In Sri Lanka, for example, reports surfaced in January that eight Buddhist monks were involved in an attack on two churches in the southern town of Hikkaduwa. Another group, the Buddhist Power Force, is said to have beentargeting Muslim minorities, and has pushed to ban headscarves, halal foods and other Muslim businesses. In July 2013, Buddhist mobs reportedly attacked a mosque in the north-central town of Dambulla; in August that year, a mosque was attacked in Colombo, sparking clashes between Buddhists and Muslims that left at least a dozen people injured. Sadly, the response from the Sri Lankan government, distracted as it is by the ongoing fallout since the end of the civil war with the Tamil Tigers, has been muted at best.
How should such extremism be tackled?
The crucial first step is obvious – local governments must acknowledge the problem actually exists, and that it is serious. This is something that simply isn’t happening in either Sri Lanka or Myanmar, where Buddhist-dominated governments seem largely incapable of acknowledging the term “Buddhist militancy.”
This is shortsighted, because the reality is that growing Buddhist militancy will only weaken already strained relations between different communities within these countries, threatening to undermine democratic and economic development in the process.
But a potentially bigger and destabilizing problem exists down the road – Muslim extremists from outside the region getting drawn into a conflict with Buddhist extremists. In the past two years, Islamist militant groups from Indonesia, Pakistan and Afghanistan have publicly noted the plight of their Muslim counterparts in Myanmar and promised jihad against Myanmar’s Buddhist population. Sri Lanka might find itself not far behind.
Will the future of extremism be a battle between Islamist and Buddhist militants? Right now, as the world’s attention is focused on the rehashing of Cold War-style tensions in Ukraine, the possibility seems remote. But the seeds for an extremist conflict in parts of Asia have already been planted. If governments in the region want to ensure long term stability, they would do well to take seriously the growing tensions within their own borders.