By Dharisha Bastians –
“Last night, I dreamt Buddha was shot dead by the Police, guardians of the law. His body drenched in blood on the steps of the Jaffna Library. Under cover of darkness came the ministers. “His name is not on our list, why did you kill him?” they ask angrily, “No sirs, no, there was no mistake. Without killing him it was impossible to harm a fly” From Buddha Murdered by poet M.A. Nuhman
As the sun blazed down on a warm Sunday afternoon in February, rows of young men and women lined the balcony of a Municipal building in the centre of Maharagama town. They wore white t-shirts bearing a ‘no-Halal’ sign and each carried a small Buddhist flag. On a cue by saffron-robed monks on the ground, they placed their right hands on their chests and took a pledge to safeguard the Sinhala race and the Buddhist faith. Thousands more gathered at the town centre for a massive rally, a Sinhala-Buddhist call to arms against alleged Muslim extremism sweeping through the country.
An organization calling itself Bodu Bala Sena, or ‘Buddhist Power Force’ has been gaining a groundswell of support in recent weeks. The monk led organization is building task-forces throughout the country and insisting on a Government ban on the Halal certification important to Muslim consumers of meat and other food products. At a massive rally in Maharagama in late February, hardline monks launched what they claimed would be a ‘relentless anti-Halal’ campaign and issued an ultimatum to the Government to ban the certification process before the end of March.
And they will not stop there.
The organization is also seeking a ban on sending Lankan women for work to the Middle East, mosque-building and certain contraceptive methods that they claimed were aimed at depleting the Sinhala population. Supporters at the rally cheered enthusiastically when hardline Bodu Bala Sena monks made speeches charged with provocative ethno-religious rhetoric, denounced alleged Muslim extremism and charged that minorities must ‘know their place’ in Sri Lanka.
This virulent anti-Muslim campaign is deeply wounding the trust between the Sinhalese and Muslim communities, especially in urban centres in the country. The Government can crack down on the hardliners – using the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act if they wish to, but thus far, there appears to be a benign acceptance of the status quo. The Bodu Bala Sena and its campaign against Halal Foods is proving an useful distraction from the burgeoning economic concerns of the ordinary Sri Lankan.
This political complacence in the face of a spiralling culture of hate and intolerance has proved fatal for Sri Lanka in the past.
Thirty years ago one week in July defined the country for decades to come. The communal violence directed primarily at the Tamil population left more than 2000 dead and Tamil businesses and homes in ruins in 1983. The carnage and shame of Black July will outlive this generation of Sri Lankans. It pushed the country into full-fledged civil war, provided temporary legitimacy to separatist claims and robbed Sri Lanka – perhaps permanently – of its claim of being a society of pluralistic values, celebrating and embracing the ethnically diverse. Yet July 1983 was no spontaneous uprising against tragic events in a far off battlefield in the island’s north. That week of violence was preceded by years of anti-Tamil sentiment prevailing in the island, fostered in no small measure by the political leadership of the time. Mass hysteria and communal violence may have caused irreparable damage to a nation’s psyche in 1983, but the fires had been fanned for years, with the systematic demonization of the Tamils: as standing in the way of Sinhala jobs, Sinhala enterprise, and Sinhala progress.
Rhetoric is a powerful thing. And the voices of intolerance are being raised again, at forums like the Bodu Bala Sena rally and even across internet and social media platforms. The trouble with this persistent creation of an enemy is that when things spiral out of control, a frenzied mob that no longer recognizes a leader knows exactly which community will be the target of its wrath.
Black July’s most damning legacy is political apathy. The same could be said of the Tamil separatist movement, that the Tamil political leadership initially believed was born of youthful passion; a useful but mostly harmless tool of leverage to win minority rights. It ended in the near-wipe out of the moderate Tamil political leadership in Sri Lanka. One by one, the LTTE called out its former guardians as traitors to the separatist cause and ruthlessly eliminated them. Forces of extremism, once unleashed, like the dogs of war cannot be recalled. Provided the space, they grow quietly in the dark, morphing into monstrosities that ultimately rob a nation’s soul. A political leadership that is unwilling to identify the dangers of the emerging anti-Muslim trend is courting trouble. The kind of trouble that could plunge Sri Lanka back into ethno-religious conflict even as the country struggles to recover from a protracted civil war.
The Bodu Bala Sena thrives on the legitimacy afforded to the organization by its saffron-clad leaders. It veils its patently racist agendas in claims that its efforts are aimed at safeguarding the country’s Buddhist heritage and perpetuating the race that holds custodianship of the religion. If in the short term, the battle against extremist forces like the Bodu Bala Sena must be waged on an ideological level, Buddhism may also be the simplest way to defeat hardline claims. The soft power of Buddhism, the concepts of ahimsa, tolerance and loving kindness may be alien to the monks leading the anti-Muslim charge, but they can still form the basis upon which other sections of the Buddhist community could be swayed. To wage war against a community of people, to declare the superiority of one race over the other, to preach hatred and division flies in the face of the Buddha’s teachings. If this is the land of the Buddha, intolerance has no place here. If Sri Lanka is the heartland of Theravada Buddhism, ahimsa must be the Buddhists’ only battle-cry. The battle of ideas is won here: grounded in the irrefutable truth that Buddhism and extremism are a contradiction in terms.