Stephen Chan: It seems a very strange thing to label Buddhism as something fundamentalist. As if by being fundamentalist it might also be accused of causing the same kind of carnage and difficulty that we associate with fundamental Islam. And yet the very gentle religion, the religion of peace, the religion of compassion, is also a religion which is just as capable as other religions of causing carnage, of causing atrocity, and causing great loss of life.
Looking in particular at the conflict which ended only in 2009 at huge cost in terms of the total destruction of the Tamil Tiger insurgent army on the part of the Sri Lankan Sinhalese government forces, and looking at that as a communal divide, a confessional divide, as well as an ethnic divide but above all a confessional divide. Because here you have something left over from the days of the British Raj. You have the separation of peoples into two states: one Sri Lanka, one India. But the Northern part of Sri Lanka and the Southern part of India are habitated by the same ethnic group of people called Tamil. They speak their own language, and they both are Hindu groups.
Whereas the southern part of Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese, are Buddhist. They’ve had their own Buddhist wars in the past. Their ancient history is full of such conflict. And of course they were part of an Indian subcontinent which hundreds of years ago saw the carnage of the wars of Ashoka, the great emperor who for a brief moment in time united the subcontinent and converted to Buddhism out of sheer horror at the bloodshed that he had caused, but even as a Buddhist emperor was not averse to going to war.
So the idea of kinship, the idea of nation-creating and nation-building, and the idea of going to war in the name of a nation with a religious foundation, is something which is not new. What you had however in Sri Lanka was something which was very very unusual. It was a deliberate effort to engineer a nationalism which could be demarcated by a Buddhist affiliation. There was a genuine discursive project on the part of the government to turn the priestly class, for instance, into nationalists. So it became almost impossible to graduate from a Buddhist seminary without also being a serving member of the nationalist cause.
When in the late 1970s it was clear that this was going to be of great dissatisfaction to the Tamil population—a minority population but a very very large minority—there were seemingly wise people at the head of the Sri Lankan government. The president Jayewardene almost embodied in himself the image of a serene, august, and peaceful Buddhist leader. The Prime Minister Premadasa also tried to emulate the sense of Buddhist serenity.
But I remember in 1979 having an audience with Prime Minister Premadasa and saying, “Prime Minister, we in the outside world have got grave concerns about the approach you seem to be preparing to take against the Tamil population,” at that point just beginning to organize itself towards the possibility of insurgency. And the condescension that I received from Prime Minister Premadasa I think probably marked me forever. I was a very young man, but he spoke as if in a very portentous way he knew exactly what he was doing, and I as the very young, callow outsider could not possibly know anything.
As the years passed it became quite clear that people like Premadasa were among the hardliners who drove a nationalist agenda so that a Buddhist population, a population identified as doctrinally Buddhist but also doctrinally Buddhist for nationalist purposes—that is in support of a nationalist state which was dominated by the Sinhalese, therefore a conflation of both nationalist and religious identity—these senior figures in the political pantheon of Sri Lanka were determined to create something which was excluding of the Tamil population. Certainly excluding of them in terms of their access to the levers of power.
One of the great tragedies for me of that period was that almost all the young ministers with whom I worked got themselves exploded by Tamil bombers in the insurgencies and the violence that followed. The one young minister who survived and later became Prime Minister simply by default of surviving was the playboy Minister of Youth at the time in 1979. We all thought he would amount to nothing—this is Ranil Wickremesinghe. And yet he became the only one of his cohorts (by virtue of having outlived all the members of his cohort) who tried to make peace with the Tamil Tigers and momentarily succeeded before the intricacies of Sinhalese nationalist politics drove him out.
What you had in the total destruction of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 was an attempt to wipe out the legacy of a Tamil possibility in politics by a triumphant Buddhist, militant, and militarized government. That has now all been nuanced in the governments that’ve followed, that all the same retain Sinhalese majoritarian and Buddhist overturns. What the future holds for a divided country remains to be seen.
But you see also this kind of nationalist fundamentalist Buddhism tied to a national project in Burma. You have Burmese Buddhist monks who lead pogroms against Islamic minorities. You have now the much-revered, the much-celebrated Aung San Suu Kyi as the chief counselor of the Burmese state, after years of imprisonment now allowed to take part at a very high level in Burmese politics, almost certainly complicit with the slaughter of minority people on the borderlands of Burma who do not subscribe, are not members, of the dominant nationalist, ethnic, and confessional persuasion. Not part of the majoritarian ethos that has confessional markers to it.
And of course Buddhism is very much alive and well in the conflict over Tibet. A conflict in which both China and Tibetans (those who are following the nationalist persuasion and also the religious persuasion of the Dalai Lama), are at loggerheads as to the future of that country, each side parading all kinds of historical claims, some of which are clearly inflated, some of which are real, to try to prove an historical affiliation of a nationalism to a particular ethnic group, and one ethnic group being a pure ethnic group by virtue of its pure religion.
The conflict there is further exacerbated in the sense that no one actually seems to understand exactly what borders a free Tibet would have. Its borders shrank and expanded in the historical years that are claimed to be part of the Tibetan ancestry. But at what point in time could it be said that these borders had a stability? Now of course the real problem there is not borders but a state—whether part of China or an independent state—that will have a large population of Han Chinese. It’s more the influx of Han Chinese, people not part of the Tibetan ethnic group, people not part of a Buddhist persuasion, people who therefore infiltrate and contaminate the state, who are the real problem rather than a political independence. Because even with a political independence, the Buddhism of Tibet is no longer something exclusive and is no longer something autonomous, and is no longer something which survives by itself in a space that is uncontaminatedly Tibet.
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