Where religious and nationalist extremism lurks as a many-headed monster, is Buddhism’s militant reincarnation really unexpected?
The tenet of reincarnation forms the core of Eastern-religions, by which the soul renews itself in new guises, moulded by the sins and virtues of one’s biological life. Thus, at the conclusion of a life’s consciousness, another manifestation comes into being – human, animal, divine or malevolent.
As such, in an age of neoliberal, aid-bolstered democracies, Buddhism in its socio-political samsara has begun to embody a malevolent reincarnation in the face of tense identity politics, the political self-determination of monks and intolerant calls for violence antithetical to its teachings of wisdom, morality and discipline.
On 20 April 2012, a 2000 strong Sinhalese mob led by a group of Buddhist monks attacked the Jumma Mosque in Dambulla, Sri Lanka. The legitimacy of the structure – which the attackers claimed was an illegal addition to the town’s Buddhist ‘sacred area’ – was aggressively contested, resulting in damage to the property which has been in existence in 1964, and the cancellation of Friday prayers on that day. This incident was by no means isolated, with several similar incidents occurring in various parts of the island. Although no stipulation exists under Sri Lankan law to demarcate such ‘sacred areas’, to this date the situation remains at an impasse, forgotten or ignored by those whose action is required.
Even within its post-war years, Sri Lanka’s socio-political landscape continues to tremor beneath a transparent veneer of supposed reconciliation and the propaganda of national unity. However, the political self-determination of Buddhist monks appears to transcend the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism of Sri Lanka’s history and present.
In Burma, Buddhist monks have been an affirmative force within the nation’s push for democracy . While the military junta continues to control the government of Myanmar, monks’ protests against the regime’s stronghold have not been without some positive consequence. The National League for Democracy is becoming unhurriedly poised to contend with the Stratocracy, as Burma has become symbolic in many ways of a romantic struggle for Western democracy and freedom.
Yet, activists and Burmese monks’ advocacy for freedom appear meaningless in their recent push to spurn the Rohingya Muslim community, which has faced many decades of subjugation in the midst of Burma’s socio-political instability. Groups of monks have not simply issued damning leaflets to the public, but they have also been held responsible for blocking humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya. The history of the Rohingya community has been marred by numerous occasions of state-sanctioned hostility and disenfranchisement, while the more recent spates of ethnic violence in the State of Rakhine has left many hundreds dead, and thousands displaced and in devastating conditions.
Much like in the Sri Lankan example, a conspicuous silence prevails. Even the beloved poster-child of democratic struggle Aung San Suu Kyi has remained noticeably quiet. One wonders if this silence signals complicity or a truly Buddhist acceptance of the inevitability of suffering.
Democracy’s predicament lies in the multiple definitions attributed to its liberal glory that upholds the golden age of Greece as the ‘rule of the people’, conveniently excluding women, slaves and metics. While these romanticised ideals of Western governance act as an equalising force, they also aggravate disparities of wealth and power, particularly within the unstable, aid-dependent economies of the developing world. While providing access to political decision-making by principle of majority rule, democracy continues to corner minorities where neoliberal games are at play.
Social identities play an influential role within economic relationships, where a sense of externality induces reactions in others, while providing incentives for their manipulation. Ultimately, what is monkhood but a social identity?
Social markers within neoliberal political economies, even those which demarcate spiritual commitments, cannot be ignored. Where religious and nationalist extremism lurks as a many-headed monster, is Buddhism’s militant reincarnation really unexpected?
Where the majority is glorified as the core of a national identity, as made evident in the example of both Sri Lanka and Burma, ‘successes’ – be they as trivial as the distribution of aid or an underlying fear of a minority group’s perceived economic prosperity – are viewed as political-economic infiltration. Sri Lanka’s own experiences with resettlement and the distribution of aid in particular have been fraught with ethno-political tensions and claims of bias towards certain ethnic or religious groups. To this effect, an anti-conversion bill also found its way into the Sri Lankan parliament, tabled by a political party led by Buddhist monks decrying conversions based on the promise of economic advantage.
National histories continue to be constructed around nationalist myths of imagined entitlement, where created ideological fantasies become (to paraphrase Marx’s fabled avowal on religion) a heady, mobilising opium to the franchised and irrational masses – to which Buddhist monks and their susceptible followers are no exception.
The re-casting of religion as a political identity has long been bound to governance, accounting for wars and rallying points within divided, unequal societies, where coalition building leads to greater advantages by the convenience of shared heritage.
Within the age of neoliberalism, it would appear even Buddhist monks cannot escape the invisible hands of the free market.
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