By Malinda Seneviratne –
The nation is on edge. There is a sense of foreboding. There are fears of a July 1983 repeat. Indeed there are even those who are eagerly waiting for such an eventuality. And there is no shortage of people and organizations that feed these fears, knowingly or unknowingly contributing to tensions.
In the aftermath of the violent incident in Pepiliyana where a Muslim-owned business, Fashion Bug, was attacked by mobs, the Bodu Bala Sena categorically denied involvement and condemned the attack. Indeed, the organization went as far as to state, a) that the Police should arrest all those responsible, even if they happened to be bikkhus, b) that the organization has neither called for a Buddhist boycott of Muslim shops nor threatened with physical harm those who patronized them.
This is a welcome move, especially since the rhetoric of the organization has not exactly championed co-existence and tolerance. It appears that the rhetoric has given rise to forces that the organization cannot control and which, ironically, operate in the name of the Bodu Bala Sena, setting up Twitter, Facebook and other accounts in the domain of social media. Bodu Bala Sena cannot claim innocence in the groundwork that has been laid for intolerance and violence to prosper.
On the other hand, vilifying the Bodu Bala Sena has led to a blanket dismissal and vilification of Buddhists. This too does nothing to ease tensions. The Bodu Bala Sena statement, in this context, must be applauded, but with a certain degree of caution. The organization could do more if it clearly stated that as per the teachings of the Buddha, it will support authorities responsible for law and order to ensure that Muslims and Muslim businesses and other properties are protected.
It is also heartening that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has announced that he is not the President of the Sinhalese and Buddhists but is the President of all communities and people of all religious faiths. He has clearly signaled that the Government will not turn a blind eye to religious intolerance in whatever form. It is a good sign that three persons have already been arrested over the incident, but peace requires swift and decisive action to prevent incidents as much as bringing to book those who violate the law.
If things get better from now on, much of the accolades should go to the Muslim community which has shown remarkable restraint and good sense. This should not be reason for complacency or for assumption of ‘weakness’ or ‘impotence’, though. All it takes is for one individual to lose control for an entire nation to be engulfed in flames we can very well do without. The only way that the Bodu Bala Sena can stop this from happening is by actively reaching out to their Muslim brethren, to take whatever grievances they may have to the relevant authorities and these authorities dealing with issues as per constitutional provision.
Any attack on any Muslim individual (or any individual for that matter, regardless of religious persuasion) is not in keeping with Buddhism. Indeed any attack is a blemish on the overall cultural ethos of Sri Lanka which undoubtedly has been wrought of Buddhism more than any other doctrine, religious or otherwise. If a Muslim is attack, then, it is an affront to Buddhism and the attacker can at best claim to be Buddhist only by name.
Buddhists have not given any organization the authority to speak on their behalf. Only the bikkhus of their respective temples and the Mahanayakas of the three nikayas have that authority. These authorities have not endorsed the Bodu Bala Sena. Neither have they actively intervened to urge Buddhists to adhere to the teachings of the Buddha, especially those tenets pertaining to compassion and tolerance. Clearly, a lot more needs to be done.
The Government has a responsibility. Religious leaders too. The general citizenry needs to be alert and exercise utmost caution and tolerance. Anyone taking the law into his/her hands is not affirming his/her faith but in fact denouncing it by that very act.
The nation is on the edge. It is a moment of truth. A political chasm beckons. All the more reason to take a step back.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’, this is his last Sunday Editorial and the original title was “The nation is on the edge”. His articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com