Monks with guns

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.

Thailand is over 93 per cent Buddhist, the second most Buddhist country in the world, behind Cambodia. Yet this religious demographic is inverted within the three southernmost provinces (formerly the Islamic kingdom of Pattani), which are over 80 per cent Malay Muslim. The violence since 2004 marks the most recent chapter in a centuries-old conflict between the Thai government and the southern region. Over the centuries, Malay Muslims have fought for political independence. This recent episode was mired in political motives, corporate corruption with the local fisheries, and a decades-long drug trafficking problem in the area. Although the bombings, beheadings and killings have reduced over the past year, they have not stopped. More than 6,500 people have been killed in the conflict. The majority of the victims are moderate Muslims, though these numbers do not capture the impact the violence has had on the minority Buddhist population. Many Buddhist families have faced violence or have been intimidated into leaving the region altogether.

The declining number of Buddhists in southern Thailand has led to a decline in the number of Buddhists who will ordain as monks. This dwindling number, coupled with the violence against Buddhist monks and laity, has led many Thais to believe that Buddhism is under threat. Buddhists equate an attack on monks with an attack on their religion’s vitality. It seems to many that Buddhism must be protected – with violence, if necessary.

Such a position is not only held by the Buddhist laity, but also by Buddhist monks. Buddhism holds a dominant role in Thai society, yet some monks have wanted a more robust form of Buddhist nationalism inserted into the Thai constitution. Others want Thailand to become more actively engaged in a battle against the perceived ‘global jihad’. These monks have adopted the discourse that Buddhism is under attack – and that they need to defend it in Thailand.

Early in the conflict, fear caused many Buddhist monks to revise their daily religious practices. Insurgents continued to periodically target and kill monks on their morning alms. Because of this, the majority of monks no longer carried out these morning rituals; it was too dangerous, even with armed guards. Some monks even began to sleep with handguns, ready to fire into the air to scare off would-be attackers. The most dramatic change was with Buddhist soldiers who accepted covert duties to protect Buddhism from the southern ‘Islamic’ invasion.

Rumours had circulated about a secret group of Buddhist monks who were covertly retaining their status as soldiers. These special monks were supposedly armed and receiving a military salary, but the rumour did not seem credible. According to Buddhist doctrine, monks are prohibited from serving in the military. Knowing that soldiers might want to ordain, the Thai military had made several provisions to allow soldiers a brief respite, to spend time as monks before disrobing and returning to military service. With these governmental provisions and the Buddhist injunctions against soldiers ordaining as monks, the rumours seemed improbable.

In December 2006, I met with a monk in a southern Thai Buddhist monastery. I had finished teaching an English class to some novices, and the monk had asked me about my research. During our conversation, the monk pulled back his saffron robes to reveal his Smith & Wesson handgun. Here in front of me was a military monk – part of a covert group of soldiers who had been trained to protect Buddhist monasteries by serving as fully ordained Buddhist monks. The rumours were true after all.

The military monk explained how the conflict justified his presence: ‘Because we are here, the monks and the people stay. Instead of running away, they stay together with us and fight. We southern Thai Buddhists are like small ants uniting against an elephant. Though small in number, we can collectively combat the Muslim terrorists.’ He saw the insurgency as not merely political, but religious in nature. Buddhism itself was under attack, and such a threat justified special steps to protect Buddhists and Buddhist monks.

Today, more and more Buddhists echo a similar view: Buddhism is under threat of a transnational Islamic expansion, and Buddhists need to respond with violence. Punnajanto’s call to burn down mosques fits into this mosaic of justifications that has been brewing in Thailand for more than a decade.

The recent Buddhist-inspired violence in places such as southern Thailand shocked many. When I lecture on these events, people often ask if these are ‘truly’ Buddhists. After all, violence does not fit into the popular narrative of Buddhism being wholly peaceful. But they are indeed ‘true’ Buddhists, and many are monks. The problem is that the ‘peaceful Buddhist’ narrative is erroneous. It prevents us from understanding the causes of violence. Buddhists, after all, have an agency that goes beyond Hollywood stereotypes of mystical monks, Himalayan mountaintops and Shangri-La.

These popular narratives of passivity and victimhood in Western culture are blind to the diversity in Buddhism and its long history of violence. The stories that seem to take root are ones that provide space for Westerners to become the heroes – rescuers of those from the besieged ‘East’. They centre on intrepid voyagers who travel to the East and come back with the exotic mystic arts, as recently portrayed in the Marvel film Doctor Strange (2016).

In these accounts, Buddhism is not so much a full-bodied religion than (merely) a philosophy. Within the United States, the origins of this view can be found in the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, in Chicago. On the shores of Lake Michigan, wealthy white US citizens were introduced to the science of Buddhism by Zen Japanese Buddhist priests and Western-educated Sri Lankan monks. Many, like the German-born author Paul Carus, left that conference with a vision of a ‘philosophy’ that was spiritual and in harmony with scientific progress.

After the Second World War, the Buddhist movement found its home in the Beatnik generation through romanticised works such as Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums (1958), the writings of the poet Allen Ginsberg, and those of the ex-Episcopal priest Alan Watts. Later, Robert Pirsig’s philosophical reflections in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) gained an enthusiastic following among readers dissatisfied with modern life and who wanted more. In 1987, US interest in Buddhism began to assume political implications with the founding of the Free Tibet movement.

In the West, Buddhism is more an accoutrement to one’s way of life than a full-bodied religion. In the late-20th century, it became commodified within the fast-paced market of US consumerism. You can now buy a Yogi Relaxed Mind tea during your work break, pay for special meditation classes in air-conditioned studios after a full day at the office, and escape from the Western work culture for a periodic meditation retreat. All entreats that promote a calm, serene, non-violent association with Buddhism.

This historical version ignores the long legacy of Asian Americans who had been Buddhists for generations before their white counterparts ‘discovered’ Buddhism; it fails to include the Chinese-American Sze Yap Company, which founded the oldest Buddhist monastery in San Francisco in 1853. Forgotten is the powerful impact of non-white Buddhists on US Buddhist lineages, meditation practices, and philosophies (one notable exception is the work of the feminist author bell hooks).

In this treatment of Buddhism, there is no space for any Asian or other non-white Buddhists to serve as primary heroes, other than through the caricature of martial-art experts. Nor is there any inclusion of admired Buddhists in their opposition to Western interests. Instead, Asians became the supporters or sidekicks of Western heroes. There was no room in this depiction for Buddhist monks who rallied against the West. One of the more pervasive narratives that displays this contradiction is the popular Western portrayal of Vietnamese Buddhist self-immolations.