By Ranga Kalansooriya –
Let me begin this letter with a short comparison of two stories that recently happened in two different countries, but under somewhat a similar context.
A few months ago, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk who is residing in Myanmar was waiting at the Yangon international airport to receive someone and relayed an interesting story to me later. “There was a Muslim family standing next to me – and I smiled at them out of courtesy. But the response was strange – they reciprocated in a non-friendly look and somewhat starring,” the monk told me. In fact, this is not a unique situation in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. The relationship between the Buddhists – mainly the clergy – and an average Muslim citizen is not warm and cordial. Hardly would they greet each other with a smile. Therefore, when the Sri Lankan monk had a friendly smile at them, obviously it was a strange move to that Muslim family.
In contrast, I was in Trincomalee last week visiting a remote village called Sagarapura where I met a monasterial monk who completely depends on the begging ball (Pindapaatha). The village is a mix of Catholics, Muslims and a few Buddhists. I asked the monk whether the Muslims offer food into his begging ball. “Of course they do, but they lack knowledge on how to make such an offering. But they voluntarily offer food and other necessities to me,” the monk said adding that he feels comfortable whenever he visits a Muslim village for begging food.
Look at these two different scenarios of two similar socio-political contexts to some extent. As Jane Russell correctly highlighted in her book “Communal Politics Under the Donoughmore Constitution 1931-1947” international tensions, both political and economic, are reflected fairly accurately within Sri Lankan society. Tension between your brethren and my brethren (Buddhist) erupted during the past few years in different parts of the world – predominantly in countries with Buddhist majority. Of course each contexts has its own background, but here – to my mind- the ‘guns’ were turned against you following the military defeat of LTTE where the then government always required a nationalistic platform for its own survival.
In Myanmar it was the identity issue of controversial Rohingyas with Bengali descent – entirely a political matter that turned into religious/communal conflict. Fortunately we do not have such issues with any minority group in Sri Lanka – thankfully the identity issue of Indian Tamils, too, was resolved long ago. Otherwise, it would have fueled the ethnic conflict to a greater extent.
Yet, as Jane Russell said, the international tension reflected in Sri Lanka as well spearheading a campaign targeting you. We saw how you were humiliated and victimized with unsung state patronage in Aluthgama and several other places a couple of years ago. We – the majority Sinhala Buddhists, too, were helpless and silently sympathizing with you with limited or no options.
You and I, together with many other likeminded people of this country, took a bold step in ending that ugly era a year ago – and saw the dawn of a new socio-political culture. The same political change took place in Myanmar as well. The Lady who fought for democracy and human rights had a landslide majority against the will of ultra-nationalistic Buddhist movements. Those radical Buddhist groups went around the country with a loud voice advising Myanmar Buddhists not to vote for Aung Saan Suu Kyi alleging that she will destroy Buddhism and the country at the hands of international conspirators. But people of Myanmar spoke loud and took a bold step in electing her party with more than 80 percent majority. Both Buddhist majority countries sent a clear message to hardliners.
Now, it is the opportunity to do away with these radical forces in both communities and build a new country, new thoughts and new approaches. As we have rejected the hardliners from our side (some of them are already behind bars as the law of the land has taken the task) I think you should also take a step in the same direction in rejecting hardline radicalism.
Muslim radicalism is a global menace and even to you as moderates, I am sure. Sectarianism, radicalism, fundamentalism and extremism are key words of the contemporary discourse of Muslims in the global context. Countries like Pakistan and Indonesia are in a fierce battle in those fronts while the world at large is affected to a greater extent.
Syria is the latest place of mobilization for those extremist militants where at least more than a dozen Sri Lankan Muslims, too have joined the battle front. Have you developed a mechanism to stop more Sri Lankans joining these deadly groups? Or at least to address the issue of radicalism among your own brethren, mainly in the east and elsewhere? As your mosque system is comparatively well organized and coordinated, such a mechanism may not be complicated.
The main factors that fuel ethno-religious tension are is suspicion, lack of understanding and absence of direct engagement. I think both our communities should do more to address those issues. If compared with Tamils, our engagement with your community is predominantly confined to commercial aspects. Even if we continuously hear Mohideen Baig or A J Kareem on Wesak Days or any other Buddhist function, we hardly accept the fact that those were Muslims who sing Buddhist songs. There is something drastically wrong between us and we need to do more. There is extremely little literature that teaches us about your community except for some small efforts like M S M Ayub’s book which gives some understanding on your cultures and traditions. I know, we may have to start from scratch, in this regard. For example, probably we may need more Muslim players into our cricket team, then some of your colleagues will not cheer Pakistan when Sri Lanka plays against them.
I think you exhibited your warmth and openness to us during the funeral of the Late Sobitha Nayaka Thera. This was the best case study to depict the harmony and cohabitation between our two communities. I am aware of the fact how you sought Sobitha Thera’s support when you were subjected to attacks and humiliation. His demise was a great loss mainly to Sinhala Buddhists in bridging the gap between us.
From your end too, I think you need another T B Jayah to bring various fractions under one slogan of harmony and cohabitation. Late Minister Ashraff also made an effort on similar lines through the establishment of National Unity Alliance (NUA) but was never continued after his death. The community is getting further divided and fractioned which is not a healthy sign in the struggle to create a Sri Lankan nation. As there exists a government that thrives for ethnic harmony and reconciliation through cohabitation, every community should take an extra step in achieving this goal.
The singing of national anthem in Tamil not only should encourage Chief Minister C.V. Wignaswaran to visit Naga Vihara in Jaffna, but your political leadership also to conduct a similar gesture since Tamil is your mother-tongue too. We are yet to see that move. Those are the efforts in building Sri Lankan nation.
Remember, both our communities have a common enemy to fight – Radicalism and Fundamentalism.