In Burma and Sri Lanka, anti-Muslim religious nationalism opens wounds, writes Asia Sentinel’s Bruce Matthews

Recent incidents of anti-Muslim religious nationalism in Sri Lanka and Burma, ostensibly in defense of the Theravada Buddhist faith held by the majority, have opened fresh cultural and political wounds.

Growing violence appears in danger of spinning completely out of control in Burma, most lately in the town of Okkan on the outskirts of Yangon, where a Buddhist mob burned as many as a dozen homes and ransacked a shop shouting “Let’s destroy the property of Muslims.” Two mosques were desecrated and Qurans were torn to pieces.

Monks of Sri Lanka€'s hardline Buddhist group Bodhu Bala Sena pray during a protest rally urging boycott of consumer goods with Halal certification in Maharagama on the outskirts of Colombo, Sri Lanka earlier this year. Pic: AP.

Some of these are violent events with alleged government or Buddhist monastic (sangha) backing. Others appear spontaneous, beyond the control of state and Buddhist hierarchy. Either way, they are destructive and troubling. Buddhism is revered as a faith of healing and mercy, but like all religions, it can promote contradictory elements of triumphalism and intolerance.

Both countries are newly emerged from recent politically traumatic experiences – release from a decades-long military autocracy (Burma) and the ravages of a civil war (Lanka). Both are spectacularly ill-served by this latest outburst of jingoism in the name of a faith that in both instances appears to be manipulated to meet political ends.

(READ MORE: Photos emerge of anti-Muslim witch hunt in Burma)

Turning first to Burma, the state has a long record of relations between the majority Buddhists (90 percent) and minority religions, notably Muslims (5 percent) and Hindus (3 percent). Muslims from a variety of Middle Eastern and Central Asian ethnic backgrounds were at one time a welcome part of historical Burmese kingdoms, traders for the most part, but even serving in the infantry of the great king Mindon Min in the mid-19th century.

Others, particularly the Rohingya in Arakan State bordering on present-day Bangladesh, filtered across porous borders over decades. More controversial were thousands of Indian Muslims brought in by British colonial officials for their commercial skills and hard work.

Anti-Muslim outbreaks associated with Burmese Buddhist economic resentment occurred periodically prior to independence. But Muslim fortunes in Burma were virtually ruined by the 1962 military take-over of the state. The Rohingya in particular were held back by the 1982 Citizenship Law, which required proof of ancestry in Burma for three generations.

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