Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia

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Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia
By Eugene Ford
Yale University Press, 2017
392 pp.
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Throughout the Cold War, the CIA, working through the Asia Foundation, tried to use Buddhism in Burma (now also called Myanmar), Cambodia, Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam as a bulwark against communism. With access to Asia Foundation archives and deep research into Thai archival sources, Ford tells the intricate story of this unsuccessful effort. Washington competed with China for influence in the World Fellowship of Buddhists, but the organization never had much impact. In Vietnam, Buddhists turned against the U.S.-backed, Catholic-led Diem government and its successors. In Thailand, the foundation tried to draw the monkhood out of its traditional political quietism and into community development projects. But what arose instead was a violently antiprogressive Buddhist movement that encouraged the assassination of leftists as a way to earn religious merit. Politicizing the monks contributed to the polarization that bedevils Thai politics today.