Is Asia facing a new wave of religious extremism?
March 28th, 2014
04:50 PM ET

Is Asia facing a new wave of religious extremism?

By Maha Hosain Aziz, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Maha Hosain Aziz is a professor of politics (adjunct) in NYU's Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, a senior analyst at geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and advisory board chairwoman of Afghanistan’s first university e-mentoring program (New Silk Road Generation). The views expressed are her own.

Asked to name organizations tied to extremism, most people would likely list the usual suspects – Islamist militant groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban. But a spate of recent attacks has highlighted a growing problem that is threatening to destabilize parts of Asia, and it hails from what might seem to many a surprising source – a militant strain of Buddhism.

In Sri Lanka, for example, reports surfaced in January that eight Buddhist monks were involved in an attack on two churches in the southern town of Hikkaduwa. Another group, the Buddhist Power Force, is said to have been targeting Muslim minorities, and has pushed to ban headscarves, halal foods and other Muslim businesses. In July 2013, Buddhist mobs reportedly attacked a mosque in the north-central town of Dambulla; in August that year, a mosque was attacked in Colombo, sparking clashes between Buddhists and Muslims that left at least a dozen people injured. Sadly, the response from the Sri Lankan government, distracted as it is by the ongoing fallout since the end of the civil war with the Tamil Tigers, has been muted at best.

Meanwhile, since 2012, Myanmar's Buddhist militants have become more aggressive in targeting Muslim minority religious groups, engaging in hate speech, boycotting their businesses, destroying shrines and in a number of cases killing non-Buddhists. Last March, for example, Human Rights Watch noted a “mob of 200 Buddhist nationalists torched a Muslim school in Meiktila, Myanmar.” It added that students were clubbed and set on fire in the attack, which claimed the lives of 32 students and four teachers. In January, the United Nations reported that at least 40 Rohingya Muslim men, women and children were killed in Rakhine as Buddhist-led rioters burned down Muslim-owned houses and shops.

Thankfully, the response from Myanmar’s government was more vigorous than that of Sri Lanka’s, and the government imposed a state of emergency at certain points. In addition, President Thein Sein publicly expressed his “concern” over Buddhist-led protests against Muslim speakers at a local literary event.

Unfortunately, this stance risks being undermined by claims in February that the government has been complicit in restricting “basic freedoms” of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State.

NGO Fortify Rights said in a recent report that documents it had obtained in Myanmar “detail restrictions on movement, marriage, childbirth, home repairs and construction of houses of worship, and other aspects of everyday life”. It added that: “Confidential enforcement guidelines empower security forces to use abusive methods to implement these ‘population control’ measures.” And just this week, the U.S. Department of State warned of "the continued lack of adequate security forces and rule of law on the ground in Sittwe," the capital of the western state of Rakhine, following reports of Buddhist mobs attacking foreign aid groups in the region.

True, Buddhist-led violence is not unique to the past few years – think of the militant Buddhist movement that engaged in anti-government mob violence in South Vietnam in 1963-65. And in some cases, violent acts could be seen simply as a sign of pure desperation – earlier this month in China, a former Buddhist monk set himself alight in Sichuan Province in protest against Chinese rule in Tibet, the 129th such self-immolation since 2009. But attacks on schools and mob violence against Muslim bystanders suggest a new and combustible ingredient is being added to an already volatile and tense part of the world.

How should such extremism be tackled?

The crucial first step is obvious – local governments must acknowledge the problem actually exists, and that it is serious. This is something that simply isn’t happening in either Sri Lanka or Myanmar, where Buddhist-dominated governments seem largely incapable of acknowledging the term “Buddhist militancy.”

This is shortsighted, because the reality is that growing Buddhist militancy will only weaken already strained relations between different communities within these countries, threatening to undermine democratic and economic development in the process.

But a potentially bigger and destabilizing problem exists down the road – Muslim extremists from outside the region getting drawn into a conflict with Buddhist extremists. In the past two years, Islamist militant groups from Indonesia, Pakistan and Afghanistan have publicly noted the plight of their Muslim counterparts in Myanmar and promised jihad against Myanmar’s Buddhist population. Sri Lanka might find itself not far behind.

Will the future of extremism be a battle between Islamist and Buddhist militants? Right now, as the world’s attention is focused on the rehashing of Cold War-style tensions in Ukraine, the possibility seems remote. But the seeds for an extremist conflict in parts of Asia have already been planted. If governments in the region want to ensure long term stability, they would do well to take seriously the growing tensions within their own borders.

Post by:
Topics: Asia • Islam • Myanmar • Religion

soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. JASC92

    that Buddhist monk is looking at the soldier like; "...sup? big gun you got there. i like it"

    March 28, 2014 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  2. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    In my dream of a perfect world, there is no religion.

    March 28, 2014 at 5:22 pm | Reply
    • Marcello Botzo

      I agree, religion is the source of unmatched horrible crimes against humanity. The last one is the confrontation in Kiev started and supported by the church.

      March 29, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  3. Ferhat Balkan

    Religious/Ethnic intolerance: The sign of a weak mind. When people stop blaming a group of ethnic/religious people for the criminal actions of a few. Then we'll have peace on Earth.

    March 28, 2014 at 6:27 pm | Reply
  4. Drew Jones

    Buddhists and Muslims mentioned; why is no one prepared to talk about the most extreme religions on earth, both with a long history of violence – Judism and Christianity?

    March 28, 2014 at 6:28 pm | Reply
  5. Aseem

    All these problems are caused by the belligerence and aggression of Muslims and Christian missionaries.

    March 28, 2014 at 10:28 pm | Reply
  6. deniz boro

    I willl just put in a general reminder. When people have too much free time, they tend to turn to phylosophy hence religion. See how and when all relligions came out. Not from Northern people WHO had to get their "bread from the stone". It all came from the prosperious land between Euphrates and Tigris.CONSEQUENTLY...; When people have a job and work and produce smt they have no time for religion. They are decent people. Just look at the lot WHO look onlly at God for a living. And please for the sake of Global cominity keep them down.

    March 29, 2014 at 3:33 pm | Reply
  7. chrissy

    Lol @ Joey how true. And wasnt that term invented by Hallmark to begin with?

    March 29, 2014 at 7:36 pm | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      @ chrissy: hello. Please, admirable mother and worker, remember not to send me any seasonal greeting cards if you don't care enough to send the very best.

      March 30, 2014 at 9:06 am | Reply
  8. Peace-All

    Dear Prof Maha/CNN,
    Thank you for sharing the links in this article which revealed some CHRONIC issues in Sri Lanka which needs to be addressed to solve the fundamental problem there.

    Buddhism is a great religion but, any religion, without the spiritual practices, is not real.

    I read the book 'Buddishm Betrayed' and looked at the independent peace site: Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice which really helped understand.

    March 30, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Reply
  9. j. von hettlingen

    The violence by Buddhists against Muslims in Myanmar has been instigated. Last year the Time magazine labelled Wirathu "the face of Buddhist terror".
    So religious groups can be as worldly and violent as terrorists, if they see their interests endangered.

    March 30, 2014 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  10. ✠RZ✠

    Religion and human nature are items directly related to the cause of much suffering, violence, and death. The study of mathematics, physics, science, and logic are tools which in themselves alone cannot directly cause any suffering, violence, or death (although many do claim it hurts to think). So, I would firstly highly recommended the safe study of the later before trying to take on a good understanding and strong appreciation of the former.

    March 30, 2014 at 6:54 pm | Reply
  11. deniz boro


    March 30, 2014 at 8:14 pm | Reply
  12. chrissy

    Lmao @ Joey, my hero i wouldnt dream of ever sending you anything but the very best! Oh and btw i agree with your earlier post as well. Religion has been the root cause of most wars. Ill opt for spirituality any day. And to just be kind to others, particularly those less fortunate than myself!

    March 31, 2014 at 12:11 am | Reply
  13. hazel

    Complete garbage article with full of Bias and misleading informations(possibly taken from rumors) and Asia is just facing the wave of regular Islamist militancy (Like in China, Thailand, philippines, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, Bangladesh .…) just like any other parts of the world.There is NO DOG BUT ALLAH..

    April 1, 2014 at 6:36 pm | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      @ hazel:
      Brava the Dog joke! Now if you can make the Dog be Good, you can start a religious movement and pass around a collection plate.

      April 2, 2014 at 11:20 am | Reply
  14. deniz boro

    Tuned in though protecting my local security. I can still see through...Say Ferhat ;) How fareth art thou.

    April 12, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Reply
  15. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    I doubt that there will ever be "peace on Earth," @Ferhat Balkan.
    Although "peace on earth" is an appealing caption for greeting cards, and a terrific phrase for fairy tales and church carols, absolute peace would oppose human nature and inhibit the survival instinct that maintains the existence of human beings on earth.

    March 29, 2014 at 6:10 am | Reply
  16. Ferhat Balkan

    Perhaps you're right. Maybe we'll never achieve peace on Earth. However, overcoming religious/ethnic intolerance is one of the stepping stone towards that goal. Historically, we've struggled to overcome many obstacles and failed many times. Still we get up and try again, because it's also in our human nature to strive for the impossible. The positive side that balances the destructive side. So in essence, "Peace on Earth" is a goal we must fight for no matter how "fairy tale" it may sound.

    March 30, 2014 at 12:13 am | Reply

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