This Insight is part of GNET’s Gender and Online Violent Extremism series in partnership with Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre. This series aligns with the UN’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gendered Violence (25 November-10 December).
Buddhism is often associated with non-violence and peacefulness, yet movements in several countries have begun to justify and legitimise violence against perceived ‘enemies’ of the religion and nation. In post-war Sri Lanka, ethnoreligious tensions are rising and (Sinhala) Buddhist nationalist extremists (hereafter referred to as BNE) are feeding the narrative that Buddhism is threatened by other religions and ethnic groups and that the “country’s Sinhala-Buddhist culture” needs to be safeguarded. Throughout Sri Lankan history, this framing of religion has led to violence, and the role of Sri Lankan politics and the politicisation of Buddhism has also contributed to growing levels of Buddhist nationalist extremism, as evident during the Rajapaksha regime. Specific events such as the Easter bombing attack in 2019 and the health regulations around the COVID-19 crisis have further fuelled the harmful discourse.
BNE groups, such as the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force, BBS), are promoting hateful narratives and practices by instrumentalising long-existing public grievances and frustrations. Importantly, BBS’ narratives tend to rely on anti-Muslim tropes underlining Islam as a ‘threat’ and fearmongering about the Muslim population who are aiming to ‘take over’ the country. The group is thought to have conducted violent attacks on Muslims, Christians and Hindus, as well as places of worship, businesses and economic interests, such as against the increasing spread of Halal food certifications.
One of the reasons why BNE narratives are so prominent in the public discourse is technology, more specifically, social media platforms. Social media has been used by BNE groups to not only push their narrative but also to mobilise people, as evidenced during the 2018 anti-Muslim riots. Since then, there has been a clear amplification of anti-Muslim rhetoric in social media through hateful content and memes. Social media also plays a crucial role in the dissemination of disinformation and misinformation that target the Muslim community, including wild conspiracies that Muslims ‘plan’ to sterilise Sinhalese people through medication or even women’s underwear. Such online messaging amplifies harmful narratives and can turn local rumours into nationwide community tensions. As such, the online narratives are driving offline actions with real implications for ethnic and religious minorities in Sri Lanka.
The recent GotaGoGama protests that erupted in April 2022 across the country against former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa provided an opportunity to bridge ethnic and religious divides. Yet, these connections remain fragile due to the powerful hold that the Buddhist extremist narrative has on the majority of the Sinhalese population.
Gender and Online Dynamics of Buddhist Nationalist Extremism
Gender is an often overlooked factor in Buddhist extremist rhetoric and practice. Buddhist nationalist extremism is patriarchal and misogynist because it targets women’s rights and validates male dominance, both online and offline. Indeed, recent research commissioned by UN Women found that Sri Lankan social media users who posted “COVID-19-related misogynist content […] were also highly nationalistic”. This suggests that nationalism and misogyny compound one another on social media and that misogynistic online behaviour may shed light on BNE behaviour in Sri Lanka. Moreover, the discourse employed by BNE organisations relies on gendered and anti-Muslim tropes and instrumentalises women’s reproductive capacity and sexuality in service of the reproduction of the boundaries of the Buddhist nation. In other words, such organisations put forward a message that Sinhala women should reproduce, instrumentalising women’s bodies for their agenda.
Sri Lankan BNE organisations have also advocated for gender-discriminatory policies, including promoting sterilisation, opposing the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, as well as creating legal hurdles for women with children under five to be able to migrate for work. Alongside discrimination against women and ethnic and religious minorities, BNE organisations promote anti-LGBTQIA+ policies in Sri Lanka where, for example, homosexual intercourse is criminalised, and discriminatory behaviour towards gender and sexual minorities is not legally prohibited. Here, it is important to underline that those with intersecting identities, such as Muslim women visibly wearing hijab, are specifically targeted by online and offline hate speech and hate crimes.
BNE groups that promote gender-discriminatory narratives and policies have been especially successful in pushing their discourse through the use of social media. Recently, a number of controversial videos circulated on social media of extremist Buddhist monks giving sermons. In one of the videos, a monk states that if a person lies (a demerit resulting in violating the fourth of the five Buddhist precepts), this results in the birth of a girl, rather than a boy. Equating lying, a sin, with the birth of a girl indicates their inferior status to boys. Similarly, videos emphasising Buddhist women’s gendered roles and responsibilities as mothers and daughters have been widely circulated. In each of these videos, male dominance and superiority within the Buddhist religion is utilised to discriminate against women and girls. While BNE groups employ different strategies to push their gendered and anti-Muslim narrative, social media has become a prominent mode of governing and controlling the temporal and spatial dimensions of gender, such as women’s freedoms and rights.
Social media is changing the dynamics of extremism and conflict more broadly, and we need to understand the online spaces in order to predict which gendered and anti-Muslim threats translate into offline, real-world violence. Going forward, it is important to further research the online dynamics involved in Buddhist nationalist extremism, improve social media literacy and critical thinking skills, and monitor social media platforms in different Buddhist countries. Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre in collaboration with other research teams is currently conducting a multi-country research study investigating intersectional dynamics of Buddhist nationalist extremism which will shed further light on the role of misogyny and technology in recruiting individuals to violent causes.