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Self-immolation and the cow protection movement

On 24 May, a young Buddhist monk set himself on fire near the main entrance to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka. The burns he suffered were so severe that he soon died in hospital. His name was Bowatte Indaratana Thera, and his suicide was an act of protest against what he believed to be the oppression of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. More specifically, he intended to draw attention to the immorality of cattle slaughter.

The press coverage of his death illustrates the extent to which Indaratana Thera has become a folk hero amongst some Sinhala Buddhists. Laity and monks staged a rowdy protest in Colombo to express their outrage at the government’s refusal to grant Indaratana Thera a state funeral. At his eventual funeral, pirit, or Buddhist chanting, was conducted so that the monk might be reborn in a better life in the future.

Indaratana Thera was part of a movement that is gaining increasing momentum in Sri Lanka: namely, cow protection. Its primary focus has been the practice of halal. Islamic law requires that certain foods be prepared in ritually pure ways. The preparation of halal beef is a cause for much controversy in Sri Lanka as many Buddhists believe that it is a cruel and immoral practice. Sinhala tradition has long enshrined the cow as an animal that warrants special protection, though this has not stopped Sinhalese from eating beef in the past.

The self-immolation of Indaratana Thera represents one extreme example of actions undertaken in the name of cow protectionism. Muslim businesses have, for some time now, been subject to pressure from Sinhala Buddhist activists, and protests against them have sometimes turned violent. Muslim businesses are regarded as supporting the killing of cattle, whether or not they are directly involved in slaughter or not – for example, major clothes retailer was attacked in March by a Sinhala mob.

The matter is so significant that Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka, is considering the introduction of a parliamentary bill that will ban the slaughter of cattle completely.

The cow protection movement presents itself in terms of compassion and love for animals. Yet underlying it is an unpleasant anti-Muslim, pro-Buddhist agenda, flirting dangerously with Sinhala ultranationalist factions. The monk-run political organisation Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Strength Force) is one key institution behind the cow protection movement, and has been accused of protests culminating in attacks on Muslim businesses. Bodu Bala Sena has explicitly argued that halal practices must be abolished. Yet it is not primarily concerned with the welfare of cows: more fundamentally, it aims to protect Buddhism against perceived non-Buddhist threats.

The goals of the organisation include ensuring that Sri Lanka is a ‘Buddhist society’, and it ominously proposes that a ‘necessary environment’ be instituted so that this comes to pass. Bodu Bala Sena wants a ‘fearless monastic heritage’, independent of conventional politics, and so its website stays that is has ‘no connection to party politics or government officials and are not dependent on the various parties’.

Yet it is apparent that the group seeks to exclude non-Buddhists from Sri Lanka and marginalise non-Buddhists. That is why Bodu Bala Sena is so deeply involved in anti-Muslim activities such as halal abolitionism.

Indaratana Thera was affiliated with the movement. His suicide note, written on his official temple note pad and now widely available on the Internet, listed a total of five political issues that worried him. It reads: ‘1. Let us stop the doctrine that murders cows; 2. Let us remove terrorism; 3. Let parliament accept the act that opposes turning to religion by force ; 4. Let the union of multi-nationals, multi-religions, or pan-religions that destroy the Buddha’s teaching vanish; 5. Let us construct a suitable constitution for a Buddhist nation.’

Indaratana Thera, like Bodu Bala Sena, thought that Buddhism is in danger. He was a Buddhist radical who wanted not only to end cattle slaughter but also to attack non-Buddhist traditions. It is plausible that he thought his death might represent be tipping point, motivating the government to institute stronger legislation to restrain non-Buddhist ­– that is, Muslim ­– practices.

But Charles Haviland has observed that self-immolation is not common activity amongst monks in Sri Lanka, when compared to other Buddhist traditions. There have, for instance, been a spate of deaths recently as Tibetan monks turn to self immolation in order to protest Chinese oppression. Perhaps the most famous case of monastic self-immolation was the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc who set himself alight in Saigon in 1963, resulting in one of the most evocative images of modern photography: Duc sitting in meditation while he engulfed in flames.

Like Indaratana Thera, Duc committed suicide in order to draw attention to Buddhism; in his suicide note, he too, stated that he wished that others would ‘protect Buddhism’.

Yet Buddhism in Sri Lanka is much less tolerant of suicide by burning. There is little doctrinal basis for it, compared to East Asian forms of Buddhism where Mahayana texts sometimes endorse what appear to be actions of physical self-sacrifice. The Lotus Sutra for example, states that the greatest Buddhist sages, ‘give their own flesh, hands and feet / or their wives and children / seeking the unsurpassed way’.

Theravada Buddhism (the Buddhism of Sri Lanka), is less inclined to look favourably upon suicide, regarding it as a form of killing. Yet, there are always ways around these doctrinal points. No doubt Indaratana Thera would have argued that his death was an action motivated with a pure intention to save Buddhism. A good thought, according to many in Sri Lanka, is enough to not only prevent the accumulation of bad karma, but is enough to have one reborn well.

Indaratana Thera’s extreme actions are just part of a wider political movement in Sri Lanka, an initiative that is grounded in issues about ethnic marginalisation and Sinhala nationalism. His self-immolation has helped excite the cow protectionism movement to new heights of fanaticism. Copycat suicides have already been attempted by other monks; cow protection supporters are rallying for new attacks on non-Buddhist activities. It would seem that the boiling point is yet to be reached.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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James Stewart is a Research Associate at the University of Tasmania. He recently completed his PhD in Buddhist Studies and Philosophy. His main area of research is Sinhala Buddhism, especially animal ethics in Sri Lanka and the effect it has on food and dietary practices. He has previously lived in Sri Lanka and makes frequent visits there to conduct fieldwork. His website is http://srilankaobserver.org/.

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