By Lakmal Harischandra –
Ven. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara’s BBS is once again rallying in Kandy, transforming an otherwise serene city housing the most sacred Dalada Maligawa, a hotbed of Sinhala Buddhist extremism, on the heels of Athuraliye Ratana Thero’s fasting drama weeks ago. Sri Lanka has been witnessing these types of anti-Muslim upheavals in the Easter Sunday period, with many monk-led anti-Muslim waves blowing across the nation in cyclonic style. This is not representative of Buddhism; rather the symptoms of a chronic disorder reflected as Sinhala Buddhism, which harms and destroys its’ integrity. Using extremist Sinhala Buddhist forces to fight another type of extremism – Wahhabi threat, is absurd. The forms and likes of Ratana Thero and Gnanasara Thero and the hate filled rumbles of the Asgiriya Prelate just signify the process of degeneration of the peaceful Buddhism Buddha taught. Sinhala Buddhism is an entirely different brand from the philosophy of Buddhism Siddhaartha taught, which most in Sri Lanka including myself, subscribe to. It is a polluted metamorphosed version which is being continually exploited by the political class in Sri Lanka, since Independence or vie or to stay in power. Hate speech and hate oriented violence shamefully have become normalised, replacing the peaceful religion of Buddhism, advocating right speech and right conduct Buddhism teaches.
These hate campaigns are timely as well, especially when the bells have rung announcing the advent of an impending election. In fact, Did not Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was considered the patron saint of the BBS announce his candidature for the President in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday tragedy? Witnessing the highly emotionally charged anti- Muslim hate speeches of the political clowns whose level of credibility is anything but, such as Madu Maadhawa Aravinda, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammampila, with my fellow Sinhala Buddhist countrymen applauding, Sri Lankan Buddhists appear to be fast abdicating their role as the custodian of the Buddhism, which they boast Buddha bestowed them with, along with a 2500+ years of Buddhist civilization. I think Pastor Charles Thomas has realized this degeneration more than the Buddhist Mahanayakes themselves, who sadly are towing the racist line reflected in Sinhala Buddhism.
The Buddhist Protestantism of the 19th century, the monks who invoked Buddhist texts to justify the Sri Lankan civil war, and the extremist movements surging today all have one thing in common: a belief that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist nation that must be protected from foreign elements, violently if necessary. The Sri Lankan case since Independence shows that nationalism and extremism can be filtered through anything. Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), known as the father of Buddhist Protestantism in Sri Lanka, had an anti-imperialist and nationalist agenda. His hate filled speeches mostly against the Tamils and Muslims were well known. Scholars such as Tamibiah and KM De Silva stress the fact that the formation of a collective ‘Sinhala conscious-ness’ by various leaders of the local community towards the end of the 18th century, subsequently resulted in the denial of the multi-ethnic character of Sri Lankan society. This, they argue, became a major point of tension among the Sinhalese and the Tamil groups. Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists have used Mahawamsa claims to fashion an ideology that justifies majority domination and minority subordination (DeVotta 2007) The subsequent ethno-religious majoritarianism, thus sought to absorb or disregard minorities, making majoritarianism the bane of Sri Lanka.
Contemporary Sri Lankan nationalism should be seen as a strong expression of deeply rooted class conflicts among the Sinhalese ruling classes. The two phases of nationalism in Sri Lanka – the first generation of nationalism that originated during British colonial rule and the second generation of nationalism that came into being in the post-independence period, against the backdrop of fears for rising Tamil nationalism – makes clear that class relations have played a decisive role in conceiving and realising Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka. The 1956 Sinhala Only Act,for instance, was a consequence of this new form of nationalism in Sri Lanka. The first republican constitution of 1972 and the privileges it bestowed to Buddhism over other religions in the country was another example in this regard [R Coomaraswamy 1984]. Another author Jayatilleke (1999) keenly observes that from this period onwards, the Sinhalese ruling classes successfully managed to employ the ‘ethnic card’.
Between 1983 and 2009, Sri Lanka was plagued by a civil war between the Sinhalese controlled government and Tamil rebels, as a result of decades of friction based on both race and religion. Buddhism was invoked to justify the war in various ways. In her book, In The Defence of Dharma: Just-war Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka, religious studies professor Tessa J Bartholomeusz offers some examples. To take just one, a Sinhala army song from 1999, said to be composed by a Buddhist monk, contained the following verse: ‘Linked by love of the [Buddhist] religion and protected by the Motherland, brave soldiers you should go hand in hand’.
But it wasn’t just the army; everyday people and monks also used Buddhist texts and used military metaphors. In Sri Lanka, monks have long been involved in efforts to bolster Buddhist primacy. In the last decade, activism by Buddhist monks has grown more overtly political. As the MR government intensified its battle against the separatist Tamil Tigers, the monks’ backing gave religious legitimacy to the state’s claim of protecting the island for the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. Some Buddhist monks extolled warrior virtues as stemming from Buddhism: ’That Buddhism is a religion of ardent aspiration for the highest good of man is not surprising. It springs out of the mind of the Buddha a man of martial spirit and high aims … Buddhism … is made by a warrior spirit for warriors’.
When the civil war ended in 2009, many hoped that Sri Lanka’s ethnic groups would find a way for peaceful inter communal coexistence. But it didn’t materialize and it was not too long before Mahinda R. saw the opportunities to stay forever in power provided he portrays himself as the champion of the Sinhala Buddhism. In this quest for political power with a Sinhala Buddhist base as the launching pad, the country’s Buddhist extremists found another target-Muslims who stood with the Sinhalese during Independence struggle and in defeating the Tiger war. Among the many hate groups, the BBS was the most prominent, which entered politics in 2012 with a Buddhist-nationalist ideology and agenda, with its’ leaders claiming that Sri Lankans had become immoral and turned away from Buddhism. And whom does it blame? Sri Lankan Muslims. BBS’s rhetoric took its’ cue from other populist anti-Muslim movements around the globe, claiming that Muslims are “taking over” the lands they inhabit, thanks to a high birth rate. It also accused Muslim organisations of funding international terrorism with money from Halal-certified food industries. These hate campaigns were well-orchestrated, drawing inspiration from Myanmar Wirathu’ who led the ‘Rohingyan Muslim genocide’. These weren’t just empty words; in 2014, one of their anti-Muslim protest rallies in Aluthgama ended in the mini 1983 style anti-Muslim pogrom. Sri Lanka and Myanmar are being joined by Thailand as hotbeds of increasingly belligerent Buddhist extremism. Like radical monks in Thailand and Myanmar, Sri Lankan hard-liners reserve special ire for Muslims. The BBS and its counterparts have been inciting mobs to demolish mosques and to burn homes and businesses of Muslims.
In the past decade, hard-line anti-Muslim groups have consolidated their political power. By instruction or apathy, the police and army look away when hard-line monks incite riots, and fail to thoroughly investigate complaints. While the B.B.S. is not the sole voice of Sri Lankan Buddhists, its recourse to violence has increasingly forced secular liberals and pacifist Buddhists into silence. Today, specially after the Easter Sunday tragedy when some Muslim extremist groups were identified as the perpetrators, these hate groups came out into the open, with blatant anti-Muslim hate venom pouring out through all pores and medias. More perniciously, a nostalgia for Buddhist supremacy is now widespread. the Sri Lankan government is simply rewriting history with a more politically expedient narrative. Today, a revisionist version of history is celebrated in films, books, and in some Sinhala newspapers and TVs. Interestingly “rediscoveries” of long-lost Buddhist temples and Buddha statues are emanating from areas sacred to Muslims or Tamils in the Post-war times.
No regime will operate in a manner antithetical to majority Sinhalese Buddhist wishes. This is because the notion that Sri Lanka is for Sinhalese Buddhists is now fully embedded, and policies supporting it are fully institutionalized. All leaders in the governments in the Post war period are paying their Buddhist allegiances to stay or win power- a strategy that will only strengthen chauvinist groups. What we witness today is a kind of political Buddhism trying to promote the interests of the Sinhala-Buddhist people, rather than religion (Buddhism) as a path for personal salvation, and it is the main impediment to peace in the Island , because it is based on the doctrine of primacy and superiority of the Sinhala race and the Buddhist religion. Today, understandably from their point of view, the political leaders whether blue, green or red, are accepting the primacy and glory of the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist past and their claim for their greater share of political power. No single party leader appears to have the balls of steel to challenge this mind-set and accept the multi-ethnic character of Sri Lanka; Except the likes of Mangala , others have virtually made the minorities to bow down to the dominant Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, for survival. This present thinking will only portend a far greater danger to Sri Lanka than the blows of Sahrans and Sinhala Buddhist hard-line thugs both lay and in saffron clothes.
There is also a reason and basis for dominant Sinhala Buddhist thinking. The Sinhalese Buddhists, despite being a clear majority, have long felt surrounded by non-Buddhists in South Asia. This is why an author referred to the ethnic conflict as between “a [Sinhalese] majority with a minority complex, and a [Tamil] minority with a … majority complex” (De Silva 1998). This fear and self-imposed isolation, when coupled with notions of sinhadipa and dhammadipa, contribute to Sinhalese Buddhists viewing pluralism pejoratively and framing majoritarianism as an entitlement. Politicians and other ethnic entrepreneurs have deftly manipulated such fears. The anti-Muslim rhetoric Sri Lanka is flooded with at present, embodies a mere extension of a calumny originating from Anagarika times who referred to Muslims as “alien people … [who] by Shylockian methods became prosperous like the Jews”. Much of this anti-Muslim rhetoric even mirrors that of India’s Hindutva adherents.
Easter Sunday’s coordinated bomb blasts, are thus the latest in a long history of ethno-religious tragedies. Sri Lanka’s history of extremist violence, then, is far from new. Inter-ethnic tensions continued throughout history with outbursts of mob violence. Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism has been the driver of much of this conflict. As per testimony by some culprits arrested during Post –Easter, it may be that the Colombo East bombings are a reaction to recent anti-Muslim persecution. On the other hand, it is also possible given the Christian targets and timing, the bombings were not just a direct retaliation for last year’s anti-Muslim riots, but part of a wider West- driven ISIS agenda. However, given the history of violent prone Sinhala Buddhist agenda; from the Tamils to the Muslims- it appears that it is in this manner that Sri Lanka’s wheel of ethno-religious conflict turns. Further, there is also the possibility that this hate may turn inwards with Sinhalese fighting each other on caste grounds. Malwathu/Asgiriya vs. Ramanna and Amarapura conflicts may emerge.
In this context, as long as the Sinhalese remain ignorant, as long as they cling on to the 2500 years old mysteries of the past as their guide, as long as they remain engrossed to the Mahavamsa mindset, whatever attempts made to build a common ‘Lankan’ identity, the Sinhala-Buddhists are not going to accept. Scholars and analysts have identified that the ‘Sinhala (Mahavamsa) Buddhist mindset,’ (about the Sinhala Buddhist claim to the whole island of Lanka), as the reason why most of the Sinhalese cannot be rational and liberal. As responsible leaders, not only the government and the opposition but the moderate Sinhala media personnel, educated and intelligent Sinhalese people and moderate religious leaders/Buddhist clergy should educate the Sinhala nation to think rationally and distinguish/differentiate Sinhala from Sri Lanka, Buddhism from Sinhala-Buddhism, and Myths from Facts. This is the need of the hour when Sri Lanka is crying out for a viable social order based on equality, justice and fair-play where all communities can have an equal stake and consider it as their own rather than being treated as second class citizen and aliens despite the constitutional safeguards on paper.