Those who participated or wanted to participate in the candle-light vigil organized by a set of people calling themselves ‘Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena’, those who witnessed what happened or part of what happened, those who saw images and footage
, and others who generally comment on issues such as religious tolerance, democracy, human rights etc, will no doubt articulate their respective versions. This is mine, but to illustrate the point of multiple narrative/interpretation, I will weave into my narrative some narrative comments of a friend.
This person, a Muslim, I have never met. I have communicated with him for several years though and I would not hesitate to claim that a more patriotic Sri Lankan is hard to find. In his writings I’ve noticed a humanity that is congruent with the best sentiments on the subject in any religious doctrine. He is strong in his faith but is respectful of other faiths and has the wisdom to note the commonalities and learn the differences if only to understand his fellow-creatures of different religious persuasion.
He stated on Facebook, ‘On my way to the vigil’. It was just after 7.00pm when I left my office. I was disappointed that I would get late [I was planning to hold a lit candle, which is why I ‘shared’ more than once on Facebook the notice regarding the event]. Just as I left, the person who informed me about the event, a Muslim who knows as much or more about Buddhism as I do called me. He informed me that the Police had moved in to stop the vigil. I thought I would go home, but a minute later, another friend called to say, ‘they are arresting people’. I was upset and a tad angry, and decided I would go there anyway. Another colleague called and said he had called a mutual friend who was planning to attend the vigil and that she had quickly said ‘they are coming to arrest us’. I called her and found that those who had turned up for the vigil were not outside the Sambuddhatva Jayanthi Mandiraya (the venue) but opposite the Police Park. I parked my car on Keppetipola Mawatha and ran all the way to where two clearly identifiable groups (event attendees and members/supporters of the Bodu Bala Sena
) with half a dozen or more police officers.
Dilantha Vithanage, spokesperson for the BBS did a lot of talking –with the police, to the cameras and to his political opponents
Among those who were opposed to the vigil, I recognized two, a young man who was associated with the Sihala Urumaya way back in 2000 and another young man whom I’ve had on occasion associated with professionally. I also found out that Dilanthe Withanage, spokesperson for the BBS was also present (he did a lot of talking –with the police, to the cameras and to his political opponents). There were also several bikkhus who did a lot of talking. They were agitated, but not more and not less than their opposites were agitated. If I were to caricature, I would say the only difference was that the former spoke in Sinhala and the latter in English (I heard the F-word, several times).
I was more surprised, I must admit, when I took in the ‘attendees’. I had expected the crowd, even if it was small, to be made up of a majority of Buddhists from all walks of life. I can’t be blamed for expecting this because this was supposed to be an event organized by ‘Buddhists’. There must have been Buddhists. Some claimed they were and I have no reason to doubt them. But there were non-Buddhists in proportions that were a fair distance away from national ratios. There is nothing wrong in non-Buddhists taking part in such a vigil. In fact, even if one counted out legitimate fears of and opposition to the BBS as reason to attend, it is certainly legitimate (and laudable) that non-Buddhists decided to stand with Buddhists on an issue like this.
I was disappointed that there was little to tell me that the group was made up of people outside of the ‘facebooking’, English-speaking middle and upper-middle class. I was less disappointed than perturbed when I noticed that in that group there were individuals who have been violently anti-Buddhist
, including those who have cheered the LTTE
at times or white-washed that outfit as ‘logical’ necessity of being against the party/leadership they did not support in various elections since 2004. There were identifiable NGO activists and others who regularly put their names on political petitions and attend political rallies of a particular political persuasion. Nothing wrong there, but this is not the picture I expected to see and it is not a picture I would have enjoyed being part of.
What’s the ugliest thing in uniform? – a biased cop
All that mattered, from this point on, was to do what I could (precious little, I know) to stop things from getting worse. I spoke to the two young men I knew, who were not ‘talkers’. I said something to the following effect: ‘Look, I recognize that these people (pointing to the event-attendees) have their ideological and political agenda, that some of them are not as innocent as they claim to be. I do recognize that among them are people who knew that organizing this at the Sambuddhatva Jayanthi Mandiraya was provocative and bound to elicit a response (I had believed, when noting the venue, that all necessary sanctions had been obtained), but regardless of all this, they just came to light a candle. It was not violence. Tell the haamuduruwo to let it go. This is not helping anyone.’
I was accosted at one point by a person who had come to hold a candle. I recognized her as a former employee at the Peace Secretariate in the good old CFA days, an individual who has cosy relations with the notorious National Peace Council. She wanted to know why the Police had stopped a peaceful vigil. I told her that she should ask that from the Police, but told her also to look around the ‘crowd’. I told her that I believed that it was an event organized deliberately to provoke (even if some or even most of the participants were unaware of the fact or did not or did not want to believe it). She said, ‘If the Bodu Bala Sena can attack Fashion Bug
, what’s wrong with us protesting peacefully outside the Sambuddha Jayanthi Mandiraya?’ The BBS did not attack Fashion Bug, but the BBS did actively incite, true
. What is important here is that she certainly wasn’t there to be a ‘Better Buddhist’, but had a political agenda that had little to do with peace, reconciliation and tolerance.
The BBS goons were screaming NGO kaarayo!
In that crowd of people I recognized individuals whom I have never associated with the pernicious politics of the NGO Mafia; decent, good-hearted, law-abiding individuals of different faiths, who were probably as dismayed and agitated by recent developments, individuals who probably shared by antipathies towards the BBS, with whom I would never feel ashamed to stand. It was my error to assume that they were the people I was planning to stand with. Just as I will not stand with the BBS, neither will I stand with some of the operators who, in hindsight, orchestrated the whole event.
Several persons had been arrested just before I got there and I later found out that they had been quickly released. There was no reason to arrest anyone. I believe that the Police acted in a highhanded manner and although there is relief that they were released, the act of arrest was wrong and is unreservedly condemned.
My Muslim friend wrote, ‘What’s the ugliest thing in uniform? – a biased cop. I saw one today declaring pompously that everyone gathered at the vigil was either Muslim, Catholic or Tamil. My foot ached to give him a well-directed kick in that sweet spot right in the groove!’ I heard that too. The Police Officer can’t be faulted if he wondered how a ‘Buddhists against BBS’ event had so many non-Buddhists. It was a sweeping generalization nevertheless and the ethno-religious composition is anyway not relevant to the matter of peaceful, democratic action, even if there was nothing innocent in intent and design.
Police at the scene disallowing peaceful protest. A new one for our democracy
He also commented, ‘The BBS goons were screaming NGO kaarayo!’ I heard that too. Correct description (in part at least), but that does not de-legitimize action. He also observed, wryly, ‘Police at the scene disallowing peaceful protest. A new one for our democracy.’ It could have got worse, though, not because of him and others like him, but because ‘making it worse’ would have suited a lot of people. On both sides. A point I made to one of the Police Officers.
He may have not heard this, but someone referred to the anti-BBS ‘Buddhists’ as ‘Nightclub Buddhists’. Strange juxtaposition and descriptive, yes, but it also raised questions of social status, class, lifestyle etc. A Buddhist is a Buddhist, whether he/she wears white or black, a sil redda or jeans, but clothes mark and they mark well. This was no Buddhist Cross-section, that much was apparent to me.
Then he said, ‘Never felt so much about a cause. Never participated in something like this. Outrage of decent people was vented against those who were trying to demonize and degrade their religion.’ I identify with the cause. I do not agree with the description of those he stood with, though.
There were good people there. There were people who were angry. There were people talking past each other. There were people who refused to see the make-up of who they stood with. I came to stand with a certain group against the BBS. Had I come earlier, I am pretty sure I would not have lit a candle, because people make the cause and that too is something I take into account. I would have gone away.
As it turned out, I got there late and stayed until the two groups went their separate ways. I didn’t see and hear everything, but I’ve reported what I did see and hear and have shared my observations. That’s all.
My Muslim friend concluded, ‘One unused candle: for another day and another time.’ That is the saddest and yet most empowering line I heard tonight.
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