Conflict in Buddhism: ‘Violence in the Name of Peace?’

Story Highlights

  • Buddhism is strongly associated in the Western mind with pacifism
  • Despite this, more and more Buddhist countries are mired in insurgent violence.
  • From Sri Lanka to Myanmar and southern Thailand, Buddhists have been urged to take up arms
  • Analysts say that, as with many religions, Buddhism is seen as part of a national identity

For Queen Sirikit of Thailand, the 2007 attack on a minibus in Yala province, southern Thailand, in which suspected Muslim militants shot eight Buddhists in the head in broad daylight, was just further proof of what she had been saying for over three years. .

“We have to help the people there to survive. If they need to be trained, train them. If they need to be armed, arm them,” she said, as quoted by one of its soldiers, according to the media.

Meanwhile, Thailand has been rocked by protests condemning the attack.

His response was to reinforce his support for the Or Ror Bor or Village Protection Force, the militia of the Royal Aide-de-Camp department, under the leadership of Queen Sirikit, created in 2004.

Unlike other militias in the conflict-torn region, whose composition reflects local demographics, the Or Ror Bor is exclusively Buddhist, is often stationed near temples, and is responsible for protecting Buddhist communities.

While Buddhism is associated in the Western mind with pacifism, Buddhist nations such as Thailand, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka have engaged in vicious conflict.

In Thailand, state security is now locked in an increasingly bloody civil war with the Muslim minority near its border with Malaysia, in Myanmar civil unrest is looming between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in the state of Rakhine and Sri Lanka has just concluded a protracted civil war with its Tamils. minority.

Birth and death cycle

Buddhism, which emphasizes karma and samsara – the idea that the cycle of birth and death is determined by an individual’s actions – has traditionally been deeply opposed to murder, believing it creates a negative karma that will be revisited on a person in their own life or in subsequent reincarnations.

So how does the security of the largely Buddhist state in these countries reconcile their beliefs with the need to fight?

Michael Jerryson, assistant professor of religious studies at Eckerd College in Florida and co-editor of the book Buddhist Warfare, says war is part of the human condition, regardless of religion.

“The first thing to remember is that people have a penchant for violence, every religion happens to have people,” Jerryson told CNN.

History of conflicts

He said that while Buddhism has a well-documented history of 1,600 years of rebellions and conflicts led by monks, the association of Buddhism in the Western mind is with pacifism.

“Buddhism certainly has a lot in its precepts about pacifism. In fact, almost every world religion does,” he said.

However, Buddhism differs in that the act of killing is less the focus than the “intention” behind the killing, he said.

“When there are Buddhist monks who travel with soldiers in Sri Lanka and sing with them and bless them, their point of view is that they are not trying to support violence but…it is better to have soldiers with a cool head, calm and clear, with good intentions, than those with a cool head,” Jerryson said.


He said Tibet’s Dalai Lama spoke of the same focus on “intention” when asked about the recent wave of self-immolations in Tibet.

“He pointed out that these people aren’t on drugs, they don’t seem crazy but they’re doing it for a cause – the intent seems to be clear,” he said. “This is often used to rationalize violence within Buddhist circles, but as we see now with Myanmar and Thailand, cool heads do not prevail now.”

He said Buddhist states often associate nationalism with Buddhism, justifying war on the grounds that a rift in the nation-state is a tear in the sacred fabric of a land that represents the source of their belief.

“Sri Lanka often speaks of ‘the little teardrop-shaped island’ as the last true remnant of true Buddhism. So when the LTTE, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, tried to sever some of that” teardrop island, “it was like attacking the mother,” Jerryson said.

Political rhetoric

As in most countries that use violence to resolve disputes, Jerryson says political rhetoric will begin to assume that the means justify the end.

“The rhetoric of violence as defense, and this is not unique to Buddhism, is the idea of ​​violence in the name of peace,” he said. “Although it is an offense, although we gain negative karma, it is for the greater good – on the face of it anyway.”

Buddhist nation states have historically sought to use Buddhist doctrine to justify war. During the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s, for example, soldiers were told not only that they stood for Buddhism, but that the void in Buddhism is the only true reality, so, in the end, no one was killed, Jerryson said.

Ultimately, Jerryson added, Buddhist countries fighting insurgencies will find that their fundamental problems are economic rather than sectarian.

“How many strong Buddhist states do we envision in the world? How many of them are economically strong? Because economic strength and vitality bring less risk of civil insurgencies and wars.

“Of course we see a lot of violence with Islamic countries now, but we also see a lot of poverty with them too.”

Identity crisis

For Thailand-based security analyst Don Pathan, the problems in southern Thailand have less to do with religion than with identity.

“The fact that the Or Ror Bor is exclusively Buddhist, says nothing about Buddhism in ethical terms; it’s just something that sets them apart from other security units,” Pathan told CNN. “The problem isn’t religion.”

He said that while many factors influenced the insurgency – economic, historical and the fact, he says, that the violence migrated from rural areas to cities – he also noticed a generational dimension to the problems.

“My experience with the older generation is that I still feel a strong social fabric that still gets along – people are still friends whether they’re Muslims or Buddhists.

“But I don’t quite understand that feeling with the younger generation.”

He said that while older Buddhists generally speak functional Malay to communicate with their neighbors, younger ones have little interest in learning the language, seeing it as something only their grandparents do. The state’s emphasis on the Thai language in schools created problems, he said, reinforcing the differences between the two communities.

“And it’s not just Thailand, it’s central Thailand – that’s how ethnocentric the Thai nation-state can be. But they don’t seem to understand that’s a problem; that we have to consider local identity,” Pathan said.

He said the confusion between culture and religion was one of the drivers of the violence.

“It’s like (groups) saying they practice correct Islam, but what is correct Islam? Islam is a religion, not a culture,” he said. “The problem (in southern Thailand) is that they don’t separate these things; for them, they are two sides of the same coin.”