India-China 'battle for Buddha' reaches Myanmar

The India-China “battle for Buddha” has now reached Myanmar, with New Delhi sponsoring an International Conference on Buddhist Cultural Heritage in Yangon over the weekend, while Beijing has since last year been trying to leverage the legacy of “Shakya Muni” to connect with the religious majority in its south-western neighbour.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid will join Myanmar’s Vice-President U Sai Mauk to inaugurate the international conference at Sitagu International Buddhist Academy in Yangon on Saturday. The three-day conclave is expected to bring together Buddhist scholars, not only from India and Myanmar, but also from other countries in the region, like Cambodia, Lao PDR, South Korea, Vietnam and Malaysia. The Indian government is co-sponsoring the event along with the ministry of religious affairs of Myanmar.

A spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs on Thursday stated that Khurshid would also attend a ceremony to mark the unveiling of a 15-foot-statue of Gautama Buddha in Shwedagon Pagoda, the most revered Buddhist shrine in Myanmar. India had gifted the statue to Myanmar during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the neighbouring country last May.

India’s move to bring Buddha at the centre of its cultural engagement with Myanmar is intended to reach out to the country’s 89 per cent people, who practice Theravada Buddhism. And it came apparently in response to communist China’s move to invoke Buddha to widen its influence in Myanmar.

China in November 2011 sent the Buddha’s tooth relic preserved and worshipped at Lingguang Si Temple in Beijing to Nay Pyi Taw, Yangon and other cities of Myanmar. A large number of people offered obeisance to the sacred relic for more than 40 days and China’s state-controlled media widely reported ceremonial processions and rituals held across Myanmar for several weeks. Beijing followed it up with an agreement between Lingguang Si Temple and the Shwedagon Pagoda of Yangon for religious ties.

K Yhome of Observer Research Foundation, a think-tank in New Delhi, said that India’s move to leverage its own Buddhist heritage to expand its soft-power in Myanmar would help it strengthen the people-to-people bond between the two countries in the long run.
“Soft-power is hard to leverage because it attempts to connect with people and society at large. Soft-power diplomacy is based on long-term perspective and while the current efforts towards that direction need to be deepened, expecting short-term influence, whether political and cultural, in a country or immediate geo-political advantages from the initiatives may not serve the purpose,” said Yhome.

Myanmar is one of the countries in the region where India and China vie for greater strategic influence. New Delhi has since long been concerned over China’s foray into Myanmar, particularly in infrastructure projects in road, railway, port, aviation, power and hydrocarbon sectors.

India last year responded to China’s move to finance a $ 3.0 billion project to develop Buddha’s birthplace at Lumbini in Nepal by supporting a Delhi-based Ashoka Mission to hold a Global Buddhist Congregation. The meet saw top monks and nuns from around the world re-endorsing Dalai Lama as the global leader of the Buddhists. The Tibetan leader, who lives in exile in India, is set to be one of the patrons of the International Buddhist Confederation, which was born out of the November 2011 conclave.

India in August this year took the “Kapilavastu Relics” preserved in the National Museum in the country’s capital to neighbouring Sri Lanka – another country where Beijing’s growing strategic influence is a cause of concern for New Delhi. A large number of Buddhists of Sri Lanka offered prayers before the sacred relics, as an exposition travelled across the island nation for weeks.

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