How Diverse Is Buddhism in Southeast Asia?
A Thai or a Burmese most likely thinks of the Buddhism of his country as a continuation of the Theravāda tradition, which was allegedly brought to the Golden Peninsula (Suvaṇṇabhūmi) by Aśoka's missionaries Sona and Uttara in the third century bce. But modern scholarship has demonstrated that prior to the development of the classical Southeast Asian states, which occurred from the tenth or eleventh century to the fifteenth century ce, Buddhism in Southeast Asia—the area covered by present-day Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia (Kampuchea), and Laos—defies rigid classification.
These dilemmas have given rise to a spate of authoritative rulings or opinions on specific points of law or dogma, which are known as fatwas. Not generally in dispute, however, are Islamic prohibitions on gambling, pre- and extra-marital sex, as well as the consumption of alcohol, drugs, and pork. Observance of these prohibitions is an important symbol of being a Muslim, analogous in some ways to the performance of daily prayers and the adoption of certain styles of dress and moral demeanor.
Overarching Theravada or Islamic culture did not create a common shared sociocultural identity that quelled political, economic, or ethnic disputes. Except in the border regions between Burmese states and Muslim Bengal and on the Malay Peninsula, wars between Buddhists and Muslims were infrequent, and when they did occur, they were seldom specifically about religion. The wars between Siam and northern Malay Muslim states were primarily territorial and political, and while religious identity was a very important aspect, one would not categorize these conflicts as religious wars (Gary D. Bouma, Rod Ling, 2010).
This will ultimately affect perceptions of identity, a change that will create anxiety in many young men and women and may see them gravitate toward extremism or other positions of intolerance. Coupled with labour migration, shifting gender roles and changes to traditional social structures, this creates a crucible for potential conflict. Addressing these insecurities of identity in a changing society (where identity is less likely to be prescribed by religion) will be key to tackling the spread of communal violence and extremism. Far-sighted approaches are needed in order to build robust, tolerant and inclusive Southeast Asian societies.
Kamarulzaman Askandar, “The Aceh Conflict: Phases of Conflict and Hopes for Peace” in A Handbook of Terrorism and Insurgency in Southeast Asia, ed. Andrew T. H. (Cheltenham, United Kingdon, Edward Elgar Publications, Ltd., 2007), 251.
Graham Brown, Overcoming Violent Conflict: Peace and Development Analysis in Maluku and North Maluku , vol. 4 (CPRU-UNDP, 2005), 37; Human Rights Watch. Vol.14, No. 9 (C) – December 2002. “Breakdown: Four Years of Communal Violence in Central Sulawesi.”
Toh Chud, “No End in Sight,” The Economist, last modified January 2, 2016, https:// tinyurl.com/koa44wh.
Gary D. Bouma, Rod Ling, and Douglas Pratt, Religious Diversity in Southeast Asia and the Pacific: National Case Studies (New York: Springer Publishing, 2010), 92–94.