By Lukman Harees –
‘Illusion is needed to disguise the emptiness within’-Arthur Erickson
Ratana Thero, who took time off his earlier strong nationalist (anti-Muslim) stance during the last presidential campaign, has woken up once again from his deep slumber while Champika has re-started talking about ‘hidden threats’ Meanwhile, BBS appear to have found new patrons in the MS-RW government with GST gone into sham hiding, with hypocritical official statements being made about the need for communal harmony and taking ‘stern’ action against the perpetrators. Groups such as Mahason Balakaya, Sinha-ley and other mini groups are exposing each other while dubiously living off the earnings of the Diaspora by relating pack of proven lies and woven tales about the ‘threat from the Muslims’. Not just Muslims, even the voice of Christians are being suppressed under Yahapalanaya preventing activists like Lakshan Dias for example from highlighting harassment of Christians.
In a recent TV interview, Ratana Thero lamented that Islamic Extremism is being forgotten while Sinhala Buddhist extremism is being repeatedly stressed in public discourses. He was in fact comparing the incomparable by equating fundamentalism but non-violent (per his own version) seen among the Muslims to the violent Islamophobic Sinhala Buddhist nationalism of these fringe groups. BBS ironically in a recent interview blamed Ratana Thero for Gnanasara Thero (GST)’s violent actions and for egging him towards prachandathwaya (violence). According to Vithanage , ‘Upasaka Mahaththaya’ Champika apparently used GST as ‘his personal hitman. GST further claimed that Ratana Thero even tried to use him for some ‘illegal’ un-Buddhist assignments during CBK days too.
True! The majority community has voiced concerns about some recent practices and attire of the Muslim community for good reasons, which has led to an engaged discourse among the Muslim intelligentsia whether the community is becoming divorced from the traditional Sri Lankan Muslim culture, their predecessors adopted. It is however clear that Muslims have generally been peaceful and in fact showing an admirable level of restraint and patience especially in recent times amidst high levels of provocation.
In the light of these Post-war anti-Muslim developments, the question arises : is there more to what meets the eye, are they mere flashes in the pan or are we as a nation missing the wood for the trees? In Buddhism Betrayed, Stanley J. Tambiah argues that the political activities of the bhikkus promoted a narrow and exclusive ethno religious, nationalist ideology. Nineteenth and twentieth century Buddhist nationalists deftly used the Mahawamsa and Duthagamani myths to institute Sinhalese Buddhist domination. Political leaders, Maha Sangha and their acolytes regurgitate these accounts to justify policy prescriptions, including ethnocentric practices, and legitimize their standing as good and valiant Sinhalese Buddhists. Myths clearly have been used, especially since the nineteenth century, for politicking purposes and have been deleterious to the fashioning of a peaceful poly-ethnic society with a common Sri Lankan identity.
Social scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda too says ‘the involvement of Buddhist monks in politics following independence in 1948, in effect, transformed Buddhism into a highly politicised religion. Since independence, Buddhist interest lobbies have been active in politics’ and 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”. Events that transpired in post-independence Sri Lanka when Buddhist leaders and Buddhist monks campaigned for policies that exacerbated ethnoreligious violence highlight Uyangoda’s argument.
Roshan de Silva Wijeyeratne in ‘Nation, Constitutionalism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka’ argues that Sinhalese nationalists have invoked a centralizing cosmic order which with many of its’ metaphors emanate from a deep sense of faith and belief, and not as a consequence of any scientific inquiry as such. What this implies is that no amount of historical analysis or critical re-interpretation of historical evidence can challenge or change a belief; for beliefs defy any such attempt at ‘rationalizing’ the debate.
Further, as Kalana Senaratna says in an ‘Island’ article (2014): the more fundamental reason for the emergence of Sinhala-Buddhism, as well as groups such as BBS, has to do with the inadequacy of the true Buddha-teaching for contemporary political engagement, especially in an identity-seeking, identity-promoting multi-ethnic and pluri-national political setting. The Buddha-teaching is unhelpful in political struggle. Thus, there is a yawning and enduring gap between precept and practice. And it is this vacuum of a solid political ideology which is sought to be filled through the adoption of a culturally-constructed form of Buddhism. In Sri Lanka, this comes to be called Sinhala-Buddhism.
BBS reflects the movement which will literally and forcefully execute the project of Sinhala-Buddhism. What some Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists think, the BBS will do. And that’s what’s happening today. The broader necessity of a BBS-type movement is more acute in a post-war context wherein the promotion of Sinhala-Buddhism and establishing the dominance of the Sinhala-Buddhist ideology appears to be the fundamental and defining political goal of a government. The BBS-phenomenon derives moral and ideological support, therefore not only from the Buddhist monks, but also from political entities and the state apparatus. In any case the promotion and protection of (Sinhala) Buddhism along with the nurturing of political leaders to take up that task, has been one of the defining historical roles of the Sangha community in Sri Lanka.
It is not the case that the BBS is determined to destroy the Sinhala-Buddhists. Rather, the BBS is the natural end product of unchecked and unrestrained Sinhala-Buddhist fervour; This is why the government is not too keen to ban groups such as the BBS and why a government would not see groups such as the BBS as a serious threat. BBS is therefore just the ugly underside of Sinhala-Buddhism . CA Chandraprema called the BBS-phenomenon a “mad-monk phenomenon”; and he considered the monks involved in this movement to be “mad monks”. Majority of Sinhala Buddhists believe that GST is undoubtedly the biggest disaster to befall on the Sinhala Buddhist community since Buddharakitha or Somarama . But, although it is customary to lock up those who have gone mad, this has not happened or can this be expected to happen in the light of the above.
According to a leading journalist CA Chandraprema, GST is a political pawn earlier used by Rajapaksa and now being used by Sirisena/ Champika combine. It transpired that GST has political plans to contest the next presidential elections in 2020, to split the Sinhala Buddhist vote at a future Presidential election. Both Champika and Maithripala Sirisena are in this together . He says that it is an illusion to assume that any minister can provide cover to GST without the President’s patronage which makes sense. When GST comes out of his hiding and be remanded , then he will be a martyr which will gain him Sinhala Buddhist votes while the Yahapalana government is likely to retain the allegiance of the Muslim community. Thus GST is only a performing gorilla in this game being played by the ambitious politicians. GST will never perform unless his political puppet masters will want him to.
As Senaratna said, ‘The marauding Buddhist monks, who appear to be tied to a long political leash, have run out of control. They need to be stopped. But it is equally necessary to take a cold look at the complexity of the phenomenon that groups such as Bodu Bala Sena have come to represent. This is no freak show, and is hardly an aberration in post-war Sri Lanka; also because we know now that critics who then predicted that the BBS was bound to dissipate in a matter of months were hopelessly wrong. How right he was! The mainstream Sinhala Buddhists in general and their intelligentsia in particular should take note of the diabolical plans of these rogue elements and conspirators among the Maha Sangha and their political masters without allowing them to instigate another 1983 style communal violence or a long drawn communal war.
Anti –Muslim however did not start from recent times. According to ‘Communalisation of Muslims in Sri Lanka: An Historical Perspective’ by F. Zackariya and N. Shanmugaratnam, Muslims have been the target of attack by early Sinhala Buddhist revivalists, and the anti-Muslim propaganda culminated in the riots of 1915. A major causal factor in this conflict was the resentment of the Sinhala nationalist petty bourgeoisie against trading interests of the Moors. In this phase Muslim identity consciousness became highly conditioned by the rising majoritarian Sinhala Buddhism and its intolerance towards the non-Sinhala Buddhists of Sri Lanka. Sinhala Buddhist cultural nationalism thus displayed a dual political character – it was more compromising towards British colonialism while displaying a growing intolerance towards the Lankan minorities. Certain elements of Buddhist revivalism served the growth of anti-minority sentiments. The Moors became one of the first targets of Sinhala Buddhist intolerance. Dharmapala who portrayed Muslim traders as unethical exploiters of Sinhala Buddhists quoted. “… What the German is to the Britisher that the Muhammedan is to the Sinhalese”. In the period prior to 1915 these campaigns were so actively pursued. This kind of hostility was also extended towards the Christian churches.
Whatever its’ origins were, at the same time, Muslims should also be conscious of the fact that the present pool of anti-Muslim sentiments is very real and goes far beyond the BBS, in the light of what is happening around the world, especially Trump- Alt-right’ climate in the US and the Europe. Local groups borrow their messages from a highly profitable global Islamophobia industry. As CA Chandraprema points out, ‘It is only the Muslim community and especially the Muslim leaders that can deprive the BBS of its’ base by changing their ways. Present Muslim political leaders unlike the leaders of yesteryear, have already lost their credibility not just among the other communities, but among the Muslims too. They have been switching parties at every election to serve their personal interests leaving community interests behind. It is time overdue for the Muslim intelligentsia to take the initiative and impress upon the political leadership to mend their ways to re-build credibility and confidence.
During the independence struggle, the Muslim leaders then put national interest over the community interests while working with the national leaders to win much needed rights for the community. Can this mutually beneficial model be re-enacted? Further, the religious and community leadership together should look at some of the religious practices of community in the light of the flexibility provided by the Shariah such as the suitability of the Niqab/ Burqa ( full covering) as well as the black attire or adopting an Arab culture within Sri Lanka such as the men wearing the Arab dress or making the East look like little Arabia planting date trees or naming streets in Arabic style. These are areas which has been building walls between communities which is counter-productive. There is still enough goodwill between the Sinhala majority and Muslims in the South and therefore it is still not too late to take counter-measures and deny the oxygen hate groups like BBS are seeking to support their political masters by taking proactive measures.
Perhaps, joint initiatives by the intellectuals of all communities – Sinhala, Tamil and Muslims to expose these anti-patriotic plans to divide them as well as to build a Sri-Lankan identity will help. The good news is that many such drives are underway, like the recent initiatives taken by MCSL, Shoora Council as well Puravesi Balavegaya. Hatred should not move from fringe to mainstream status at any cost.