By Kshama Ranawana -
Facebook is full of posts from Sri Lankans thanking the eight countries that voted against the United States sponsored UNHRC resolution that censured Sri Lanka on Human Rights violations. Considering the wave of anti-Muslim hatred being unleashed by the so-called patriotic forces in Sri Lanka, it’s ironic that several of those that supported the country in the final vote are Muslim countries.
Those who believe that Sri Lanka has been wronged need to look beyond the Sri Lanka can do no wrong ideology. The UNHRC resolution is pretty lenient, asking only for a “credible form of domestic accountability.” Sri Lankans should be grateful for this watered down resolution- which indicates that the so-called “foreign interventionists” are even now willing to give the country more chances. However, if the current trend to openly suppress religious minorities continues, Sri Lanka will certainly be facing stricter censure.
Instead of posting “thank you’s” on Facebook, those who are pained by the UNHRC resolution should be banding together to stem the vile behavior of the Bodu Bala Sena and their supporters. That would definitely save Sri Lanka from digging itself into a deeper pit than it is in already.
The Sinhala community has valid concerns. They fear the spread of Muslim exclusive schools and the introduction of Sharia Courts in Sri Lanka. They also worry about Buddhists converting to Christianity. However, whipping up the public into a frenzy and taking the law into their hands will not resolve the issue.
It has taken the attack on the “ Fashion Bug” group of companies for the Rajapaksa regime to wake up from its slumber and condemn those who fan communal and religious hatred. Secretary to the Ministry of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and the government information department have issued statements warning of legal action against those who carry out such attacks or spread anti-religious or communal sentiments. What prevented the government from arresting those who have been spreading such venom these past months?
Those leading the attacks on religious minorities are a fringe group; one that appears to have Ministry of Defense Rajapaksa’s blessings. After all, he attended the opening of the groups’ training centre. Despite the controversial nature of the BBS, the fact that the powerful Rajapaksa, who has the huge security forces apparatus at his disposal, officiated at a key ceremony gave the impression that with a nod and a wink, he approves of their extremist philosophy.
And who is to blame for the trouble? The Rajapaksa’s once again flog a dead horse, the one that has been used ad nauseam since this regime took power; “local and foreign elements against the country are attempting to destabilize the peace and reconciliation……” Why not arrest the leaders of those groups who have been regularly spewing hatred on stage and on the airwaves? Are they not disturbing the peace of the country with all the speeches they have been making against Muslims and Christians? By the Defense Secretary’s own admission, it is these very same people who are working against the country! How ludicrous then to ask that people report to him personally about those who are fanning anti-communal and religious ideology? If one were to accept the argument of the State, then it is these extremists who must be hand in glove with the “foreign” hand. Where is the “unpatriotic” label that the government and its supporters use to tarnish anyone they perceive as not abiding by their version of politics?
Four individuals, the alleged culprits who vandalized “Fashion Bug” are reported to have been arrested, even as I write. Are they the real culprits or are they scapegoats? Will we see the appointment of yet another Presidential commission, the report of which, like so many others before, may never see the light of day?
It is reported that the attack on “Fashion Bug” took place following a meeting at a nearby temple. During this meeting, allegations were made that a Muslim employee of that establishment had raped a Sinhala Buddhist girl. Should we be adopting mob mentality in resolving the issue? Stoning and attacking the employees of Fashion Bug is similar to the behavior of those in some Muslim majority countries where the slightest provocation would result in the physical and psychological abuse of those who are not of the Islamic faith, behavior that has, in some cases, resulted in death.
Reading the speeches and articles of those defending the rights of Buddhists, it is clear that they want a mirror image of Muslim majority countries in Sri Lanka, where those of other faiths, are declared infidels and have little or no rights.
During the four years my family and I spent in Pakistan, I was often accosted in public and admonished for not covering my head. We dared not eat anything in public during the month of Ramazaan for fear of censure.
Attempts to build an Anglican church and Buddhist temple were thwarted many times, by religious political parties similar to the Bodu Bala Sena, until the enlightened government of the day intervened and granted land within the diplomatic enclave to build the temple.
Is that what we want for Sri Lanka; a country where minorities must live in fear?
Buddhists are now discouraged from working for Muslim owned businesses; in doing so, Buddhists are paving the way for Muslims to hire only Muslims.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs recently stated that legislation would soon be introduced to ensure that only original teachings of the four main religions- Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity would be practiced in Sri Lanka. Now, that would be an interesting exercise. How or where do we start? Buddhist ritual, as practiced in Sri Lanka is so deeply entrenched in Hinduism. On Buddhist holidays, greeting cards are sent out to friends and relatives in a manner copied from the Christian custom. Similarly, other religions in Sri Lanka have co-opted customs from each other and from Buddhism as part of the healthy contamination that occurs when different cultures live together. Adam’s Peak/Samanalakanda, for instance, is a perfect example; it is a shared symbol of faith and pilgrimage between different religious origin stories. What will we declare as authentically ‘Buddhist’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Hindu’, or ‘Christian’? More importantly, who will decide authenticity? Religion has been heavily influenced by cultural practices, and to declare one branch of it pure would be to deny the right of another.
In Pakistan, the Ahamadiya’s have been declared non-Muslim; the Sunni’s and the Shia’s are at eternal loggerheads. When the Shia’s observe Muharram the government deploys the police to protect them from the Sunni’s. We witnessed many processions of the Sunni’s chanting “Kafir, kafir, Shia Kafir” (Shia are infidel). The world witnessed not so long ago the carnage that resulted from the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Africa.
A Sinhala only Act drove away a large part of the Burgher community and was one of the main issues that caused tension amongst the Tamils. Leaders of the Sinhala and Tamil communities acted selfishly, playing to their constituencies instead of forging a united country. The result was a conflict that has left wounds and pain that will last for many years to come. The current situation should also serve as an eye-opener to Sinhala Christians who opted to hide behind their Sinhala identity in the Sinhala –Tamil ethnic conflict. Sri Lanka’s Muslim’s too used that conflict to their gain never realizing that they would be the next target. None of the communities in Sri Lanka have attempted to genuinely forge a Sri Lankan identity; we grew up with and still hear the “anti” rhetoric, whether it be Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher.
It is crucial that Sri Lankans understand that the country is a in a post-war situation and that the root causes for the ethnic conflict remain unresolved. The triumphalism of the government has helped to bring to the surface the majoritarian ideology that has been simmering amongst the professional and educated class for many years.
On a holiday to Sri Lanka in 1996, we were dismayed by a dinner table conversation that took place at a friend’s home, where guests were unanimous that Muslims should not be allowed to further expand their businesses in the country.
Radical speeches of those such as the Bodu Bala Sena have resulted in many Christians and Muslims being harassed, their places of worship attacked and now Muslim business establishments too are not spared.
The monks leading the charge in Sri Lanka are the same purveyors of outrage that you will see in the shrill sloganeering of Muslim extremists in Pakistan, the Shiv Sena in India and the Koran-burning Christians in the United States. While such ideologists will always be around, it is the responsibility of governments and the saner elements of society to hold them in check.
If not, then this is the beginning of a slippery slope once more. In Pakistan there are no more Hindus and Sikhs in significant numbers for the extremists to slaughter. So the majority Sunnis go after the minority Muslim Sects and the poor Christians.
So in the BBS driven Sri Lanka where will society head? Once the Muslims are cowed – as the Tamils are now, the few anti-Christian skirmishes may well blow into major incidents –Then after that, what? The Sinhalese who believe that Sri Lanka belongs only to them can start annihilating each other; they can begin with the Kandyan versus the other Sinhalese and, when that is done, kill each other over the supremacy of their castes.
When the Ministry of Religious Affairs has figured out which form of Buddhism is the “perfect” form, they can begin slaughtering everybody who does not adhere to that prescribed format.
What a future we prepare for ourselves when we refuse to learn from history.