Modi’s Buddhist Diplomacy Fails to Dispel Sri Lankan Suspicions

Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne

This article is the 15th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

BANGKOK (IDN) – The May 11-12 visit to Sri Lanka by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend the UN Day of Vesak festival as a special guest was designed to woo Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority, but reactions in the Sri Lankan media indicates that it has not succeeded in dispelling their suspicions about “Indian colonialism” of their small neighbour. Continue reading “Modi’s Buddhist Diplomacy Fails to Dispel Sri Lankan Suspicions”


Asian-Fuelled Heritage Tourism Could Be An SDG Enabler

By Kalinga Seneviratne

BANGKOK (IDN) – The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit, held for the first time in Southeast Asia, pivoted on how Asia-fuelled tourism would impact the industry worldwide. The discussions also centred around whether tourism could be an enabler of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) if it were heritage-focused offering community experiences – rather than “exotic” sites – so that significant leakages of tourism revenue could be tapped. Continue reading “Asian-Fuelled Heritage Tourism Could Be An SDG Enabler”

Famous Buddhist Temple Massages Its Way Into Modern Healthcare Industry

Reclining BuddhaBy Kalinga Seneviratne

Bangkok, 8 June 2016: Wat Po temple in Bangkok is better known for the huge reclining Buddha statue, which attracts millions of tourists each year. Some also quietly walk into the air-conditioned massage clinic inside the monastery premises to try out an “authentic” Thai massage wondering what has the temple and Buddhism got to do with massage? Continue reading “Famous Buddhist Temple Massages Its Way Into Modern Healthcare Industry”

RELIGION-INDONESIA: Fatwas by Clerics Spur Debate on Islam

Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne

MosqueJAKARTA, 24 Aug 2005 (IPS) – Ever since Indonesia’s highest Islamic authority, the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) issued eleven ‘fatwas’ or edicts against liberal Islam, a fierce debate has begun raging in the world’s most populous Muslim nation on what constitutes an Islamic society.

Though Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim nation, in these once Hindu and Buddhist societies the practice of Islam is coloured by the liberalism of the older faiths. Many urban middle class Indonesians call their liberal interpretation of Islam ‘secular’.

But, MUI’s fatwas have thrown a direct challenge to both the government and to liberal Muslims in this country of 200 million people of which 88 percent follow the Islamic faith while eight percent is Christian and three percent, Hindu or Buddhist.

The eleven edicts, issued late July includes one which states that Islamic interpretations based on liberalism, secularism and pluralism ”contradict Islamic teachings”.

Also banned are inter-faith prayers performed with people of other religions and the intonation of ‘amen’ to prayers that are led by a non- Muslim which is deemed to be ‘haram’ (forbidden under Islamic law) as also are interfaith marriages.

Analysts say that MUI’s stance is a reaction to the aggressive proselytising by foreign-funded Christian evangelical sects in the country in recent years and the onslaught of globalised western culture coming in through media channels and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

”Challenges for the Muslims do not come from Christian evangelism only, but also others, such as the proliferation of pornography, gambling, the spread of religious liberalism, pluralism and secularism,” argues Mustofa Kamil Ridwan a researcher at the Islamic think-tank, the Habibie Center in Jakarta.

In an IPS interview Ridwan said suspicions were being created by the activities of some western-funded NGOs that were ”using Islam as their basis but with questionable implementation that is contradictory to the true teachings of Islam –and sometimes too radical.”

One such NGO is the Jaringan Islam Liberal (Liberal Islamic Network) an organisation that is located within Institut Studi Arus Informasi (Center for Studies on Information Flows) and plays an important role in spreading ideas on democratic reformation in Indonesia.

Like other NGOs, funded by Western donors, this one too is in the forefront of campaigns against attempts by the government to enact laws to restrict the spread of pornography, gambling and night clubs.

”Most progressive Muslim thinkers would not be very happy to be portrayed as liberals,” Ade Armando, a member of the Association of Indonesian Moslem Scholars, opined.

”I think the term reformist will be more appropriate to refer to progressive groups that try to reinterpret the Islamic teaching in a more contextual approach, that unfortunately challenges the traditional Islamic teachings by the ulamas (clerics),” Armando said.

Ridwan explained that from the ”conservative point of view liberalism is really a challenge” because of the fear that ”liberalism will make their children and the Muslim community leave Islamic values they uphold highly”.

MUI has asked non-Muslims not to be upset with the July edicts as they are only aimed at Muslims, and are not the law of the land.

But MUI is gearing up to promote its edicts in regions, where people are more religious, conservative and impoverished. It is these poor communities that have become the target of Christian evangelical groups for proselytising and some ulemas have reacted by including the MUI edicts in their sermons.

Armando argues that it is wrong to portray those who support the ulemas as radicals who believe in using violence to achieve their aims. ”They believe it is their sacred duty to create a new Indonesia as a respectable Islamic country,” he explained.

”Many (MUI) groups are working in the institution-building level. They introduce alternative models of schools – modern Islamic schools which differs from the madrasas – new Islamic banking system, special novels for Islamic youth, and they also publish magazines, new media û such as CD, CD-ROM, VCD – that teaches Islamic values,” Armando said.

Yet, Hasyim Muzadi, the chairman of Nahdhatul Ulama (NU), which has around 40 million members and is considered the world’s largest Muslim organisation, has warned the MUI that its edicts may have a detrimental impact of the development of a civil society in Indonesia.

Muzadi has asked the ulemas to define precisely what they mean by interfaith relations and nationhood, as ”we live in a diverse society and this country is not an Islamic state”.

Muslim scholar Ahmad Syafii Maarif, a former chairman of Indonesia’s second biggest Muslim organization Muhammadiyah also warned that the edicts may encourage radical groups to take the law into their own hands.

”Although fatwas are not binding, radical groups who have a thirst for power will make use of them for their own interests. It is as if they have been given religious justification,” he was quoted by the Jakarta Post as saying.

But, Ridwan argues that the ”edict functions as a provision for the Ummah (Muslim community) to decide what they would do” and the Ummah itself has the ”the last say for themselves”.

Thus, the MUI’s fatwas play very important role in the Ummah’s decision making process. ”With the fatwa the Ummah feel they have strong hands and are more certain of overcoming the challenges in the midst of very uncertain situation and full of upheaval,” he told IPS.

Armando blamed the regimes of Presidents Abdurrahman Wahid (a liberal Islamic thinker) and Megawati Sukarnoputri (a female) for allowing reformists within the Muslim community in Indonesia to gain in popularity.

”Very progressive books were being published in these past several years and progressive radio talkshows were launched. And in these movements, the forbidden organisations (during the Suharto era) dared to also openly surface,” he noted.

”These developments, I believe, provoked reactions from the conservative groups. And now, they see SBY (President Yudoyuano) as a new president that they can perceive of as an ally or godfather,” said Armando.

”They (conservatives) also see these movements as being provoked by the activities of (Christian) evangelists,” he said.


By Kalinga Seneviratne* | IDN-InDepthNews Analysis 18 May 2015

XianWhen Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived on May 14 in the historic city of Xian, at the start of his three-day visit to China, he was almost immediately taken by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Wild Goose Pagoda that symbolise the two countries’ umbilical cultural ties, thus setting the tone for the important visit. Xian is where the ancient Silk Route began.
This Buddhist temple which is today a major tourist attraction in China, and where the Chinese Buddhist scholar monk Xuanzang spent many years of his later life translating some 35 volumes of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese that he collected during 16 years he spent at Nalanda University in India in the 7th century. It is these volumes that helped to spread Buddhism across much of East Asia and later helped Indian scholars to find out about Nalanda University after Muslim Turkic invaders burned Nalanda into ashes in the 12th century.
Thus these two-way civilizational exchanges are significant milestones as Asia’s two leading civilizations led by two visionary leaders embark on building a new economic and cultural relationship that could transform the world.
China’s Xinhua news agency that usually reflects its government’s thinking said in a commentary on the eve of Modi’s arrival in China that this is the chance for the two Asian neighbours to consolidate trust. “The world’s two leading developing countries should become global partners for strategic coordination and jointly strive for a just and equitable international order,” it said.
Nirupama Rao, a former Indian ambassador to both China and the United States and its Foreign Secretary from 2009-2011 seem to agree with that viewpoint. Writing in The Hindu she noted that the India-China relationship in recent years has been marked by low levels of mutual trust and lack of knowledge of each other among people of both countries. “The two countries that gave the world Panchsheel (five precepts), cannot live in mutual exclusion,” argues Rao. “Indians and Chinese cannot be brothers, but they can be partners.”
Jabin T. Jacob, Assistant Director and Fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi believes because of Modi’s considerable experience in dealing with China (as chief minister of Gujarat he made four TRIPS TO CHINA) and despite different worldviews, the way he has gone about understanding China provides an unique opportunity for the two Asian powers to forge a global partnership.
“Modi appears to have a rather audacious politico-cultural agenda in his foreign policy,” noted Jacob. “(He) will continue India’s challenge to Chinese attempts to hijack the global Buddhist agenda.”
“The Indian Prime Minister has frequently and confidently highlighted India-China Buddhist links. Given China’s current political realities, references to Buddhism in the India-China context are likely to be the favoured method for Mr Modi to highlight its Indian origins,” he argues.
India has been slow to respond to China’s Silk Route initiatives, especially the ‘one belt, one road’ concept promoted by Xi Jingping. If China’s economic focus could be supplemented by India’s cultural dimensions, this project could redefine Asia’s identity and its economic potential in the 21st century. Both sides seem to be warming to the idea.
During President  Xi Jingping’s visit to India in September 2014 the two governments signed agreements to set up joint industrial parks, and now this is going to be extended to setting up cultural hubs in each other’s countries. To begin with India and China are to set up two sister cultural parks in Beijing and Bengaluru (Bangalore). Buddhist studies, Yoga and Ayurveda are going to be in the curriculum at the park at Beijing Normal University.
Buddhist Renaissance
A Buddhist renaissance is taking place in China, argues Dana Schuppert who has lived there for 23 years. Founder of the 21st Century China-India Centre for Culture and Communication, she is the driving force behind the cultural parks initiative, fully backed by the Chinese government.
“The cultural renaissance that we are experiencing under President Xi is a great Buddhist renaissance. Buddhism is number one together with Confucianism and Taoism. These are three schools of thought that shape the Chinese mind-set. The distance this country has travelled from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution is unbelievable,” Schuppert noted in an interview with The Hindu.
She said that Modi’s visit is perfectly timed as the Chinese leadership has taken a “strategic decision” to transform its relationship with India, and External Affairs Ministry is adopting Buddhism as part of its foreign policy toolkit. She has no doubt that the Chinese government will be able to achieve a “seamless synthesis” of Marxism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.
During an address at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing on May 15, Modi announced the granting of e-visas to Chinese tourists, adding that the Chinese and Indians needed to know more about each other.
While cultural links would help to bridge the mistrust between the two nations, especially at people-to-people level, economic links are what would make the relationship stronger. The Modi visit is expected to kick-start India’s lukewarm response to the China-Myanmar-Bangladesh-India economic corridor initiative of China, especially with India seeking Chinese help to modernise India’s rail network.
Thus, during the Modi visit the two sides signed a record 24 agreements that will cover development of railways, mining, outer space, earthquakes sciences and tourism.  India and China also vowed to work out a political solution to their border issues at the earliest, especially with regards to India’s Arunachal Pradesh state border with China.
“A partnership for development between India and China is a win-win partnership and neither side can lose in such a transaction,” argues Rao. “India, which has distances to cover in its development marathon, aims well to draw in INVESTMENTS and infrastructure-creating expertise from China. This is pragmatic and we must drop apprehensions of Chinese companies as Bond villains … unleashing viruses on people.”
India is a founding member of the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure INVESTMENT Bank (AIIB) and the BRICS Bank – both to be headquartered in Shanghai. On the eve of Modi’s visit to China, India nominated renowned banking expert K.V Kamath as its first President. Later in the year, India is expected to join another Chinese regional development initiative, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation that would also include Russia and other Eurasian nations.
All these initiatives are expected to have a profound impact on the global development and economic agenda and India-China cooperation would be crucial to achieving its aims to cement Asia’s emergence at the centre of a new global order.
“We have complemented each other in the past,” said Modi in an address in Shanghai to 22 Chinese CEOs where he talked about over 2000 years of knowledge and cultural flows between the two great civilizations. “As two major economies in Asia, the harmonious partnership between India and China is essential for economic development and political stability of the continent,” he added.