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.

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course information


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