By Lukman Harees –
“You fight for your rights when your rights are being denied. When the building is on fire, you don’t stand by and let the building burn down and say we’ll fight the fire another day.” – Richard Gilbert
Many have argued that the rise and institutionalisation of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism in post-independent Sri Lanka bear much responsibility for today’s ethnic conflicts between the majority Sinhalese state and the minorities. Ironically, the competition among the Sinhala ruling classes, for acquiring state resources and political capital, has turned nationalism into the ruling ideology and the state ideology of Sri Lanka. Many commentators on Post-colonial Sri Lanka curiously had also commented on the ‘minority’ complex of the majority Sinhalese , according to Nira Wickramasinghe, an author in history (2006). She says that ‘the three Constitutions of post- independence Sri Lanka, helped demarcate and define a majority from within the citizens pitting them against non- Buddhists and non- Sinhala speaking minority communities…(placing) minorities in a somewhat dependent and subaltern situation’.
Thus, to understand the mad monk phenomenon, and the oft proved state patronage , which we have been witnessing in recent times, we need to understand these ground realities and therefore any attempts to find ways to achieve reconciliation and share power will not bear results without adequately addressing them. A book written by B.H. Farmer in 1963 , a distinguished geographer, ‘Ceylon –A Divided Nation’ spoke volumes of the times which followed after Independence. He wrote : ‘’…Since those saddening days of 1958 Ceylon has had its share of trouble…..The truth, though unpalatable may be to some, is simply that nobody unacceptable to the present Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has any chance of constitutional power in contemporary Ceylon.”. Then ,in the first four sentences of the last paragraph of the book, he concluded “Ceylon is indeed a divided nation. The reader may be inclined to form the conclusion that it was always so, and that optimistic views on national unity held in Ceylon at the coming of independence, and repeated by commentators in other parts of the world, rested on illusion or ignorance.. Certainly, given the historical traditions of the Sinhalese and their particular national complexes, and given the history which set down in their midst the particular minorities that have come to exist in Ceylon, trouble might have been foreseen. But need it have been as violent as in fact it was?”
If this was true in 1963, it has been proved unequivocally in the past 60 years and being proved even now. Gota’s alleged links with BBS/ Gnanassara and MR Regime’s reluctance to condemn the thuggish behaviour of these mad monks and apologize to the Muslims should only be seen in that light.
Is BBS – Sinhala Ravaya types therefore an ‘’out of the ordinary ‘ phenomena in Sri Lankan history? A cursory glance of history therefore shows that it is not so. All agree that Buddhist philosophy eschews violence; yet particularly in Sri Lanka, what we witness has been Sinhala Buddhism, whereby some Buddhist monks and especially Buddhist political elites have used Jathaka Kathaa (tales) dealing with Buddha’s reincarnated lives and Buddhist mytho-history –the Mahawamsa to celebrate and justify violence. The most fundamental belief providing the basis for Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism is that Sri Lanka has been preserved for Sinhalese Buddhists, and minorities live there only because of Buddhists’ tolerance, which sentiment obviously makes Sinhala Buddhists a privileged lot , marginalizes those of other religions and ethnic groups, and justifies Sinhalese Buddhist super-ordination and minority subordination. Although not all Sinhalese Buddhists are nationalists, the sentiment is sufficiently embedded whereby Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, aided by political Buddhism, has been undermining majority –minority relationships and attempts at devolution of power and conflict resolution have virtually ended in near failure. These hate groups now coughing animosity at the Muslims and also at Christians, also operate from this ideological platform and draw inspiration from a Sri Lankan role model Anagarika Dharmapala and the dreaded face of Buddhist Terror Wirathu in Myanmar.
Social Analyst Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda has argued that “Sinhalese Buddhism has made no significant contribution to the evolution of a non-violent social ideology. On the contrary, the Sinhalese Buddhist historiographical tradition and ideology inherent in it supports ethnic political violence”. We have seen in post-independence Sri Lanka that Buddhist leaders and Buddhist monks have been campaigning for policies that exacerbated ethno-religious violence . We saw how the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist monks bearing majoritarian attitudes played a decisive role in forming a Sinhala chauvinist government in 1956 introducing the ‘Sinhala Only’ bill, Bandaranaike assassination, in the abrogation of the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayagam pact and even in the scuttling of a new Constitution in 2000 by Chandrika government . Post- Independence governments bending over backwards in pacifying the inner cravings of the Saffron clad class led to the just aspirations of the minorities being swept under the carpet and using them for political gains because of the immunity enjoyed by them among the Buddhist people.
Therefore BBS and the likes are but an extension of this tradition. These mad monks and dogs of hate with the state at the other end of the leash, cashing in on certain inner fears of the Sinhala Buddhist people and making them see ghosts in every corner should make us understand the underlying reasons for them to shoot at the next target – The Muslims and the Christians, after the Sinhala Army ( according to BBS) has successfully exterminated the Tamil ‘threat’ .
This series of racist attacks in Aluthgama for example, by outside BBS thug gangs under he very supervision of the Police and STF, has brought down the Muslim community in terms of their lifestyle and economy – and many see these incidents as a direct attack on the Muslim economic base which has direct and indirect negative effects on the country’s economy as a whole. It is relatively easier to build houses and shops, but it is a utopian task to mend broken hearts and ease the pain of the victims ,who have also lost three of their sons to bullets and many of whose families have been injured, when the government which is supposed to protect everyone failed to act in an even handed manner. Instead they sought to protect the hate groups and whitewash them. It was a mini localized version of the Black July of 1983, when the Tamils pogrom happened instigated by Sinhala Nationalist elements of that time, who had the tacit support of the then JRJ government . Drawing parallels between 1983 riots and 2014 Aluthgama riots may not be fair, but few similarities can be identified.
According to accounts published by his own close collaborators, Prime Minister Premadasa himself advised JR Jayewardene of the unavoidable consequence of there being riots in Colombo if this was allowed. However, JR Jayewardene made his own calculations about the opportunity that he had before him to divert the attention of the country away from him. He quite deliberately allowed the funerals to take place in a manner that would bring about what we know today as Black July. It was a calculated action to take advantage of a situation for his own political survival. (AHRC).
JRJ did not apologize to the Tamils in July 1983 and neither did MR in June 2014. Further, although 1983 riots started as a spontaneous reaction by Sinhalese mobs gathered at the Colombo cemetery where the bodies of the soldiers were to be buried, later it surmised that it was part of well-knit plan to attack the Tamils joined by elements associated with the Sinhalese political activists actively involved in the organisation of the riots. Also, during the early stages of riots, it is alleged the local police officers and military stood by doing nothing and even connived in the looting. Aluthgama Anti-Muslim riots and its’ aftermath too had similar features. In this video produced by JHU, ( click here) at 11.35-11.40 minutes, a Sinhala youth says that the ‘Police told us it is OK to attack these places, but said don’t set fire to them.’ This shows the collusion of the Police in these attacks.
Although BBS wanted to show this as their reaction to an alleged attack on a Bikkhu by few Muslim youth, subsequent events however showed that this was but part of a well-orchestrated plan to hit at the economic base of the Muslims and instil fear into their hearts. In 1983, JRJ simply did not listen to Premadasa and Sirisena Coorey to refrain from bringing the bodies to Colombo; but JRJ decided to do so and the result was history. MR too did not want to listen to his Ministers such as Rajitha, Vasudeva, Dilan ,Hakeem or Rishard and apparently gave in to Gotabaya’s advice to give a free reign to BBS, The result was history too and proved the contention that objectives are same.
Therefore the Way forward for the Muslims is to consider Aluthgama Disaster as a wake-up call, and charter their future course based on their due rights under the Constitution, rather than blindly relying on the magnanimity of the government in power. Muslims should not allow the government to use them as a punching bag, but learn lessons from their Tamil brethren, and also from this debacle that government will only stand by them only to the extent that it will serve their vested interests. Tamils are yet to get their aspirations fulfilled despite LLRC recommendations and the censure from the international community. Still, Tamils stood up for their rights and therefore the world is listening to them and therefore they cannot be shoved aside by the governments in power. In this context, it is just wishful thinking that Muslim community interests will be seriously looked at , by the governments appeasing the Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, if they do not stand up and b counted. One of the gravest follies they did was to take a back seat expecting their right under the sunny Sri Lanka to be a given and not speak effectively on behalf of the just aspirations of their Tamil brethren . This reminds of the poem written by Martin Neimoller who wrote about the dangers of the silence of bystanders in the face of oppression.
“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality” – JFK
If the future generation of Muslims and minorities are to live in a Sri Lanka as equal, dignified citizens, then the mind-set of the present generation of leaders should also change. The rights of minorities to be considered as equals can only be achieved if the leaders infuse a sense of self-respect, specially in the young ones without making them cow down to the machinations of these nationalist majoritarian forces. They should be taken out of the minority inferiority mind-set and taught to be proud of their history, so that the minorities will start to demand what is due to us as a matter of right and not bow down before the government in power as if they are favours in return for their votes.
It is true that Muslims have shown and should continue to show, an amazing sense of restraint and patience in the midst of these well- orchestrated campaign to provoke them into rash action and to tarnish their image citing non-existent Jihadi cells. It is important that all efforts are taken to build bridges among communities so that these viruses cannot corrupt good relations. However, that alone is not sufficient. The Muslim leaders whether political and religious should not put the community back to sleep saying that action has now been taken to stop the violence. What is the guarantee that there will not be a repeat July 1983 or June 2014 with a government using these mad monks as pawns to instigate the peaceful Sinhala people against them? Obviously, non-violence forms of struggle should be the way forward. It is also imperative to note that vulnerable minority communities should forge alliances between themselves – Tamils , Muslims and Christians, and also with the greater progressive sections of the Sinhala Buddhist people , to fight against the breakdown of law and order in Sri Lanka, to fight corruption , to fight for social justice , and also to fight the scourge of racism and petty hatred . These dogs of hate roaming about in the name of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, should be leashed and confronted without allowing them to eat into the dignity and self-respect of the minorities. Towards this goal, the approach of the present Muslim political leadership to appease the government and to compromise the community interests for petty or for short term gains and develop cowardly attitudes like ‘ get inside houses, do not come out, Police will safeguard you’ should stop and build self confidence in the community and ability to create an environment where they can live as equal ,dignified citizens.
In his Foreword to Farmer’s book quoted at the outset, Lord Soulbury had expressed his dismay on the Sinhala-Tamil conflict as follows: “Needless to say the consequences have been a bitter disappointment to myself and my fellow Commissioners….Nevertheless – in the light of later happenings – I now think it is a pity that the Commission did not also recommend the entrenchment in the constitution of guarantees of fundamental rights, on the lines enacted in the constitutions of India, Pakistan, Malaya, Nigeria and elsewhere.”. Perhaps in any subsequent amendment of Ceylon’s constitution those in authority might take note of the proclamation made by the delegates at the African conference which met in Lagos two years ago: ‘Fundamental human rights, especially the right to individual liberty, should be written and entrenched in the constitutions of all countries’. Nevertheless the reconciliation of Tamils and Sinhalese will depend not on constitutional guarantees but on the goodwill, common sense and humanity of the Government in power and the people who elect it.” (bolding mine)
This constitutional guarantees will therefore only remain in paper for the ‘other’, , if they do not confront these dogs of hate and assert themselves in the political, social, and public domain that minorities are not pushovers and it is the obligation of the government to protect their rights to practice their religion and culture, which are also human rights under UDHR.