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Buddhist Nationalisms in Southeast Asia: Implications for Plural Societies
24 Nov 2021
Claribel Low

The Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme (SRP) at RSIS held a webinar on 24 November 2021 titled “Buddhist Nationalisms in Southeast Asia: Implications for Plural Societies”. Three experts on the region were invited to share their insights on the rise of Buddhist nationalism in Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

The webinar, convened and chaired by Assistant Professor Rafal Stepien, began with Professor Suwanna Satha-Anand, Professor Emerita at Chulalongkorn University, briefly outlining the history of Buddhist nationalism in Thailand. Tracing the growth of “militant Buddhism” in the country, Prof Satha-Anand highlighted several challenges in countering it. She concluded with a call for Thai society to embrace Buddhist pluralism so as to move away from nationalist appropriations of a religion that, in her understanding, originated not as a state religion but as a reformist movement.

Dr Peter Lehr, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews, observed that even though Buddhism is perceived as a peaceful religion, the principle of non-violence (ahimsa) does sometimes give way to violence when Buddhists feel threatened by the religious “Other”. He identified instances where “defensive war” has been deemed permissible in the name of Buddhism and noted that more research needs to be done to better understand this phenomenon in the context of Myanmar.

Dr Jude Lal Fernando, Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin, elucidated the ways in which colonialism and Orientalism have shaped as well as racialised Buddhism in Sri Lanka. He argued that while a Western understanding of secularism might not be entirely applicable to the Sri Lankan context, an indigenous definition of pluralism distinctive to the nation could certainly prove constructive. He ended his talk by maintaining that “a secularist, pluralist Sri Lanka is needed to protect all religions” on the island.

The webinar concluded with a lively discussion during which the panellists emphasised the critical role that education plays in countering Buddhist nationalism and extremism. Citing the growth of social media and political radicalisation as reasons for the rise of Buddhist nationalism in recent decades, the panellists were nonetheless hopeful that the cultivation of spaces for open and honest dialogue can go a long way in countering such extremism.

Catch it here on the RSISVideoCast YouTube channel:

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