The rise of hate speech in Buddhist-majority countries like Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka is of grave concern - and something that states should tackle, says a noted Thai Buddhist intellectual, because of the danger it poses.
“It’s very dangerous, much more dangerous than weapons,” said Mr Sulak Sivaraksa, an internationally-regarded Buddhist activist, during a recent panel discussion on the Channel NewsAsia programme Between The Lines.
The principles of non-violence and tolerance may be central to Buddhist teachings, but - amid the rise of nationalist Buddhist sentiments - hate speech has gained prominence among hardline groups which use it to incite violence, destruction and even death against certain groups.
In Sri Lanka for example, a group of monks formed Bodu Bala Sena in 2012 in the name of protecting the country’s Buddhist culture; it has since carried out hundreds of attacks against Muslims and Christians. In Myanmar, hardline monks of the ultra- nationalist Ma Ba Tha group have been fuelling sentiment against the Muslim Rohingya.
Social media has facilitated the proliferation of angry rhetoric. Mr Sulak urged governments to make hate speech illegal, given its ability to incite violence. “I agree with freedom of speech, you can have different opinions and you can discuss openly. But if you use hate speech and distorted speech… this should not be allowed,” he said.
But how is it possible that a religion of peace and empathy like Buddhism can fall prey to hate?
WHEN FEAR OVERRULES SYMPATHY
Dr Mano Laohanavich, professor of Buddhism at Thammasat University, suggested that some Buddhists lack an understanding about other religions.
“They study only their book, their text, which is exclusively about their own truth. And this truth must be the one… that is the best, the only,” he said.
And when they believe their values to be paramount, they disregard other religions, or even fear that their own is under threat, said Dr Eakpant Pindavanija, a director at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Mahidol University.
He cited the example of the Rohingya refugees in Thailand - how an initial wave of pity for these migrants turned into anger once some Thai people realised they were Muslims.
“Suddenly … the hate speech comes: ‘Oh! They are here because they want to destroy this country, they want to destroy our Buddhist society’… So the feeling of sympathy has gone,” Dr Eakpant said.
WHEN FEAR OVERRULES WISDOM
The average Buddhist also does not really understand the teachings of Buddhism itself, its true purpose and meaning, said Dr Chantana Banpasirichote Wun’gaeo, an Associate Professor (Department of Government) at Chulalongkorn University.
Also, where there is a religious majority and a minority, it’s usual for the majority to think “we decide and you have to follow our ways”, said Dr Mano.
”They use identity as the principle on which to create difference, and the politics of fear overrules wisdom or compassion,” he added.
And politicians often take advantage of such sentiments in their quest for power, the panel noted.
“If you look into the religious conflicts all over the world, it has to do with (the) mobilisation of bias, very much from the leadership level,” said Dr Chantana.
THE ANTIDOTE: WORKING TOGETHER
One way to counter the swell of hate and fear, Dr Mano suggested, is to create a safe environment and a platform where people of different faiths can discuss their beliefs, share food, even pray together and help solve society’s problems such as poverty together.
In his experience, when people of different religious identities work closely together, it can lead to greater understanding and a mutual respect. He cited the example of how the earthquake in Kaohsiung, Taiwan years ago galvanised Buddhists, Muslims and Catholics to join in rescue efforts.
When such varied faiths get together, “that could be very powerful - not because they are different but because they are united”, said Dr Mano.
Mr Sulak provided hope for the situation in Myanmar. Arguing that the incidences of Buddhist monks attacking Rohingya were perpetrated by a minority, and tended to dominate the news, he noted that in actuality in Myanmar: “A lot of Buddhists and Muslims are working together beautifully.”