Armies of the Enlightened

March 1, 2008

Author: Christian Caryl

Source: Newsweek

In recent years, massive groups of fervent believers have taken to the streets of Asia with angry political demands. They've railed against government corruption, condemned the onslaught of Western values and decried the erosion of traditional morals. Having built an extensive network of grass-roots aid groups, their numbers are exploding. Some have even picked up arms to defend their beliefs. Sound familiar? It should—only the faithful in question aren't Islamic fundamentalists or conservative Christians. They're Buddhists: members of what used to be Asia's quietest religion, one usually associated with pacifism and contemplation.

No more. In this era of religious fervor, an Asia-wide resurgence of Buddhism is spawning activists and increasingly assertive political movements, some of which even act like fundamentalists of other faiths. True, many Buddhist groups, like Taiwan's massive Tzu Chi movement, still practice nonviolence and antimaterialism; indeed, this meditative side is helping Buddhism make inroads among alienated urban professionals in India, China and elsewhere.

But other organizations are now wading straight into the rough-and-tumble of everyday politics, suggesting last year's monk-led protests in Burma weren't an anomaly. In Thailand, an ultraconservative Buddhist faction helped topple Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. In India, the populist leader of a rapidly expanding Buddhist-supported party is now being touted as a future prime minister. And in the most dramatic cases, some Buddhists have even begun advocating violence—such as Sri Lanka's fiercely nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party—or have started picking up guns themselves, as in southern Thailand.