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No Buddhist bullets in Thai turmoil

  • 24 January 2014

It's often said in Thailand that the three pillars of Thai society are Buddhism, the monarchy and the nation, or political system. In recent months I've witnessed many noisy anti-government protests in Bangkok where political groups have been very visible. But amid the turmoil, Buddhism and the monarchy are notably absent.

The low profile of the monarchy is easily explained. Absolute rule of the king ended in 1932, and since then Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy. The king does not comment on day to day affairs of the country.

The absence of Buddhism is more puzzling. Thailand is the heartland of Theravadan Buddhism, and Buddhist temples, shrines and monks are ubiquitous. 95 per cent of Thais claim Buddhism as their religion and, alongside the 250,000 permanent monks and nuns, most men spend at least a few months of their youth in a monastery.

Perhaps the low profile of Buddhism in the present crisis is a good thing. Thais look nervously at recent events in nearby Buddhist countries where firebrand Buddhist monks have led militant ultra-nationalist movements against religious minorities, mainly targeting Muslims. There has been a string of articles in Thai newspapers denouncing these movements. Thais clearly don't want this type of religious leadership infecting their country.

In neighbouring Myanmar (formerly Burma), the so called 969 Movement, led by 46-year-old monk Bhikku Wirathu, began in mid-2012 and quickly spread. The number 969 alludes to notions central to Buddhist belief: to the nine special attributes of the Buddha, the six special features of the Dhamma (Buddhist teaching), and the nine characteristics that should distinguish the Sangha (Buddhist monks).

But Wirathu has subverted these Buddhist ideals, as attested to by a Time feature from July 2012. It was entitled 'The Face of Buddhist Terror' and referred to him as 'the Burmese Bin Laden'.

His movement began with calls to stop the spread of Islam by boycotting businesses run by the Muslim Rohingya minority, ethnic Bengalis living in Myanmar since British colonial times. But it quickly escalated into open violence, with scores of Rohingya killed, many doused in petrol and burnt to death, entire Muslim villages and communities burnt to the ground, and tens of thousands of people forced to flee areas where they had lived peacefully alongside majority Buddhists for generations.

Around the same time in Sri Lanka, the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) emerged. Its founder is 37-year-old Buddhist monk Galagoda Atte Gnanasara. While his movement