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How an Extremist Buddhist Network Is Sowing Hatred Across Asia

Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen, 68, at her ransacked home in Dharga Town, Sri Lanka.

Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen, 68, at her ransacked home in Dharga Town, Sri Lanka.

How an Extremist Buddhist Network Is Sowing Hatred Across Asia

TIME Mag

During her long career as a teacher, Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen prided herself on treating children of all backgrounds the same. That didn’t help her on June 15, though, when a radical Buddhist mob ransacked her home in Dharga Town, a thriving trading hub in southwest Sri Lanka. The 68-year-old Muslim was left “penniless, homeless and heartbroken,” she says. “I thought I would die. I was so afraid.”

The anti-Muslim violence that ravaged Dharga Town, along with the nearby tourist enclave of Aluthgama, peppered with five-star resorts, has been attributed to a burgeoning Buddhist supremacy movement that has embarked on an organized campaign of religious hate.

Sahabdeen speaks to TIME in the ransacked living room of her gutted home. The ceiling fan lies in splinters, the sink ripped from the wall, a portrait of her long-deceased father torn in two. She was alone at prayer when around 200 young men “armed with knives, iron bars, chains” arrived at her home just after dusk. “I could hear them smashing, smashing, smashing,” she says, eyes welling up and fingers clasped together in supplication. “All around were flames.”

Touring her scorched neighborhood, the bevy of gutted buildings and roofless homes indicates Sahabdeen actually fared better than many. Three people died in the violence, all Muslims shot by police shepherding a 7,000-strong mob, claim locals, while another two people had legs amputated after receiving gunshot wounds. At least 80 more were injured.

What sparked this bloodletting between two communities with virtually no historical grievances? Throughout the ashes of Dharga Town, scrawled graffiti reading “BBS Did This” leaves little doubt where the victims lay blame.

BBS, or Bodu Bala Sena, otherwise known as Buddhist Power Force, is a Buddhist supremacist group accused of stirring sectarian hated in Sri Lanka. Led by a monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, BBS accuses Sri Lanka’s Muslims of threatening the nation’s Buddhist identity, and enjoys support at high levels. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother who also serves as Secretary of Defense, has been an outspoken supporter of BBS in the past.

“BBS echoes the sympathies and the prejudices of the majority Buddhist population,” says Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council NGO. “So the views have a certain resonance, and the media gives voice to that, and the counter view is toned down or even censored.”

The June 15 violence was sparked by an innocuous traffic dispute between a Muslim man and a Buddhist monk. Immediately afterward, Buddhist extremists descended on the monk and urged him to report the matter to the authorities. When the police declined to take action, a rally was organized. Gnanasara was there, addressing the mob. “If a Muslim or any other foreigner puts so much as a hand on a Sinhala person — let alone a monk — it will be the end of all of them!” he bellowed to raucous cheers. When the mob approached Muslim-majority Dharga Town, some people started throwing stones. This was all the provocation needed for a night of bedlam. In the aftermath of the riots, 135 people were arrested, say officials. To date, no one has been charged.

Gnanasara denies that BBS organized the march, and blames the “uncontrolled behavior of some of the extreme Muslim communities in the area” for the ensuing bloodshed during a phone interview with TIME. But even before his firebrand oration, portents of trouble were clear; on the Facebook post to announce the gathering, one of the first comments asked: “Shall I bring a can of gasoline?”

So why is Sri Lanka, a nation of 20 million that for three decades was decimated by a vicious civil war between the Buddhist state and largely Hindu Tamil minority, suddenly gripped by anti-Muslim hatred? Historically, the island’s Muslim community had always been a staunch supporter of the Sinhala-Buddhist political establishment, as it similarly suffered at the hands of the LTTE rebel group, more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, who expelled all Muslims from northern provinces.

“Prejudices are growing because there is a small but influential group of extremist Buddhists who are having a relatively free run and are able to articulate very national sentiments and highlight the insecurity of the Sinhalese,” says Perera, himself a Sinhalese Christian.

The Sri Lankan experience is far from unique. In Burma, officially known as Myanmar, just 1,000 miles (1,600 km) across the Bay of Bengal, an extremist Buddhist movement called 969 is waging a parallel war, using identical tactics as BBS. (Both groups rose to prominence around 2012. Its leader is also a monk, Wirathu. When anti-Muslim riots erupted in the central Burmese town of Meiktila in April last year, clashes that killed dozens and displaced thousands, he arrived in the middle of the carnage, although later claimed to have tried to halt the bloodshed. Then, during last month’s communal riots in Mandalay, where Wirathu’s monastery is based, he fanned the flames through an incendiary Facebook post warning of Muslims “armed to teeth with swords and spears” preparing a jihad against local Buddhists.

Both he and Gnanasara make virtually identical xenophobic claims about Muslims converting Buddhist women and luring them into unholy polygamous unions, and using their corrupt business acumen to swindle hard-working Buddhists. “[Muslims] are breeding so fast, and they are stealing our women, raping them,” Wirathu told TIME’s Hannah Beech last year. “They would like to occupy our country, but I won’t let them. We must keep Myanmar Buddhist.” (In fact, neither Burma nor Sri Lanka has seen a Muslim population explosion).

BBS speeches are very similar. Halal certification is apparently funding al-Qaeda and Hamas; Islamic blood sacrifices are summoning forth “ghosts and demons;” Muslim perverts are using burqas as disguises to carry out licentious deeds; and, most bizarrely, the Quran requires Muslims to spit three times into any food or beverage served to a person of another faith.

“I think they are learning from each other,” says Hilmy Ahmed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. “It started in Myanmar, but Gnanasara has perfected it.”

Certainly, the similarities between these nations are striking. Both Sri Lanka and Burma have large, state-backed Theravada Buddhist majorities comprising around 70% to 80% of the population. Both nations have Muslim communities, of around 10% of the population, that historically backed the establishment. Both are going through the aftermath of decades-long civil conflicts against other ethnic minorities — the Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka; a smattering of mainly Christian rebel groups in Burma. Now both boast extremist Buddhist movements led by rabble-rousing saffron-clad clerics.

Gnanasara is quick to laud his Burmese counterpart, and admits the pair met over the summer to “establish an international network of activists stationed in Buddhist countries.”

“We are all in the same boat in terms of attacks on Buddhist communities,” he says. “What is happening in Burma and Thailand, especially the southern part of Thailand, [resembles] what happened recently in Bangladesh.”

BBS and 969 are embarking on a partnership with similar organizations and activists across the region to face off “international threats,” reveals Gnanasara. “It would be better to have some sort of cohesion between us so we can respond collectively.”

Gnanasara maintains he did not “discuss any tactics” during his meeting with Wirathu, yet a shared modus operandi is obvious. The Burmese incidents, just like the Aluthgama clashes and hundreds of others, were sparked by a personal grievance between a Muslim and Buddhist — an argument between shopkeeper and customer over gold rings in Meiktila; an allegation of rape in Mandalay that the accuser eventually admitted was a total fabrication — that quickly spiraled out of control. After the initial complaint, an extremist clique descends on the town to aid the “wronged” Buddhist party. Before long there are lootings, beatings and torched houses.

Now that existentialist threats to Sri Lanka and Burma have disappeared with the end of their respective civil conflicts, the specter of Muslim extremism is convenient means of justifying political control.

“It’s in this government’s narrow political interests of winning elections to foster the divide, to foster Sinhala nationalism,” says Perera. Hilmy agrees: “We feel that it’s likely to be government-orchestrated as the government has lost the confidence of the minorities. The Tamils and Christians are completely alienated.”

Sahabdeen, for one, needs no convincing. When hundreds of young men ripped her home apart, the security services stood idly by, just a block away. Eventually, two rioters escorted her toward these officers before returning, unhindered, to resume their plunder. “They took me out the gate as if I was being walked to the gallows,” she says. “The police just stood there.”

Ironically, while the reality of creeping Islamization is almost certainly bogus, the perceived threat may be instrumental in fomenting its creation. “Muslims don’t have any option but to live here and die here, and so I’m very worried if Muslims are pushed beyond a certain point forces from outside could exploit that,” says Hilmy.

If that happens, Sri Lanka and Burma could head straight back toward a fresh round of civil conflict.

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  • Friend of Bosnia

    That unprovoked attack against me and 1DrM, or call it preemptive strike, was particularly nasty.

  • Friend of Bosnia

    Not me. Whenever genocide is justified or cynically blamed on the victim it actually causes me physical pain to read it, and also makes wish a horible and hideous death on those who wrote it.

  • Friend of Bosnia

    There was an article in a German magazne just yesterday where Ayman Mayzek, the President of the Muslim Community in Germany condemns expressions of antisemitism at pro-Palestine manifestations, or thet attempted arson of a synagogue in Germany. And what doesw the public commment “That’s all because Islam is evil” “the Koran says it’s all right to commit genocide against unbelievers” “You say that and at the same time ISIS is murdering Christians and Yazidis in Iraq” “you’re a liar and hypocrite, actually all Muslims approve of antisemitism, it’s part of their religion” blah blah blah, in short, the usual islamophobic hate speech, whataboutery and diversion. Only a few commenters agree with Mayzek.
    And guess who gets the most upvotes? Yes, the islamophobes! They get ten times as much as those who try to be reasonable. It’s the same thing whenever there is an article on the anti-Muslim pogroms in Burma or Sri Lanka: always a lot of commenters say “peaceful Budhists are just defending themselves against the Muslamic hordes” or some such. And a majority of the public agrees with them.
    And with exactly the same hate speech the genocidal war against Bosnian Muslims was started.
    So you will understand I feel particularly bitter and enraged at people who make such comments and at those who approve of them. After the whole world was witness to genocide in Bosnia. And they still want more of the same. I would like to have them go through what the Bosniaks went through in 1992-95, just for one day. Would probably have them crying for their mommies in just three seconds flat.
    Islamophobia is very wide spread among the Western /Christian people. And that’s the media’s fault. It has also been handed down from generation to generation across history. I even hear islamophobic comments on part of the non-Muslim members of my family. That’s just because they swallow hook line and sinker what the media tell them. And for the media it is just profitable to bad-mouth Muslims all the time. Nothing new under the sun, from the time of the crusades.
    The Western / Christian / Russian attitude towards Muslims always has been one of supremacy, condescension, secret admiration and envy, and in the end, hate. I know that very well because when I was very young I never doubted what the media told about the Palestinian conflict, about Cyprus, about the Arab countries. Only when war came to Bosnia-Herzegovina my eyes were opened.
    Well, it certainly is not helpful that there are movements (inspired and sponsored by the Wahhabi) which try to do in the Muslim Ummah what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia: destroy all and everyone that doesn’t agree with them so that a fictional and mythical past of religious purity can be “built”. In that they are no different and certainly no better than those who think that by destroying Islam and Muslims a better world can be built.
    So I think the reasonable, peaceful Muslims (who the press refers to as “moderate Muslims”, which is an oxymoron, either you are Muslim or you aren’t. There is no “moderation”) have a very hard stand. On one side there are the Islamophobes who consider all Muslims to be evil and/or subhuman. And on the other side there are the totalitarian Muslims (who are variously referred to as “radical Muslims” “islamists” “salafists” “jihadists” “terrorists”; calling a tail a leg is no good either) who kill and destroy also those Muslims who aren’t with them. And between those two the reasonable Muslims are like a clay pot between two stones. Like the FSA is being crushed between the Assad regie and IS/Jabahat An Nusra(AQ).
    The world is no better than it was 100 or 1000 years ago. Evil triumphs over good.
    You ask what pesthole they dug up people so ignorant as to upvote a genocidal fecal hindutva fascist cetnik moron’s hate speech? Just look around you. Rest assured, most people aren’t any better. Not that they all are genocidal bloodthirsty maniacs out for Muslim blood. Far from it. But if they just shrug it off and say such things have some justification, that already is enough.

  • Friend of Bosnia

    He talks genocide, he espouses genocidal ideas,he is a genocidal. No matter whether he actaully takes part in genocidal acts or not.
    And it is completely useless to try and reason with such individuals. In Bosnia they have a saying “Ako govno mutiš, još je uvijek govno.” Which means “No matter how much you stir shit, it remains shit.” In other words, it’s no good to try and talk reason into such people. Only strike them first. Other than that, he is like most of them just a loser, a failure, a pathetic excuse for a human being.
    But even professors and writers (especially writers) can be genocidals.

  • mindy1

    Why cause hate? It seems so sad and pointless, and I am sure it is against the teachings of Buddha :(((

  • John Smith

    Just leave already… you have made such a fool of yourself.

  • Friend of Bosnia

    But of course, all genocidals are uncouth, primitive, sexually frustrated, perverts, in short, failures.

  • Friend of Bosnia

    Well I’ve had my share of human depravity. I don’t need to see more.
    I will respond in kind if some pig-faced thugs with the manner of pigs come to run me out of my house, my hometown, my country, kill me, rape my wife and daughter and destroy all I love and cherish before my eyes .And then have some idiot run his mouth about it because I, and others like me “follow a cult of death” or some such. Doers this guy really think I’ll just let them?

  • Friend of Bosnia

    We have a saying “no matter how much you stir shit, it remains shit.” Go on stirring you genocidal fascist scum.

  • Tanveer ¯_(ツ)_/¯ Khan

    Back in the days when I used to sail the high seas I used ISOs a lot, now I can’t be bothered.

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