Buddhism and Violence: Roots of “religious” conflicts in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Southern Thailand

By Dennis Tan Chun Yee


On July 1, 2014, riots broke out in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, claiming the lives of two people as well as causing injuries to many others. The riot also led to the destruction of numerous Muslim houses and businesses. Meanwhile in Southern Thailand, the ongoing conflict between the state and Muslim insurgents have led to the rapid militarization of Buddhism in the country.

These stories express a sharp contradiction between two opposing forces: Buddhism and violence. How could a religion that is well-known for its teachings to propagate peace and compassion towards others be associated with war and hatred? It is excusable for lay Buddhists to commit such acts of hatred given that they are still practising the path to enlightenment. But it is perplexing to hear stories of monks, being ordained with the duty to propagate the Dharma, associating themselves with violence as well.

In this essay, I attempt to resolve this puzzle by demonstrating that according to the Buddhist canonical scriptures, the Buddha, though did advocate self-defence in some circumstances, still viewed it as a necessary evil given that committing any act of violence is an obstacle to one’s path to liberation. Hence, Buddhism is not entirely responsible for these violent conflicts. I argue that the causes of conflicts are based on one’s economic grievances, ethnicity and national identities.  In order to support such a view, cases from Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Southern Thailand will be used to provide a comprehensive picture over the topic.

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