Thousands of Buddhists listen to Sitagu Sayadaw, one of Myanmar’s most revered Buddhist leaders, also known by his monastic name Ashin Nyanissara, in Paleik, Myanmar, Nov. 15, 2017. Incited by a politically powerful network of charismatic monks, Buddhists have entered the era of militant tribalism, casting themselves as spiritual warriors who must defend their faith against an outside force Image Credit: NYT

Gintota - The Buddhist abbot was sitting cross-legged in his monastery, fulminating against the evils of Islam, when the petrol bomb exploded within earshot.

But the abbot, the Venerable Ambalangoda Sumedhananda Thero, barely registered the blast. Waving away the mosquitoes swarming the night air in the southern Sri Lankan town of Gintota, he continued his tirade: Muslims were violent, he said, Muslims were rapacious.

"The aim of Muslims is to take over all our land and everything we value," he said. "Think of what used to be Buddhist lands: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, Indonesia. They have all been destroyed by Islam."

Minutes later, a monastic aide rushed in and confirmed that someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail at a nearby mosque. The abbot flicked his fingers in the air and shrugged.

His responsibility was to his flock, the Buddhist majority of Sri Lanka. Muslims, who make up less than 10% of Sri Lanka's population, were not his concern.

Incited by a politically powerful network of charismatic monks like Sumedhananda Thero, Buddhists have entered the era of militant tribalism, casting themselves as spiritual warriors who must defend their faith against an outside force.

Their sense of grievance might seem unlikely: In Sri Lanka and Myanmar, two countries that are on the forefront of a radical religious-nationalist movement, Buddhists constitute overwhelming majorities of the population. Yet some Buddhists, especially those who subscribe to the purist Theravada strain of the faith, are increasingly convinced that they are under existential threat, particularly from an Islam struggling with its own violent fringe.

As the tectonic plates of Buddhism and Islam collide, a portion of Buddhists are abandoning the peaceful tenets of their religion. During the past few years, Buddhist mobs have waged deadly attacks against minority Muslim populations. Buddhist nationalist ideologues are using the spiritual authority of extremist monks to bolster their support.

"The Buddhists never used to hate us so much," said Mohammed Naseer, the imam of the Hillur Mosque in Gintota, Sri Lanka, which was attacked by Buddhist mobs in 2017. "Now their monks spread a message that we don't belong in this country and should leave. But where will we go? This is our home."

The ruins of a shop in Gintota, Sri Lanka, after mobs of Buddhists from Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority marauded through the village, burning dozens of Muslim homes, businesses and vehicles Image Credit: NYT

Last month in Sri Lanka, a powerful Buddhist monk went on a hunger strike that resulted in the resignation of all nine Muslim ministers in the Cabinet. The monk had suggested that Muslim politicians were complicit in the Easter Sunday attacks by Islamic State-linked militants on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, which killed more than 250 people.

In Myanmar, where a campaign of ethnic cleansing has forced an exodus of most of the country's Muslims, Buddhist monks still warn of an Islamic invasion, even though less than 5% of the national population is Muslim. During Ramadan celebrations in May, Buddhist mobs besieged Islamic prayer halls, causing Muslim worshippers to flee.

Because of Buddhism's pacifist image - swirls of calming incense and beatific smiles - the faith is not often associated with sectarian aggression. Yet no religion holds a monopoly on peace. Buddhists go to war, too.

"Buddhist monks will say that they would never condone violence," said Mikael Gravers, an anthropologist at Aarhus University in Denmark who has studied the intersection of Buddhism and nationalism. "But at the same time, they will also say that Buddhism or Buddhist states have to be defended by any means."

The military-monastic complex

Thousands of people gathered in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, in May as Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk who was once jailed for his hate speech, praised the nation's army.

Since August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh. Behind it all was a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the army and its allies, with Buddhist mobs and the country's security forces subjecting Rohingya Muslims to slaughter, rape and the complete erasure of hundreds of their villages.

Ashin Wirathu has rejected the nonviolent teachings of his faith. Military-linked lawmakers deserved to be glorified like Buddha, he said at the rally. "Only the military," he continued, "protects both our country and our religion."

At another protest last October, Ashin Wirathu slammed the decision by the International Criminal Court, or ICC, to pursue a case against Myanmar's military for its persecution of the Rohingya.

Then the monk made a startling call to arms. "The day that the ICC comes here is the day I hold a gun," Ashin Wirathu said in an interview with The New York Times.

Monks like Ashin Wirathu inhabit the extremist fringe of Buddhist nationalism. But more respected clerics are involved as well.

At 82 years old, the Venerable Ashin Nyanissara, known more commonly as Sitagu Sayadaw, is Myanmar's most influential monk.

As hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were fleeing their burned villages, Sitagu Sayadaw sat in front of an audience of army officers and said that "Muslims have almost bought the United Nations."

The army and monkhood, he continued, "could not be separated."

Sitagu Sayadaw was pictured in May on a Facebook page linked to the Myanmar military, grinning among soldiers. He has offered up his faith's greatest sacrifice: an army of spiritual soldiers for the national cause.

"There are over 400,000 monks in Myanmar," he told the commander of Myanmar's armed forces. "If you need them, I will tell them to begin. It's easy."

"When someone as respected as Sitagu Sayadaw says something, even if it is strongly dismissive of a certain group, people listen," said Khin Mar Mar Kyi, a Myanmar-born social anthropologist at the University of Oxford. "His words justify hatred."

When suicide bombers linked to the Islamic State blew up churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, Buddhist nationalists felt vindicated.

"We have been warning for years that Muslim extremists are a danger to national security," said Dilanthe Withanage, a senior administrator for Bodu Bala Sena, the largest of Sri Lanka's Buddhist nationalist groups.

"Blood is on the government's hands for ignoring the radicalization of Islam," Withanage said.

After a few years of moderate coalition governance, a fusion of faith and tribalism is again on the ascendant in Sri Lanka. The movement's champion is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defense chief who is the leading candidate for president in elections due this year.

Rajapaksa has pledged to protect religion in the country with the longest continuous Buddhist lineage. He is determined to reconstruct Sri Lanka's security state, which was built during a nearly three-decade-long civil war with an ethnic Tamil minority.

From 2005 to 2015, Sri Lanka was led by Rajapaksa's brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, an unabashed nationalist who justified the brutal end to the civil war by portraying himself as the nation's spiritual savior.

Temples decorated their walls with pictures of the Rajapaksa brothers. Money flowed for radical Buddhist groups that cheered on sectarian rioting in which Muslims died. One of the founders of Bodu Bala Sena, or the Buddhist Power Army, was given prime land in Colombo, the capital, for a high-rise Buddhist cultural center.

Last year, Bodu Bala Sena's leader, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, was sentenced to six years in prison. But in late May, amid a changing political climate, he received a presidential pardon. On Sunday, he presided over a meeting of thousands of monks intent on making their political presence felt in the upcoming elections.

Before his imprisonment last year, Gnanasara Thero placed his campaign in a historical context. "We have been the guardians of Buddhism for 2,500 years," he said in an interview with The Times. "Now, it is our duty, just as it is the duty of monks in Myanmar to fight to protect our peaceful island from Islam."