20 May, 2024


Sri Lankan Monks Join Rampaging Mob

By Sudha Ramachandran

Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE – Sri Lanka’s Muslim community is insecure and angry.  A mosque in the central town of Dambulla was attacked with petrol bombs and vandalized around 10 days ago by a mob led by radical Buddhist monks. To add insult to injury, the government has bowed to the mob’s demand and ordered the mosque’s demolition and relocation.

Muslims say the mosque is about 60 years old. The monks insist it was built after 1982 when the government declared the area to be a “Buddhist sacred area”. They allege that the mosque is an “illegal structure”.

Located about 150 kilometers northeast of the capital Colombo, Dambulla is a Buddhist pilgrim town. Trouble erupted when a mob of around 2,000 Sinhalese, including monks led by the mahanayaka (chief priest) of the Rangiri Dambula chapter, Inamaluwe Sumangala Thero, stormed the mosque and damaged it, disrupting ongoing Friday prayers. Television footage has captured the mob chanting derogatory and racist slogans. Monks can be seen going on a rampage, with one monk even disrobing and exposing himself.
They have threatened to demolish the mosque if the government doesn’t relocate it.

Within days of the violence and the warning, Prime Minister Disanayaka Mudiyanselage Jayaratne, who also heads the Ministry of Buddhist Sasana and Religious Affairs, announced the mosque’s relocation. Muslims have been “offered the choice of three alternate locations” to relocate the mosque, he said, adding that “steps are being taken to immediately shift the mosque”.

Muslim leaders have rejected the offer. “We will not agree to any compromise of taking land elsewhere,” Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader and Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem told reporters in Colombo. The SLMC is part of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance.

The Muslim community has been protesting the violence and the government decision through demonstrations and shut-downs.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has refrained from reining in the Buddhist extremists in his government and outside hitherto, was outside the country when the attack in Dambulla took place. He has been silent on the matter since his return.

Also in the crosshairs of the Dambulla monks is a Hindu temple in the area.

“There are 72 unauthorized constructions near the Dambulla Buddhist temple, including the mosque and a kovil [a Hindu temple in Tamil], which will be removed within six months,” a monk from Dambulla is reported to have said.

Buddhism is the religion of the majority of Sri Lankans. It is estimated that around 70% of the island’s population are Buddhist. Almost all Buddhists are Sinhalese. The religious minorities include Hindus (15%), who are mainly Tamil speaking, and Muslims (7.5%) and Christians (7.5%).

Although Buddhism advocates peace and tolerance, the way it is practiced by a fringe – albeit one that is growing and extremely powerful – is rather violent, fanatical and far from accommodative.

The Sinhala-Buddhists’ self-perception has three components. The first is that they belong to the “Aryan Sinhala race” (as distinct from the Tamil Dravidians) and that Sri Lanka is their homeland; the second is that they are defenders of the Buddhist faith, the mission of protecting Buddhism having been entrusted to them by Buddha himself; and the third is that Sri Lanka is the home for the Sinhala language. This self-perception has created a virulent form of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism.

Sinhalese-Buddhist supremacists draw on the Mahavamsa, first written in the sixth century AD and revised thereafter in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries to justify Buddhism’s dominance in Sri Lanka and to bolster claims that the country is and has to be a Sinhala-Buddhist state. Much in the Mahavamsa consists of myths, but to many Sinhalese it is irrefutable history. It has created what is often described as the Mahavamsa mindset, a belief that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist land because theMahavamsa says so.

The Mahavamsa mindset lies at the core of Sinhala-Buddhist hardline arguments that the island is “theirs” and religious and ethnic minorities are “guests”, who stay in Sri Lanka on the sufferance of the Sinhalese-Buddhists. Their continued stay here is on the condition of “good behavior”. As former chief of army staff, Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, once said in an interview, the minorities must not “demand undue things”.

Over the past 125 years or so, violence has been directed against the asinhala (un-Sinhala) and the abaudha (un-Buddhist). During colonial rule, Buddhist revivalists like Anagarika Dharmapala mobilized the masses not so much against the colonial regime but the Christian minority, their privileged position in society and political life, and their alleged misdeeds. In the early 20th century, it was the Muslims, who dominated business and trade, who came under fire from the Sinhalese-Buddhists.

In 1915, Dharmapala wrote: “The Muhammedans, an alien people … by Shylockian methods became prosperous like the Jews. The Sinhalese sons of the soil, whose ancestors for 2,358 years had shed rivers of blood to keep the country free from alien invaders are in the eyes of the British only vagabonds.”

Inflammatory writing in publications Dharmapala’s Sinhala Bauddhaya and Piyadasa Sirisena’s Sinhala Jathiya fueled anti-Muslim sentiment in the island and is believed to have culminated in the anti-Muslim riots that year.

Dharmapala hailed the anti-Muslim violence. “The peaceful Sinhalese have at last shown that they can no longer bear the insult of the alien,” he wrote. “The whole nation in one day has risen against the Moor [Muslims] people.”

The role of Buddhists in Sri Lankan politics grew substantially post-Independence especially in the decade of the 1950s, when the country was swept by a wave of Buddhist resurgence in the wake of the 2500th death anniversary of the Buddha.

It is in the Buddhist revivalism of this period that the beginnings of the conflictual relationship between the Sinhalese and Tamils can be traced. The role of political monks in obstructing a federal solution to the ethnic conflict, by unleashing violence if necessary became apparent in the 1950s. It would plunge Sri Lanka into bloody civil war.

The end of the civil war and the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009 triggered a tidal wave of Sinhalese-Buddhist triumphalism. It has manifested itself in a new cockiness vis-a-vis the international community.

In the war-ravaged, Tamil-dominated Northern province this muscular assertion of the Sinhala Buddhist identity has manifested itself not only in increasing Sinhalization of signboards and village and street names but in a proliferation of Buddha statues and Buddhist temples.

A recent report by International Crisis Group (ICG) says that Buddhist temples are coming up near military installations but also “without permission on private land”. “New constructions” are coming up over destroyed Hindu temples.

“There are also fears,” the ICG report says, “that the government’s archaeological department, long under the influence of Sinhalese nationalists and heavily lobbied by influential Buddhist groups, would use ‘discovered’ ancient Buddhist sites in the north” to build new Buddhist temples there.

It is in the context of this Sinhalese-Buddhist triumphalism that the recent aggression against Muslims and other religious minorities and their places of worship must be seen.

In September last year, a mosque in Anuradhapura, an ancient Buddhist city and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization world heritage site, was demolished by a mob. The monk who led that attack told BBC that the mosque was built on land given to Sinhalese Buddhists 2,000 years ago; hence the attack.

Attacks on churches and priests have grown in post-war Sri Lanka too, with the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a party led by monks that is a part of the ruling coalition, justifying the violence by claiming that priests are luring Buddhists to Christianity.

If recent events in neighboring India are anything to go by, the attack on the Dambulla mosque is reason for concern. Twenty years ago, Hindu mobs led by the Sangh Parivar, a family of Hindu right wing organizations, and egged on by saffron-clad clergy, stormed a 16th century mosque, the Babri masjid, in the north Indian city of Ayodhya.

They alleged that the masjid was built on the site where the Hindu deity Ram was born and where a temple once stood. The mob demolished the mosque even as the administration and police looked on, while the rest of India watched with horror the live telecast of the event.

The demolition of the Babri masjid set off a series of events – communal riots, terrorist attacks and pogroms – whose impact continue to traumatize India 20 years later.

The underlying issues and context of the attacks on the Dambulla mosque and the Babri masjid are not identical. The mobilization in Dambulla was local, unlike the country-wide campaign that preceded the Babri masjid’s demolition.

Still, Sri Lankans should be worried. The hate rhetoric articulated by the radical monks is uncannily similar to that mouthed by India’s proponents of Hindutva. The Dambulla incident could unleash emotions and events with far more serious consequences.

Divisions along caste and linguistic lines have defeated somewhat the Hindutva (literally Hinduness, an exclusivist ideology that aims at making India Hindu) agenda of India’s Hindu nationalists and extremists.

In Sri Lanka, although its society too is multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual, Sinhala-Buddhist radicals have been far more successful. The Sinhala-Buddhist identity is far stronger than the Hindu identity in India. Sinhala-Buddhist ideology has been institutionalized and the Buddhist nationalist ideology has wide acceptance among the Sinhalese.

Yet to recover from decades of civil war, Sri Lanka is lurching towards more bloodletting, this time along religious lines.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore. She can be reached atsudha98@hotmail.com

-Asia Times –

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Sudha Ramachandran claims she is independent but reading the highly biased piece she has written, I won’t be surprised if it was taken from pro terrorist leaning Tamilnet (that what it is alleged that the British Bullshit Corporation does most of the time). This is typical of most Indians and Tamils to spread falsehoods and their renowned expertise in the propaganda stakes is clearly visible when reading the above article. As usual, she states that 1950s resurgence of Sinhala identity is the root cause of the 30 year terrorist war conveniently ignoring the Tamil racist politicians racist cries which began in 1910 with the 50:50 clamour and 1949 SJV Chelva’s racist demands of separate state happened long before Sinhala identity revival of 1956. I don’t understand after 443 years of colonial subjugation and servility not only to the colonial masters but also to their favoured Tamil lackeys under the divide and rule policy why the Sinhala masses did not clamour for Sinhala identity as soon as they got Independence in 1948. This would have been the most natural way to assert their independence but the evcer patient and tolerant Sinhala people must have just given into their very bossy and arrogant Tamil community until a suitable leader who is not a puppet of the British colonialists emerged to show them the way.
    I agree that Buddhist monks should behave in a non aggressive, calm and respectful manner but I certainly don’t agree that they should passively not assert themselves and turn a blind eye to systematic and continous targeting of Buddhist heritage temple land grabbing by the Muslims in a deliberate carefully planned out strategy of wiping out all evidence of Buddhist heritage in SL so that in future they could lay claim to whole of Sri Lanka as they have done in the past with Buddhist countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Afganistan. The so called moderate peace loving Muslims are toturing and killing Buddhist monks and lay people on a daily basis in Bangladesh and Thailand.This unmitigated violence of Muslims against the Sinhala people will undoubtedly take place when their population goes up to 20% from the current unpublished 16% which they deliberately hide from the census statistics(again your article above is biased and eroneous to say 7.5% Muslim as you have deliberately avoided doing the research to find the truth). Their unabated violent killings against Buddhist scholar monks first took place during the Mughal period in India where they killed over 1000 scholar monks at the world’s first renowned university at Nalanda. Naturally, monks justifiably feel anxious and worried about SL turning into another India with the violent past track record of the Muslims.

    • 0

      We have different Buddhisms in Sri Lanka. This writer appears to be a follower of the Sinhala Govigama Buddhism or Hela Urumaya Buddhism, both of which believe in the anti-arya ashtangika margaya, which is apparent from what they say and do.

      • 0

        Dear Buddadasa,
        Good to know you have attained Nirvana which hasn’t stopped you from slinging mud at me or hela urumaya. Thanks to anti Sinhala people like you who thinks it is fashionable to verbally attack the few Sinhala people who would like to maintain/protect their 30,000 year old heritage, the extremist Tamils and Muslim land grabbers get moral support and additional strength. Thanks to Hela Urumaya we are not a Federalist two nation country today. At one point in our recent history when all the other political parties had packages to make SL Federalist, Hela Urumaya steadfastly insisted to maintain the Unitary status and USA once again lost its chance to “Balkanise” SL and get a military base. It is thanks to our Buddhist heritage that you are able to talk about Arya Ashtanghika Marga but you won’t lift a finger to protect this heritage and instead prefer to turn a blind eye to all the targeted encroachment of Buddhsit heritage temple land and i challenge Sudha Ramachandran to show her impartiality (pigs will fly if that happens)by writing an article about the scandalous stealing of Deegawapiya heritage land which has been reduced to a mere 600 acres from 12,000 acres. Only people who have attained nirwana like Buddhdasa (I wonder whether you will give away your own home to the Muslim land horas like a Wessanthara? No chance because you arya ashtanghika marga doesn’t extend to giving away or letting go of your own possessions)can quietly watch but at the same time make scathing remarks against us who are trying to be assertive against killing of innocent Buddhists by Bangladeshi Muslims and trying to prevent tiny SL becoming a country of 10,000 or more Mosques built over Buddhist heritage land cleverly targeted by SL Muslim community to wipe out our Sinhala Buddhist hitory. They say that evil flourishes because good “arya ashtanghika marga nirwana karayas” say nothing although your nirwana achievement doesn’t prevent you from making vituperative comments against us thereby cradling and abetting the minority extremists.

  • 0

    mahana – yaka ?

  • 0

    The old Lion will sleep while the new Dragon will soon wake up, eradicating religon from politics…it awaits the moment of beckoning from the non-partisan intellectual youth.. Hold ure tongues Mahavansas Mohamadeans, Eelamists and Evangelists.

  • 0

    Oh.. Lord Buddha..

    You did your best to enlighten these sinhalese people..

    But they remain same… as the savage people they used to be..

    I am waiting for your reincarnation…

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