[This post is by guest-writer Line Løvåsen].
Though Buddhism is known for its insistence on non-violence and compassion, there have been some Buddhist wars in history (Thompson 1988:102). I will discuss one of these: the conflict between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka, which has recently come to an end with the victory of the government over the rebel Tamil Tigers.
Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948. The island has long known political and economic tensions between Buddhist Sinhalese and the minority of Hindu Tamils (Harris 2003:107). Increased Sinhalese nationalism and emerging Tamil separatism resulted in violence and war in the 1980s. Tens of thousands have since been killed in a brutal ethnic war (Seneviratne 2003:76).
The Sinhalese have justified the war and the use of violence by way of the teachings of Buddha. In this post I will examine the role of religion in this conflict. By showing tensions between Buddhism and Sinhalese politics, I will argue that although the conflict is expressed and justified in religious terms, it is actually part of the state’s nationalistic agenda. I will also argue that this is a typical example of how poverty and a crisis of national identity are misused by a state in order to mobilize ethnic groups for conflict. To prove my argument, I begin by describing the Sinhalese view of the war. Then I examine general Buddhist principles against war, after which I outline Theravada Buddhism to see how the Sinhalese are able to manipulate the principles for their purposes. I then examine to what extent the Sinhalese actions fit the just war criteria. I will take into account other explanations of the conflict and I will discuss how Buddhism can contribute to a solution.