. It is sad and unfortunate that the Sinhalayas are so scared to talk about their rights.Prabhakaran fought for a country with only 12% Tamils, Muslims fight with only 6%. But the Sinhalayas are so timid despite being 71% of the population.
  3. It was the wish of Ven. Dharmapala to bring together Buddhist countries in Asia, and on his 150th anniversary, we fulfilled his wish by establishing links with Nepal, Myanmar, Ladak/Jammu Kashmir and the Dalai Lama.
  4. We will help the Hindu Assembly to save Tamils from people like Ryappu Joseph’s Christian Fundamentalism. That is our duty. In Deniyaya an entire Tamil village was converted to Islam. Is this not an Islamic invasion? Traditional Muslims appeal for our help as they are also threatened by the Arabic Jihadism.
  5. Those who attack us do not know what is meant by the name Bodu Bala Sena.Our leader is the Lord Buddha. Our Sena is male and female monks and male and female laity.  So BBS leader cannot be removed by any force on this earth.
  6. We are blamed for using harsh language. We are blamed for not preaching bana like in a temple. We found that so many senior monks are keeping quite or silent indulging in worldly pleasures, receiving favors from those in power. After making requests, appeals for two years we found that it was necessary to act aggressively (militantly). It is like the bell in a temple (or the bell tower Amish people use in their communities in America to signal harm). We had to ring it loud and long.  We are swimming upstream (Patisothagaami); loud screams are inevitable. We ought to strengthen the backbones of these sleeping Sinhalayas.
  7. We are joined by the Ravana Balakaaya and the Sinhala Ravaya. There were 108 unethical religious conversion units in 2004, now there are 400+ and growing. UNP has as its treasure, the leader of the Assembly of God, the voracious Christian Fundamentalist group priest, Erin Wickremaratne, appointed as a UNP list MP. He has over 400 such assembly huts. And UNP blames us for doing politics! In Talahena we found three such Christians erecting illegal churches, all three were employees of the American embassy in Colombo!

Nobody (such as Wijedasa Rajapaksa of UNP) talks about Erin’s Assembly or the Salvation Army.

  1. Sri Lankan governments, all Sri Lankan presidents, should be ashamed of what they have done.  Except two or three, Sinhala, Sinhala Buddhist, MPs are silent like frozen rocks. Executive presidency is used to grab power to thrive personally, to stay in power. If they are, the GOSL and the opposition parties, not willing to change, we must and we will change them all.  BBS warns Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremasinha and Kuara Dissanayaka, to change or get ready to be ousted.
  2. These politicians used Buddhist monks as if how people use an umbrella (thrown under the bed after the rain) or the stick used to clean teeth (this writer identifies it as the treatment given to a kind-hearted woman by politicians). Politicians are opportunists. They give some excuse and avoid the issue. They trick us saying wait until this election is over, wait until Geneva vote is over etc. etc.
  3. We now know for sure that Islam fundamentalism is a cancer. Some such people in Colombo sent two documents to Geneva. Even if a Sinhala man bumped on to a Muslim on the pavement, it is reported as discrimination in these books! How can GOSL allow such documents go to Geneva slandering Sinhala Buddhists?
  4. There is Islam expansion and there is Islam invasion/aggression. There are over 100 Islam organizations in Sri Lanka (there are only 23 Buddhist organizations). They get Sharia law introduced one piece at a time by laws passed in the parliament. Nobody knows and nobody is concerned. Who gave authority to Ajith Cabraal of the Central Bank to open up Sharia bank in the country?Except the Sampath Bank, 8 other bank groups have Sharia banks.

During the past 3 years over 3,000 Sinhala girls got converted to Islam by involuntary means. Muslim girls are not allowed to marry non-Muslims.

Shoora Councils and Ulema companies are in Arab countries to advise Arab rulers. Why we have them in Sri Lanka? ( Even a picture of Buddha not allowed in these Arab dictatorships.)

Are we not getting stabbed behind the back for our compassion and our tolerant behavior?

Our politicians have no backbone. But our monks who saved this country for 2,300 years have their backbones intact.

  1. We faced a total blackout from local media.  But we are lucky to have the new social media, the Face Book, e-mail and the Internet. Hundreds of thousands of younger people are listening to us and are with us.
  2. BBS has begun an ideological struggle. We left the Jataka Pota in the temple library and postponed our meditating towards Nirvana (this is Engaged Buddhism now spreading in the West). We created a fertile soil for the rejuvenation of our nation and it is time for dialog or debate.
  3. Politicians divided people to save their party and for their selfish gain. Nearly 27,000 soldiers did not sacrifice their lives to allow politicians to destroy this Sinhala Buddhist nation.
  4. In this country we do not have a D.S. Senanayaka or a Bandaranayaka Chinthanaya or Marx-Lenin thing (what has happened to that thing called the MahindaChinthanaya?). In this country we follow the Chinthanaya of the Lord Buddha.
  5. If politicians are allergic to the Sinhalaness we will remove them from the scene.If they are not willing to change we will topple them from their seats. We can bring one to sit and we can remove one from the seat. That was what monks did to King Mahasen when he demolished the Mahavihara and sowed aba seeds (Aba saranai!) King Mahasen had bad advisors (anti-Buddhist?) around him.
  6. A monk does not have to be carpenter to point out what is wrong with the chair the carpenter is making and ask for adjustments or even overhauling.

Politicians are getting cheated or deceived by Islamists Al Takiya rule. They perhaps do not know this. GOSL tricked us on the issue of Halal certification.

  1. We have to ask at least a university degree as minimum qualification to become an MP. If over 100 MPs do not have even GCE (OL) how can they be knowledgeable ministers or law makers? No wonder the country is in such a mess (crook-opportunist officers can play hell fooling them).

It is a crime that university students, monk students are on strike for months and rulers ignore them.  What a shame that after struggling in the university, one has to go to the criminal politician to get a job!

  1. We are saddened by the decision of Ven. Maduluvawe Sobhitha on the issue of a common candidate. We have just two questions for him. (1) Why do you think Executive Presidency (not the person) is the top most problem in this country? (2) Who are the people behind you promoting you to contest?Millions of dollars are allocated to destroy Jaathikavaadaya in this country. Is it not a case of a tree in a forest has to be used to destroy another tree in the forest! (Why is that Ms. Sisson is so supportive of your candidacy?).
  2. How come Muslim leaders in Sri Lanka want to stop a Buddhist monk visiting Sri Lanka? Who are they?  We ask these Muslim leaders to answer (as a group) our questions regarding some verses found in the Koran.  If they say they are for the Interfaith Conciliation then they must say if they accept or not the following verses. They are about destroying the infidel. These verses are 2: 193; 2: 216; 4:196; 5:33; and 9:5.

(This writer adds 9:123 to this list because some websites list 164 such bad verses.

O ye who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are near to you, and let them find harshness in you, and know that Allah is with those who keep their duty (unto Him).
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا قَاتِلُوا الَّذِينَ يَلُونَكُمْ مِنَ الْكُفَّارِ وَلْيَجِدُوا فِيكُمْ غِلْظَةً ۚ وَاعْلَمُوا أَنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَ الْمُتَّقِينَ

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  1. Our plan to change this system of corrupt governance by green, blue and red parties is simple. The 5,000 monks assembled here will collect 1,000 supporters from each of the 5,000 temples and create a 5 million voter base. We add Hindu Tamils to this which will make it 6.5 million. There are 25,287 villages in this island and at least 12,000 temples registered.  Leaving out the Palli and Marakkala Nikayas we can easily have 5,000 temples. We will create a leader for this leaderless nation/country.
  2. Is it not so sad and pathetic that when people travel on newly built roads they do not think how good and easy for us to travel now or how grateful we are to our politicians for this meritorious work (work with foreign loans)? Instead what comes to their mind immediately is “I wonder how much money and commission they took out of this road project as bribes!”
  3. Bodu Bala Sena will create, “One country, One nation and One law for all.” Our draft plan for the resurrection of our country will be discussed with villagers by these 5,000 monks and other monks who will join with them when they return to their temples tonight


Fight them until there is no [more] fitnah and [until] worship is [acknowledged to be] for Allah. But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors.


Fighting has been enjoined upon you while it is hateful to you. But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.


And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.’