By Jehan Perera –
In addition to being subjected to international scrutiny on account of war-time human rights violations Sri Lanka is now coming under international scrutiny for religious intolerance. Several incidents have highlighted the rise of Sinhalese nationalism that is at odds with the requirements of national reconciliation that includes the ethnic and religious minorities. These have included attacks on mosques and churches. The attacks on Christian churches have been going on for the past two decades at least. Most of these attacks have been against the new churches that are active in attempting religious conversion allegedly by unethical means of providing for the material needs of those whose conversion is sought. However, as most of these conversions take place at the local level and in relatively poor areas, they do not receive much media publicity. They are one of the unacknowledged problems concerning inter-community relations in the country.
On the other hand, the attacks on the Muslims have received considerably more media publicity. This on account of the higher visibility of some of the targets that have been located in more densely populated urban areas. The institutions attacked have been both mosques and commercial establishments owned by Muslims. One of these attacks was on a media conference organized in a Colombo hotel by the Jathika Bala Sena (JBS) in which a mixed group of Muslim and Buddhist clergy sought to explain the resettlement of Muslim IDPs in the North. It has been alleged that the resettlement of Muslims was on a forest reserve meant for wildlife preservation and that a Muslim Minister of the government was behind this anti national action.
What made the JBS media conference an unusual event was the participation of several Buddhist monks who spoke alongside Muslim clergy to deny the allegations that it was illegal or anti national. What gave the media conference even greater significance was the violent disruption it suffered at the hands of another group of Buddhist monks from the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which has the interests of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority as its main campaign theme. With the police watching passively, this second group of BBS monks berated the first group of JBS monks for betraying the interests of the Sinhalese Buddhists and for speaking on behalf of Muslim interests. They also ordered the JBS monks to apologise for the stance they had taken.
Incidents such as this in which the religious clergy have taken the lead role in anti-minority actions and the police has remained inactive have made the ethnic and religious minorities feel helpless and vulnerable. If the police is unable to protect the citizens of the country they have no one else to go to for protection. It also reinforces the arguments being made that the Sri Lankan identity as defined by the government fails to include all ethnicities and religions but favours the majority. However, it is important to believe that the failure of the government to use the state machinery to protect the ethnic and religious minorities is not a permanent feature of life in Sri Lanka. It is currently manifesting itself because there are those within the government who see Sinhalese nationalism as a force to be harnessed for electoral gain at a time when elections are anticipated.
At the level of the communities where people live, the situation is different. There is a liberal and moderate spirit amongst the people at the community level that can be reached if only the political leaders are prepared to give such leadership. The evidence of goodwill is abundant at the community level wherever inter-religious gatherings take place. This is especially the case in areas where ethnically mixed populations live in close proximity. Small groups of extremists can create disturbances in these areas. But the ethos o f the larger majority is to live in peace and harmony. In these circumstances the application of the law would suffice to quell any disturbance. It is the non-application of the law due to political interference that has made inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations within the country a potential point of conflict.
One of the Buddhist monks who attended an inter-religious conference that I attended recently had also taken part in the ill fated JBS meeting that was brought to an end by the BBS. He related his experience of having attended multi religious functions and preached the Buddha’s message to a large number of non-Buddhists, so that the wellbeing of all sentient life could be ensured. It was with this motivation that he had attended the JBS meeting where he had come under attack. After the meeting I spoke to this monk. He told me that his temple was akin to an inter-religious place of worship as he had Tamils and Muslims as his community. The Tamils in particular, who were Hindus, came to his temple to take part in religious ceremonies and to make him offerings of alms. He said his temple was there to serve as a refuge to all.
These actions of religious service on all communities are indicative of the spirit of pluralism in Sri Lankan society. This spirit was also captured by the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the President to address post-war concerns. It stated that the common values of the religions could be harnessed for national unity. This spirit may not be visible on the surface today because the political leadership of the country, particularly in the government, is not of one mind on this very important matter. There is a belief that one section of the government is supportive of the nationalism of the BBS and likeminded organizations. This is why their aggressive actions are accompanied by passivity on the part of the police, even when they break the law. On the other hand, there is a belief that the President himself is in favour of pluralist values. The monk I spoke to said that after the attack on the JBS media conference, the President called him and told him to continue with his work.
The coexistence within the government of high level leaderships that have different views on pluralism means that both the moderate and extremist positions within the majority Sinhalese community find expression within the government. This may explain the government’s remarkable ability to mobilize the electoral support of the Sinhalese majority across-the-board at elections. In post-war Sri Lanka, the main mobiliser of popular support continues to remain ethnic nationalism and the government has the upper hand in this regard. However, the government’s vulnerability lies in its present inability to win over the ethnic and religious minorities to its side, as seen at the last provincial elections held in the Western and Southern provinces. A strengthening of the moderate approach could help the government reach the minorities too, without jeopardizing its hold over the vast majority of the Sinhalese electorate, who are moderate in the main.
Such a display of moderation on the part of the government, if it occurs, would need to be reciprocated by civil society and other non-political groups. They need to adopt a strategy of engagement with the government and collaborate with sympathetic government members on issues where they have a shared framework of values. Although the space of civil society has continued to shrink, the President’s telephone call to the JBS monk indicates that there still remains sufficient space for a considerable amount of reconciliation work to be done. At the inter-religious meeting I attended, there was a request to arrange for a meeting with the President so that things could be put right. This spoke to the need for civil society and rights groups to make a greater effort to dialogue with the government instead of shying away from it.