Buddhism has commonly and widely been conceived as a “religion of peace, tolerance, and compassion.” Nonetheless, a cursory examination of recent history evinces that violence has been justified and carried out by Buddhist actors, perhaps most prominently in the Southeast Asian region, where distinctively Buddhist forms of nationalism have been observed in nations such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand.
Buddhism has commonly and widely been conceived as a “religion of peace, tolerance, and compassion.” Nonetheless, a cursory examination of recent history evinces that violence has been justified and carried out by actors who employed Buddhist ideas to legitimise their actions, perhaps most prominently in the Southeast Asian region, where distinctively Buddhist forms of nationalism have been observed in nations such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand.
This webinar seeks to critically examine the reasons for the rise and endurance of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. It is hoped that with a stronger understanding of these reasons, some of the lessons gleaned can be applied to foster inter-religious peace and harmony in plural societies both across the region and well beyond.
In order to maintain a clear focus on issues of immediate relevance to religiously plural societies, specific attention will be devoted to the following issues:
- What are the specific features and reasons for the rise of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka?
- Which scriptural and doctrinal sources been appropriated by Buddhist nationalist monks in the construction of their exclusivist rhetoric?
- How have specific social and political circumstances allowed such rhetoric to thrive and/or fade?
- What are some specific strategies that Burmese and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists have utilised in spreading their rhetoric? On a related note, how can such discourses be countered effectively?
- How can religiously plural societies address the challenges that Buddhist nationalism and extremism pose to cultivate inter-religious harmony?
- How effective have Buddhist nationalist movements in Myanmar and Sri Lanka been in garnering financial, political, and/or emotional support from nationals abroad?
Matthew J Walton is an Assistant Professor in Comparative Political Theory in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. Previously, he was the inaugural Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. His research focuses on religion and politics in Southeast Asia, with a special emphasis on Buddhism in Myanmar. Matt’s first book, Buddhism, Politics, and Political Thought in Myanmar, was published in 2016 by Cambridge University Press. His articles on Buddhism, ethnicity, politics and political thought in Myanmar have appeared in Politics & Religion, Journal of Burma Studies, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Journal of Contemporary Buddhism, Buddhism, Law & Society, and Asian Survey. Matt was P-I for an ESRC-funded 2-year research project entitled “Understanding ‘Buddhist nationalism’ in Myanmar”, is a co-founder of the Myanmar Media and Society project and of the Burma/Myanmar blog Tea Circle, and is currently co-directing a curriculum project at the University of Toronto on “Deparochializing” Political Theory.
Elizabeth Harris is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow within the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion, University of Birmingham, UK. Before retiring, she was an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Liverpool Hope University, specializing in Buddhist Studies, inter-religious studies, and religion and conflict. She completed her PhD in Sri Lanka in 1993, during the country’s ethnic war, and has returned numerous times for research and teaching. She is a former president of the European Network of Buddhist-Christian Studies and continues to be an international adviser to the Society of Buddhist-Christian Studies. In addition, she is the current president of the UK Association for Buddhist Studies. Her interest in religion and conflict has taken her to Pakistan, Myanmar and Israel/Palestine. Her publications include: What Buddhists Believe (Oneworld 1998); Theravada Buddhism and the British Encounter: Religious, missionary and colonial experience in nineteenth century Sri Lanka (Routledge 2006); Douglas Duckworth, Abraham Velez de Cea and Elizabeth J. Harris eds. Buddhist Response to Religious Diversity: Theravada and Tibetan Perspectives (Equinox, 2020); Religion, Space and Conflict in Sri Lanka: colonial and postcolonial contexts (Routledge, 2018); Buddhism in Five Minutes ed. (Equinox, 2021).