By Lukman Harees -
When the War ended in 2009, the people of Sri Lanka irrespective of racial and religious differences heaved a sigh of relief. The reason was obvious. All communities suffered in various degrees when the Tigers wreaked havoc, including their own kind- the Tamils, as the Tigers only tolerated one way traffic. When the Tiger problem was in full swing, Tamils and Muslims equally felt, along with the Sinhalese, a high sense of insecurity over 30 long years, with the country being compartmentalized into Tiger controlled and government controlled areas. Muslims were driven out from their lands in the North and became IDPs, while hundreds of worshippers were shot in cold blood inside their places of worship in the East. Scores of Buddhist monks were killed and Sri Maha Bodhi too was attacked. Suicide bombers caused disaster after disaster . All communities lost many of their illustrious political leaders too to the Tiger bullet and bombs. People of all races longed for a day where the bombs and suicide bombers will be things of the past. In May 2009, thankfully, they all woke up to a peaceful Sri Lanka brimming with hope and excitement. President MR then emphasized that there will be no further talk of majority and minority communities in the future; there will only be those who love their country and who do not. A common ‘Sri Lankan identity’ was then seen to be in the making and flowers of peace and harmony were showing signs of blooming! At least, so they seemed!
Almost four years after the end of the War, the dream of peace and unity , has still seems unattainable while we, as a nation feel being badly let down. Sri Lanka, the land like no other ,appear to have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. We are sadly letting a historical opportunity to slip through our fingers. On top of many ills already besetting this nation,-over bloated political establishment , crises haunting the Judiciary in recent times, and an international UNHR ‘Sword of Damocles’ hanging over the country over the non- implementation of LLRC recommendations-, we are about to add another major one : an unwanted war – a religious war. Certain extremist elements sporting Sinhala Buddhist labels and name-boards , have come out of hibernation after the ‘ethnic’ Tiger war , to set fire to the cherished Sri Lankan dream- a peaceful united nation marching towards progress. These warped minds chose to fully open a Pandora’s box, thereby letting vicious racist, hatred laden extremist elements of various hues to pop out . Our country ,already reeling under crisis after crisis in the economic/political fronts have now got atop a social volcano as well. Thus, our nation is today facing a double whammy – being gored by the bull, after falling off the tree . Are we on a point of no return? Let’s hope not , for Mother Lanka deserves a good turn , after pitiful three decades of war and destruction.
Extremism in any form is detestable, whichever quarter it springs from whether race or religion. The teachings of all religions stresses on moderation and tolerance giving space to the ‘other’ to freely practice their faith, if only one studies them in earnest. The children of Mother Lanka belong to all religious traditions, which underlines ‘unity in diversity’. It is therefore no wonder that the extremist line adopted by these extremist elements have already earned the wrath of the people of Sri Lanka, including the Sinhala Buddhist population , as it is evidently opposed to the tenets of all religions. Sinhala race ,imbibed with the teachings of Lord Buddha who taught ‘hatred ceases not by hatred but by compassion’ has always been tolerant of other religions. These ‘rogue’ elements among the Maha Sangha, who are spearheading this hatred campaign in full throttle, should therefore disown their links to Buddhism, which preaches love and compassion. Lord Buddha did not expect his followers to be tolerant to the non- Buddhists only under certain conditions. Political Buddhism espoused by these groups are thus antithetical to Buddhist teachings, emphasizing politics over Buddhist values, and disregarding Sri Lanka’s poly-ethnic heritage and seeking to institutionalize a Buddhist ethos for the whole country.
Accepting the multi ethnic and multi lingual character of Sri Lanka,will be ‘sine quo non’ for national progress and development, in a vibrant democracy like ours. What all Sri Lankans of all faiths and races should therefore realize is that Sri Lanka is the land for all, irrespective of racial and religious differences. Besides, dignity is a birth-right of all human beings , and denying a human of what is due to him on grounds of race for example is the perhaps one of the worse insults to our own human identity. In the modern world which we live in, all human beings are therefore guaranteed basic rights, which includes the right to uphold one’s culture and the right of worship . Both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1978 SL Constitution , stresses this basic truth. Devious attempts by any group- be it Sinhalese, Tamil ,Muslim , Burgher as a race, or Buddhist, Hindu, Christian or Islamic as a religion , to be insensitive towards the religious susceptibilities of others and impose their way over others’ , should not be condoned at any cost. We saw the inherent dangers of extremism when the Tigers had their own way, decimating their opponents. We can also take lessons from Singapore regarding the need to nip these tendencies off the bud.
On the other hand , no race or community can be denied the right to stand up for their rights, as it is a basic tenet of a democratic system of governance. All parties, including race based political parties like the Sihala Urumaya , Muslim Congress and Tamil national Alliance have the right to lobby the government of the day, to fight injustice and oppression, in a peaceful manner. There are many mass movements as well , which protest and lobby for their rights peacefully and in non-violent ways After all, ‘jaw-jaw’ is much better than ‘war-war’. . Standing up for rights is clearly different to standing up for rights at others’ expense. No group should be allowed to rock the boat , raising narrow parochial racial and religious slogans, when our nation is trying to build our prosperity based on national concord and peaceful co-existence. The type of racist, hate-filled, conflict craving slogans , which we saw recently in the streets of Sri Lanka can only destroy that dream which every Sri Lankan of all nationalities are aspiring to, after suffering for more than 3 decades in an ‘ethnic’ war which got precipitated due to the short sighted policies of our political leadership in the past. Repetition of that type of history is the last thing our future generation will ask for. The government bears the responsibility to take timely, iron handed approach to prevent extremist groups taking the law into their own hands. A stitch in time saves nine.
What happened in 1983 should be a lesson for all of us. Of course the Sinhala People were unfairly tarred with the racist brush. It was only a minority group of goons and racist elements , mouthing ‘Jathi-aalaya slogans which instigated and did the damage not only in terms of material and human costs, but also in tarnishing our international reputation. It was a fact that although the government of the day was virtually seen to connive with these elements because of their indifference and failure to nip the riots in the bud, Sinhala people as a whole totally condemned this tragedy and even gave refuge to thousands who were affected. However, due to the actions of a few, the whole community had to bear the brunt of international outcry and shame. It is therefore foolhardy and extreme stupidity to allow another set of goons to wreak havoc on this nation and tarnish its’ international image , this time along religious lines. The country certainly wish to avoid ‘few drops of cow-dung polluting the glass of milk’ for the second time. The world will not forgive a repetition at any cost, in line with the adage: ‘getting pregnant for the second time through ignorance is not acceptable’ .
The vile attempts made by these elements to claim that only Sinhala Buddhists are the true ‘sons of the soil’ and the rights of other communities are only subservient to theirs, virtually makes others look alien in their own country,and disjointed from being equal partners of progress. This distorted view about the subservient position of other communities in the body public has been amplified by some prominent political and religious personages in recent times such as references to ‘the tree and the vines which can get entangled in it and grow’ made by Late Mr. D.B. Wijetunge and ‘ Crows may fly over our heads, but they cannot be allowed to make their nests on them’ quipped by Ven Inamaluwe Sumangala .This fanatical views are unrealistic and virtually rules out religious diversity and multi ethnicity.
In recent times, the people have been watching aghast, when radical groups like BBS and Sihala Raavaya have been virtually taking the law into their own hands, by launching hate filled campaigns against other non- Buddhist religious communities in organized form with threatening overtones against the non-Buddhist communities, specially the Muslims. Several hatred laden messages used in their campaigns were observed to be borrowed from the global ‘Islamaphobia’ media. Several other splinter groups have since emerged, outwitting the rest with greater degrees of hatred and animosity. They appear to portray the defeat of the Tigers in the hands of the SL army , as the victory of the Sinhala nation’ over the Tamils , and the campaign against the Muslims , in their view, is the next logical step to ensure the super-ordination of the Sinhalese, as the rightful owners of the country. This distorted view is unfair by the other communities which sacrificed in various forms to ensure the ultimate defeat of the Tiger struggle. Even when the UN resolution was taken up last year, we saw the entire nation standing together, to defend its’ image.
The worst catastrophe was that two communities which traditionally lived side by side for centuries as good neighbours unexpectedly found themselves in a predicament . Muslims were suddenly made to feel like strangers in the land of their birth by the short sighted actions of these forces. The bond of brotherhood and friendship prevalent between the Sinhala and Muslim communities for centuries thankfully, still acts as a strong barrier for these extremist elements in achieving their unrealistic dream of creating a monolithic society. Besides ,Muslims as a race, historically has never had any intentions of invasion and being traditionally a trading community have opted always for peaceful co-existence. Muslims have been diplomats , ambassadors to Sinhala Kings and in their armies as well. During the State Council debate on the Dominion bill, the patriotic stand taken by the Muslim leaders of that time such as T.B. Jayah, Sir Razik Fareed, and Dr Kaleel were deeply appreciated by fellow Sinhala politicians. Even during the Tiger War, the patriotic stand taken up by the Muslims is widely known. In this context, the conspiracy theory of misinterpreting census statistics and random incidents to show that Muslims as a community has devious intentions of causing harm to this country of their birth or plotting against it are accusations which are unfair and untenable, to say the least and should be viewed as merely ruses to cause undue concern . If there are concerns about the activities of some Muslims, it should be taken to the relevant forums, without stereotyping or tarring the whole community with the same brush.
One of the more positive aspects amongst these developments , has been the reiteration of the resolve of the majority Sinhala people in opposing the tactics of these minority elements to drive wedges within the Sri Lankan nation, along parochial narrow religious and racist lines. It shows the admirable maturity of the Sinhala Buddhist people who have shown friendship , magnanimity and goodwill to other communities living besides them for centuries . By and large, the lay and religious leaders among the Sinhala Buddhist and Muslim communities have been sending positive signals to their people regarding the need to avoid being provoked by these extremist elements, which once again is a progressive development . Restraint has still been the norm rather than the exception . However, the situation can change if the society at large continue to be bystanders and do not actively intervene. Historical examples abound.
However, two worrying developments have been the involvement of some sections of the Maha Sangha in leading these extremist groups in violation of Buddhist ‘Vinaya’ precepts principles and also the co-opting the younger sections of the society in their vicious hate campaigns. Firstly ,the unfortunate involvement of these elements among the Maha Sangha , may give the distorted impression, that breeding hatred and animosity among people in this manner is condoned in Buddhism, although the reality is otherwise. Most members of the Maha Sangha stood up and resisted the racist agenda of these unruly elements among them. In fact, Ven. Sanghanayakes of the most Nikayes and other leading personages like Ven. Vajira . Ven. Amila, Ven Baddegama Samitha, Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha, among many others have been vociferous in stressing national unity as an imperative need to achieve national progress and to create a common Sri Lankan identity in a post war Sri Lanka.
Secondly, our young and our children are our future. If these short sighted ‘rogue’ elements of the Maha Sangha uses them for these evil purposes using the good name of Buddhism and portraying Muslims as their enemy, then this menace of racism and hatred is bound to be carried forward to the next generation as well. This does not augur well for Sri Lanka, when our younger generation of all communities are looking forward to build their future on the basis of a united Sri Lanka offering opportunities without any racial and religious discrimination. When the psyche of our young minds are corrupted by these poisonous warped minds, what fate lies for Sri Lanka in the years ahead? ‘When the fence and the bund are eating the crops, to whom shall we complain?’.
Every community has their share of grievances ,and will have reasonable grouses against others . Sinhala people will have theirs too. After the disastrous War ,we have the duty to heal the wound of war and get on board all sections of our society . Tamils should not be made to feel lost after the War ,while the Muslims should not be made a forgotten community after the war. The majority Sinhalese , as the older brother in the family, has the main responsibility to take the lead in these efforts. The worse way to resolve the issues will be take the explosive path of extremism and hate mongering and drive out some children of Mother Lanka out of the family. It is suicidal to condone a policy of ‘All are Equal ;but some are more equal’ as described in the ‘Animal Farm’, an allegorical novella by George Orwell. In a civilized society, more effective mechanisms are there to resolve these issues , rather than fighting it out in the streets and transforming good neighbourhoods into potential battlegrounds. Races are there to identify each other and religions are there to show the way to ‘live and let live’ . They should not be areas to humiliate each other. As Mahatma Gandhi said : ‘It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow beings’. After the war, apart from many common challenges to surmount such as poverty, inequality, social evils and corruption, the scourge of racism is also on the priority list.
How do we, as a nation, act in these challenging times , when the ramifications of the actions of a minority are felt even beyond our shores? It is imperative that intellectuals among all communities stand up and show the ‘red card’ to these extremist elements and send out a clear message to all Sri Lankans ,that arousing racist and religious emotions and whipping up hatred among the populace is not acceptable. This irresponsible course of action, if left to fester, will only take Sri Lanka towards oblivion and a point of no return. Our collective indifference will only be suicidal in the medium to long term.
Some of the actions we could take includes : banning of hatred websites, formation of a joint Peace Council with representatives from all religions both clergy and laity which will intervene in these matters , undertaking a constructive program to raise awareness in schools and universities regarding the need to ‘live and let live’ and respect each others’ cultures and religions, forming grass root level neighbourhood peace committees under the auspices of local government bodies to build confidence and a sense of security among communities and also the need for the intellectuals lead the way for people’s attention to be focussed on common issues which affect the entire society as a whole .The law enforcement authorities should also take a sterner and impartial stand when dealing with the offenders. There is also a duty cast particularly on the intellectuals of all communities by the future generations, to act together . Divisive approaches will only spell disaster, as German Theologian Martin Niemoller during Hitler’s time, said in a poem which he wrote while being in the prison.
First they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out because I was not a Jew
Then they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
They came for me
And there was no one left to speak out for me