Buddhists, Politics and International Law


  • Benjamin Schonthal University of Otago




International law, Buddhism, law, United Nations, human rights


To date, international law has not featured prominently in academic analyses of Buddhism. Especially absent from this small body of literature are real-life examples of Buddhist monks and laity turning to international law to resolve grievances or protect Buddhism against perceived threats to it. This article seeks to fill this void. Drawing on interview and archival sources from Sri Lanka and the United Nations, it analyzes how one particular monk from Colombo became a key agent in the interpretation and transformation of international law. By so doing, this article complements existing scholarship concerning Buddhism’s philosophical or conceptual sympathies with international legal principles and provides further empirical ballast for understanding how, when and why Buddhists turn to international law.

Author Biography

Benjamin Schonthal, University of Otago

Benjamin Schonthal is Professor of Buddhist Studies and co-director of the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Otago, in New Zealand. Ben’s work examines the interactions of religion, law and politics in Southern Asia. He is the author of Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of the Law (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and a variety of articles and chapters on topics such as Buddhist law, comparative constitutional law and the state regulation of religion.


Ashin, Janaka and Kate Crosby. 2017. "Heresy and monastic malpractice in the Buddhist court cases (Vinicchaya) of modern Burma (Myanmar)." Contemporary Buddhism 18 (1): 199-261. https://doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2017.1313524 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14639947.2017.1313524

Associated Press. 2004. "Thailand blasts Victoria's Secret for new Buddha swimsuit." ReligionNewsBlog, April 21, 2004. www.religionnewsblog.com/6886/thailand- blasts-victorias-secret-for-new-buddha-swimsuit (date accessed Jun 3, 2020).

Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Chandrika. 2004. "Sri Lankan President's Speech at the UN General Assembly's 59th Session." http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/shrilanka/document/papers/PMUN_Sep04.htm (date accessed July 8, 2009).

BBC News. 2014. "Sri Lanka to Deport Buddha Tattoo British Woman." BBC News, April 22, 2014. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27107857 (date accessed Mar 12, 2020).

Comaroff, J. L. 2009. "Reflections on the rise of legal theology: Law and religion in the twenty-first century." Social Analysis 53: 193-216. https://doi.org/10.3167/sa.2009.530112 DOI: https://doi.org/10.3167/sa.2009.530112

Daily News. 2004. "UNESCO Support Sought to Stop the Misuse of Buddha Images," September 16, 2004. http://www.dailynews.lk/2004/09/16/new19.html (date accessed Jan 31, 2012).

Ford, Eugene. 2017. Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America's Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. https://doi.org/10.12987/yale/9780300218565.001.0001 DOI: https://doi.org/10.12987/yale/9780300218565.001.0001

French, Rebecca Redwood, and Mark A. Nathan, eds. 2014. Buddhism and Law: An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Frydenlund, Iselin. 2017. "Religious liberty for whom? The Buddhist politics of religious freedom during Myanmar's transition to democracy." Nordic Journal of Human Rights 35 (1): 55-73. https://doi.org/10.1080/18918131.2017.1288950. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/18918131.2017.1288950

---. 2019. "The Rise of Religious Offence in Transitional Myanmar." In Outrage: The Rise of Religious Offence in Contemporary South Asia, edited by Paul Rollier, Kathinka Froystad and Arild Engelsen Ruud, 77-102. London: UCL Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvh.1dx8q.10 DOI: https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvh1dx8q.10

Fuller, Paul. 2016. "The idea of 'Blasphemy' in the Pali Canon and modern Myanmar:" Journal of Religion and Violence 4(2): 159-181. https://doi.org/10.5840/jrv201691527 DOI: https://doi.org/10.5840/jrv201691527

General Assembly of the United Nations. 1966. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Resolution 2200A(XXI)).

Government of Sri Lanka. 1978. Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (Amended 2015). Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

---. 2006. Penal Code Ordinance of Sri Lanka (No. 2 of 1883, as Amended No. 22 of 1993 and No. 16 of 2006).

Hackett, R. I. J. 2008. Proselytization Revisited: Rights Talk, Free Markets and Culture Wars. London: Equinox.

Hancock, Virginia. 2008. "No-self at trial: How to reconcile punishing the Khmer Rouge for crimes against humanity with Cambodian Buddhist principles." Wisconsin International Law Journal 26: 87-130.

Harris, Ian. 2005. "'Onslaught on Beings': A Theravada Buddhist Perspective On Accountability For Crimes Committed In The Democratic Kampuchea Period." In Bringing the Khmer Rouge to Justice: Prosecuting Mass Violence before the Cambodian Courts, edited by Jaya Ramji and Beth van Schaack, 59-95. Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press.

Haviland, Charles. 2012. "French Tourists Guilty in Sri Lanka over Buddha Photos." BBC News, August 21, 2012. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-19325357 (date accessed Aug 23, 2012).

Hurd, Ian. 2017. How to Do Things with International Law. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jayatilleke, K. N. 2010. "The Principles of International Law in Buddhist Doctrine." In Facets of Buddhist Through: Collected Essays of K.N. Jayatilleke, edited by K.N. Jayatilleke, 371-482. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.

Jenkins, Stephen. 2016. "Debate, magic, and massacre: The high stakes and ethical dynamics of battling slanderers of the Dharma in Indian narrative and ethical theory." Journal of Religion and Violence 4(2): 129-157. https://doi.org/10.5840/jrv201691326 DOI: https://doi.org/10.5840/jrv201691326

Jerryson, Michael. 2018. If You Meet the Buddha on the Road: Buddhism, Politics, and Violence. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190683566.001.0001 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190683566.001.0001

Jerryson, Michael, and Mark Juergensmeyer, eds. 2010. Buddhist Warfare. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195394832.001.0001 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195394832.001.0001

Junger, Peter. 1998. "Why the Buddha has no rights." In Buddhism and Human Rights, edited by Damien Keown, Charles Prebish and Wayne Rollen Husted, 53-96. Richmond, Surrey: Routledge.

Keown, Damien. 1995. "Are there 'human rights' in Buddhism?" Journal of Buddhist Ethics 2: 3-27.

Langer, Lorenz. 2014. Religious Offence and Human Rights: The Implications of Defamation of Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139600460 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139600460

Lanka Business Online. 2004. "Limited brands apologises for floral bikini's carrying the Buddha's image," July 28, 2004. https://www.lankabusinessonline.com/fullstory.php?nid=2068639767 (date accessed Jun 6, 2019).

Larsson, Tomas. 2018. "Buddhist bureaucracy and religious freedom in Thailand." Journal of Law and Religion 33(2): 197-211. https://doi.org/10.1017/jlr.2018.27 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/jlr.2018.27

Lev, Lauren. 2007. "'Secularism IS a human right!': Double-Binds of Buddhism, democracy, and identity in Nepal." In The Practice of Human Rights: Tracking Law between the Global and the Local, edited by Mark Goodale and Sally Engle Merry, 78-113. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511819193.004 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511819193.004

Meinert, Carmen and Hans-Bernd Zollner, eds. 2010. Buddhist Approaches to Human Rights: Dissonances and Resonances. New York: Columbia University Press. https://doi.org/10.14361/9783839412633 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/9783839412633

Merry, Sally Engle. 2003. "Rights talk and the experience of law: Implementing women's human rights to protection from violence." Human Rights Quarterly 25: 343-381. https://doi.org/10.1353/hrq.2003.0020 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1353/hrq.2003.0020

Michaels, Sean. 2010. "Akon banned from Sri Lanka for Buddha statue video." The Guardian, March 25, 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/mar/25/akon-sri-lanka-buddha-statue (accessed Apr 6, 2012).

Moore, Matthew J. 2017. "Buddhism and international law." In Comparative Political Theory in Time and Place, edited by Daniel J. Kapust and Helen M. Kinsella, 51-77. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-52815-5_3 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-52815-5_3

Ramanayake, Wasantha. 2007. "Prelate in Buddha Image Abuse Case Expands Scope of Petition." Daily News, January 25, 2007.

Sam Aung Moon, and Yimou Lee. 2018. "Myanmar Hardline Monks Vow to Stay on Facebook despite Ban." Reuters, June 9, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-facebook/myanmar-hardline-monks-vow-to-stay-on-facebook-despite-ban-idUSKC-N1J41HP (accessed Jun 9, 2018).

Schonthal, Benjamin. 2016a. Buddhism, Politics and Limits of Law: The Pyrrhic Constitutionalism of Sri Lanka. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316585429 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316585429

---. 2016b. "Securing the Sasana through law: Buddhist constitutionalism and Buddhist-interest litigation in Sri Lanka." Modern Asian Studies, 1966-2008. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X15000426 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X15000426

---. 2016c. "Making the Muslim other in Myanmar and Sri Lanka: Islam and the state in Myanmar." In Islam and the State in Myanmar: Muslim-Buddhist Relations and the Politics of Belonging, edited by Melissa Crouch. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199461202.003.0010 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199461202.003.0010

---. 2017. "Formations of Buddhist constitutionalism in south and southeast Asia." International Journal of Constitutional Law 15(3): 705-733. https://doi.org/10.1093/icon/mox049 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/icon/mox049

---. 2018. "Economies of expert religion in Sri Lanka." Journal of Religious and Political Practice 4(1): 27-45. https://doi.org/10.1080/20566093.2017.1396090 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/20566093.2017.1396090

Schonthal, Benjamin and Tom Ginsburg. 2016. "Setting an agenda for the socio-legal study of contemporary Buddhism." Asian Journal of Law and Society 3(1): 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1017/als.2016.3 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/als.2016.3

Shields, James Mark. 2010. "Sexuality, blasphemy, and iconoclasm in the media age: The strange case of the Buddha bikini." In God in the Details, edited by Eric Mazur and Kate McCarthy, 80-101. New York: Routledge.

Singh, Anurangi. 2019. "Shakthika to be indicted?" Sunday Observer, July 21, 2019. https://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/07/21/news/shakthika-be-indicted.

Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. 2004. Petition of the Petitioner in SC (FR) 237/04 Ven. Daranagama Kusaladhamma Thero v. De Silva and Others.

---. 2005. Written Submission of the Petitioner in SC (FR) 237/04 Ven. Daranagama Kusaladhamma Thero v. De Silva and Others.

Thajudeen, T. Farook. 2010. "Jailed for Blasphemy." Daily Mirror, August 17, 2010. http://www.dailymirror.lk/5886/sentenced-for-blasphemy (accessed Jan 1, 2020).

UNESCO. 2004. "The Misuse of Religious Symbols and Expressions (Agenda Item 170 EX/36, UNESCO)." http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001362/136204e.pdf (accessed Feb 15, 2012).

---. 2005a. "UNESCO Executive Board, Summary Records 170EX/SR.1-10 (Paris)." http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001381/138140m.pdf (accessed Jan 31, 2012).

---. 2005b. "UNESCO General Conference, Document 33 C/16, Agenda Item 5.5 'The Misuse of Religious Expressions and Symbols.'" http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0014/001403/140305e.pdf (accessed Jan 31, 2012).

United Nations Human Rights Committee. 2005. "Views of the Human Rights Committee under Article 5, Paragraph 4 of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on Communication No. 1249/2004: Sri Lanka CCPR/C/85/D/1249/2004."

Walton, Mattew J. and Aung Tun. 2017-2018. "Monks and the ambiguities of law in Myanmar. Buddhism, Law & Society 3: 1-38.

Weeramantry, C. G. 2007. "Buddhism and humanitarian law." In Handbook of International Law in South Asia, edited by V.S. Mani, 3-13. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Weerarathne, Chitra. 2004. "Foreign minister had got items with Buddha mark removed." The Island, August 26, 2004. http://www.island.lk/2004/08/26/news06.html (accessed Aug 12, 2007).

---. 2006. "Monk complains Buddha statues erected in sordid surroundings." The Island, May 30, 2006.



How to Cite

Schonthal, B. (2021). Buddhists, Politics and International Law. Buddhist Studies Review, 38(1), 31–43. https://doi.org/10.1558/bsrv.43214