Westerners think that Buddhism is about peace and non-violence. So how come Buddhist monks are in arms against Islam?
The recent violence in southern Thailand began on 4 January 2004, when Malay Muslim insurgents invaded a Thai Army depot in the southernmost province of Narathiwat. The next day, after the burning of 20 schools and several bomb attacks in a neighbouring province, the Thai government declared martial law over the three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. Shortly after, two Buddhist monks were killed during their morning alms, and a third injured. In these provinces, the majority population is Muslim, and Buddhists are a minority. By the summer, journalists and scholars had written articles about the insurgents and the role of Islam in the violence. But since Buddhism was associated with peace, no one thought to investigate the role of Buddhism. How could a Buddhist monk participate in the violence? Yet clearly, Buddhism was involved in the conflict.
In Pattani’s capital district, the My Gardens Hotel is popular with tourists. I had gone there to collect people’s opinions on the killing of Buddhist monks. On this day, the hotel was nearly vacant, the lobby empty, save for two police officers, who were devout Thai Buddhists. As I wanted to get their perspective on the ongoing violence, the three of us sat down together. They explained that they were periodically stationed at the My Gardens Hotel because insurgents had begun to bomb local businesses. Economics, they said, was an important factor behind the current violence. Poverty was creating a desperation that deepened the crisis.
But when I asked them about the attacks on Buddhist monks, their cool analysis changed to passionate outrage. They said that murdering a Buddhist monk was the very worst thing a person could do – and if they caught the perpetrators, they would kill them. The expression of such rage, and their justification for violence in response to an attack on Buddhist monks, was shocking. I, like many, had thought that Buddhists were peaceful and that their religion abhorred violence.
Such an association of Buddhism with peace is neither accidental nor unusual. The vast majority of introductory books on Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy do not mention Buddhist violence. Instead, they associate Buddhism with pacifism and non-violence. Think of the many books on Buddhist meditation, the 14th Dalai Lama and his advocacy of non-violence, and the peace work of Buddhist activists such as the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (whom Martin Luther King Jr nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967). It’s no surprise that many Westerners think of Buddhism as a non-violent religion, dedicated to inner peace and harmony, not violent politics.
As a result, when travelling into the Thai conflict zone, one is prepared to encounter Buddhists working to quell the violence. Surely monks would be engaged in interfaith dialogue while Buddhist volunteers applied the principles of loving-kindness (metta-karuna) and compassion to heal their community’s fears and anger? But the police officers’ retaliatory rhetoric clashed with any such assumptions. And their view is not unique.
On 16 October 2015, a head monk at the prestigious Marble Temple in Bangkok posted on his Facebook page his outrage over the latest attacks on Buddhist monks in southern Thailand. Phra Apichart Punnajanto argued that the situation required a violent response: for each Buddhist monk who is attacked, Buddhists should burn down a mosque. Punnajanto was not the first monk, nor the last, to justify violence for Buddhism.