The Dangerous Rise of Buddhist Chauvinism

TOKYO – The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, composed no sutta to religious hatred or racial animus. And yet Buddhist chauvinism now threatens the democratic process in both Myanmar (Burma) and Sri Lanka. Some of the same Buddhist monks who braved Myanmar’s military junta in the “Saffron Revolution” of 2007 today incite violence against members of the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority. In Sri Lanka, the ethnic chauvinism of the Buddhist Sinhalese, stirred by a former president determined to reclaim power, mocks the supposed goal of reconciliation with the vanquished Hindu Tamils.

In Myanmar, Buddhist racism is at the root of a virtual civil war in the state of Rakhine and is fueling a humanitarian crisis in which hundreds of thousands of Muslim Rohingya have fled their country by land and sea. Most ominous for Myanmar’s future, given that all genocides are linked to official action, this racial and religious antagonism is in no way spontaneous. The Rohingya have already been stripped of their Myanmar citizenship, and a raft of new and proposed legislation that would further marginalize Islam seems certain to provoke further violence.

A new marriage law, for example, requires interfaith couples to register their intent to marry with local authorities, who will display a public notice of the engagement; only if no citizen objects to the union – highly unlikely in the present tense climate – is the couple permitted to wed. Another bill in the pipeline would forbid anyone under the age of 18 from converting to another religion, and would require even an adult seeking to convert to gain the permission – subject to repeated interrogation – of local officials.

Perhaps most disturbing, a third recent bill would allow for the imposition of Chinese-style population control on any group with a growth rate that is higher than the national average. Women could be ordered to wait, say, three years after the birth of a child before having another. Here, too, local governments, which are the most susceptible to popular prejudices, will be empowered to implement a law that seems specifically targeted at the Rohingyas, with their large families.