24 September, 2018

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Sri Lanka Monk Self-Immolation Highlights Anti-Muslim Sentiment

By J. S. Tissainayagam

J.S. Tissainayagam

The suicide by a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in Sri Lanka to protest the slaughter of cattle has been hailed as an act of great self-sacrifice and compared to acts of self-immolation by Tibetan Buddhist monks protesting China’s repression in Tibet. Nothing could be more ill-informed. In fact, it is one more step by Sri Lanka’s chauvinist Sinhala-Buddhists to undermine the Muslim political base.

The monk, Bowatte Indraratne, who had been campaigning against the Muslim halal method of slaughtering animals, was also a politician. He was a former elected member of a local government body representing the extreme Buddhist political party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). JHU’s leader Champika Ranawaka lost no time in exploiting the incident to advance the party’s agenda. He said the government should bring in legislation to ban the slaughter of cattle, and religious conversion. Christians have come under pressure from Buddhists for proselytising, a charge they deny.

The campaign to stop the slaughter of cattle and instances of violence against Muslims are not isolated events in Sri Lanka. These are steps to politically disempower Muslims are uncannily reminiscent of the way the Sinhala establishment tries to destroy the Tamil power base.

Persecution of Muslims is taking a particularly virulent form today. But in the past too Sinhala leaders viewed Muslims with suspicion, as they did Tamils. The control they exercised was a blend of coercion, political manipulation of Muslim elites and the policy of divide and rule.

Coercion of Muslims by Sinhalese was applied mostly through violence and intimidation. In recent memory are rampaging Sinhala mobs targeting Muslims in Mawanella (2001) and Beruwela (2002). Other disputes occurred over land, like Deegavapi in 1999.

Political manipulation of the Muslim elite compelled them to take decisions detrimental to their community. In 1956, Muslim politician and diplomat Sir Razik Fareed campaigned with Sinhala leaders to deny Tamil as an official language of the State, despite a large majority of Muslims being Tamil speakers.

Adopting a policy of divide-and-rule, Sinhala leaders forced Muslims – especially in the East – to view Tamils as enemies, which led to Tamil-Muslim clashes. The Sinhala-dominated military used Muslim home guards to target Tamil civilians in the East. The rift was magnified by the LTTE expelling the Muslim population in Sri Lanka’s North.

With the military phase of the conflict with the Tamils coming to an end in May 2009, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists realised they now had the luxury of investing more resources in suppressing Muslims. Further, with President Mahinda Rajapakse intent on consolidating power, extreme nationalism was a good vehicle.

The government has made no secret of its connections to extremist civil society groups. Relations between government officials and the principal vehicle of Buddhist bigotry, the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS), are so fraternal that Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the hawkish head of the Ministry of Defence and brother of the country’s president, graced an important occasion of the organisation. The BBS plays a similar role as the Shiv Sena does to the pro-Hindu regimes in India.

As mentioned above, the objective of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism is to demolish Muslim political power in Sri Lanka. It is no different from efforts to destroy the Tamil power base in the country from the 1950s. The three examples below demonstrate the similarities.

The BBS has opposed the certification of food as ‘halal’ and Muslim women wearing the hijab. These cultural practices are important markers of Muslim identity. The BBS’s campaign is not only to demolish what distinguishes this group’s identity, but also the power its members derive from that identity. For the Tamils, the primary marker of identity is language. That is why Sinhala nationalism sought to undermine Tamil by denying it official language status and placing obstacles to Tamil-speakers’ access to higher education and State employment.

Second, mosques and Muslim-owned businesses have come under assault. It is important to note the significance of both in the political lives of Muslims. The mosque is a forum for political mobilisation. The strength of metropolitan Muslims in Sri Lanka is their success as a merchant community. And they have used their wealth to buy political power. Therefore attacking mosques and commercial establishments is a way to undermine the Muslim power base. In the case of Tamils, assessing that their political base was territorial concentration in the country’s North and East, Sinhala leaders took to dismantling it by settling large numbers of Sinhalese in those areas.

Finally, let’s look at the government’s use of counterinsurgency laws to stifle freedom of speech and political opinion. On May 2, Azath Salley, a well-known Muslim leader, was arrested (and later released) under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). He was detained for an interview he gave to an Indian magazine where he said that Muslim youth should take to arms. But the reasons appear deeper than that. Salley openly criticised the government for anti-Muslim racism. But more than all else, Sally heads a political party which advocates Tamil-Muslim political dialogue to resolve mutually important issues. This, by definition, excludes government and the Sinhalese.

The government arresting and later releasing Salley is reminiscent of the then government criminalising Tamil parliamentarians who even advocated democratic secession. This legislation – the Sixth Amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution – suppressed democratic dissent and left armed rebellion as the only option to give effect to Tamil demands.

Therefore, the self-immolation by Bowatte Indraratne protesting cattle slaughter had a sinister motive. It used religion as a weapon to undermine the political base of a minority community in Sri Lanka. If steps are not taken to check this trend, Sri Lanka’s Muslims could be facing a future of persecution and violence.

*J. S. Tissainayagam, a former Sri Lankan political prisoner, was a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard and Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States. This article is first appeared in Asian Correspondent

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Latest comments

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    I don’t see what is the difference between killing and eating cattle,pigs or goat.If you stop beef consumption,people will just swich to mutton,pork or chicken.More and more of those will be killed instead of cattle.Maybe goats,chicken and pork may go up in price due to the ban on slaughter of cattle and therefore the consumption might decline a bit ,but still these other animals will be slaughtered instead of the cattle.So either ban everything or ban nothing,because killing is killing whatever the animal is and all go through the same agony.

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    Given the perverted logic and grossly distorted value system of the BBS and similar rabid fanatics – I wonder what their answer would be to the question whether it would be worth taking human life in order to spare the life of cattle ?. In other words does Buddhism allow treating people like cattle in order to save cattle ?. The way Sri Lanka is headed are cattle to be valued over Christians and Muslims ?

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    Benadict you are quite right. How come no one is talking about the slaughter of goats, pigs and chicken??? Are they not animals too? See the amount of people at KFC or McDonals? Do you think people would allow these places to close down? We love our meat this is how it has been since the evolution of the man kind other wise why do you think we have specific kind of teeth to bite meat? Grow up people this is human nature. If you dont want to eat meat then dont. But dont make a fool of your self by trying to impose it on others.

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    Ha, ha…. A good joke. A Tamil whose heart is aching over the eroding relationship between the Sinhalese and the Muslims. Give him a soother please.

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    Anger and hatred are reflected all over the article. Considering the difficult time the writer spent in the custody of law enforcers, such anger and hatred can easily be understood. However, good journalism ends when emotions run high. JST’s thoughts penned in the article is evident of his allegiance to LTTE.

    Besides his anger and hatred, his attempt to create a clash between Sinhala Buddhists and Muslims, is a punishable offence not from religious viewpoint but from the point of civil unrest.

    In Sinhala, a man is known as a “Manushyaya”, meaning a living being with a higher state of mindfulness, compared to all other living beings. Persons with such a state of mindfulness, irrespective of his religion (not cults), does not saw the seeds of anger and hatred, in the minds of other men and women.

    Viewed from the background of this definition, JST appears to be an “Amanushyaya”, a living being far below the rank of man.

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    I don’t know why this tissanayagam is bringing a muslim twist to this sorry saga.This courageous monk died trying to save some animals from going through unbelievable pain in order to satisfy our carnivorous desires,full stop and thats it buddy tissa.Don’t try to always bring communal twist into everything.Many sinhalese i have met consider the cow as an animal that provides so much to humans that it should not be killed.If we can just use it for dairy products then it fulfills a need of ours for its entire lifetime,so why kill it and eat it too.

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    Exactly Tissa. This is hardly a self sacrifice. Its an expression of extreme anger, planned to create a backlash against Muslims. It has succeeded in that.

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    Tiger Doesn’t change his stripes !

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    Bowatte Indhare’s IRC activities exposed (Island’s Robed Criminal)(Lanka-e-News-27.May.2013, 9.30PM) _ Please see this site- I am not copying the entire page of E- news because it may not be true. If you wish to you can go to the site and see the story.

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      1. what is a samurdhi officer in CEB?
      2. so this monk is just another lee potter fame leela? :D

      when will the be over the tallest man on this land?

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        when will the law be…

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    Budha has taught not to kill even a plant.So do not eat vegetable and kill plants. But you can kill Muslims, Tamils and Christians.

    So the govt should ban killing not only cattle but also poultry, plants, birds, goats, no more fishing in the sea or river, no more poultry farms, no eating of eggs, pigs, chicken, do not use any germ killers, do not kill worms while working in the paddy field, do not take injections to kill infections in the body but meditate to reach Nibbana.

    But Budhha was lucky to achieve Nibbana even after eating pork.

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      Crazy? You Got wrong Clearly, Buddha said not to harm even plants since it is part of life cycle, but never said not to east plat. Plant do not have a Brain, Mind.

      there is nothing wrong in Fighting for self Protection. We never went to India and invaded territory. Sri Lanka fought to eradicate terrorists, who were otherwise killing us and even thretening our existence. This is not wrong? We never killed anybody intentionally.

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    For political mileage and for other sinister motives we are now seeing an EXTREME type ofBUDDHISM rising in SRI LANKA. This is going to cause great harm to our beloved country and will drag it back in terms of progress and development.
    According to Buddhist doctrine we should not kill any animal nor harm ourself. But the action of this monk is questionable and it is clear that political motivation by JHU, SR and BBS are behind this.
    Where is the action of the authorities questioning JHU, SR, BBS as to who supported and aided these type of actions?? Why didn’t people who knew of this action not try to prevent this?
    naming cattle only will it sort out the problem. Buddhist are the biggest sellers of cattle across the country to slaughter houses for consumption. What about then the killing of Pigs, birds for consumption.

    Our sympathy is with the monks family and relatives for this tragic circumstances. He has been clearly lead to this and due to various reasons the monk has been brain washed. This is indeed a dangerous trend and Is a POLITICALLY MOTIVATED action for the benefit of few to cling on to power.

    To an extent it is also evident that the economic hardship faced by people of our country could result in this sort of extremism that is supported by some politicians.

    If our country is to move forward it is important that Buddhist Sinhalese, Christians, Hindus, Muslim and Tamils unite in stopping such actions and in NOT GIVING ANY OPPORTUNITY to groups like JHU, SR, BBS to rise.

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