By Asoka Bandarage –
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Rita Izsak-Ndiaye released a Statement on Sri Lanka on October 20, 2016 following a ten day visit to the island. Representing the position of the ‘international community’, her Statement identifies ‘Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian leadership’ as the main reason behind minority grievances and Sri Lanka’s ‘long civil war’. The Rapporteur expresses fears that keeping Article 9 of the Sri Lankan Constitution which refers to the primacy of Buddhism, ‘could lead to further suppression of and discrimination against minority religions and communities’.
The mandate of the U.N. Rapporteur on Minority Issues is to ‘promote and protect the rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities’, is a laudable one. This mandate, however, does not grant the Rapporteur freedom to curtail the rights of those belonging to majority communities using conceptually and factually flawed approaches. The Rapporteur is deemed an ‘independent expert’ by the United Nations. Unfortunately, her recent Statement on Sri Lanka which is built on a narrow majority vs. minority concept and a lack of understanding of historical, regional and international contexts, exhibits neither independence nor expertise.
Majority Aggressor vs. Minority Victims
Like the dominant international perspective on Sri Lanka, the Rapporteur’s Statement is based on a simplistic dualism: Sinhala Buddhist majority aggressor vs. Tamil, Muslim, Christian and other minority victims. This monolithic characterization ignores basic incongruent realities. For instance, although Article 9 the Sri Lankan Constitution gives ‘foremost place’ to Buddhism (the religion of 70% of the island’s population) and refers to the duty of the state to protect and foster Buddhism, Article 10 asserts that “Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”.
Unlike most other pluralistic countries in the world, Sri Lanka has Cabinet level Ministries each to protect and foster Hindu, Islamic and Christian Affairs in addition to Buddhism. The critics of Article 9, including the U.N. Rapporteur, fail to acknowledge that Article 9 has not prevented Sri Lanka from allowing widespread Christian evangelical and Islamic Wahabi proselytization and conversion which are not permitted in Islamic and many other nations. In contrast, international attempts to sever the historical link between Buddhism and the Sri Lankan state, is sowing seeds of disharmony, aggravating tensions, resistance and inter-religious conflict.
While the U.N. Rapporteur enumerates extensive mechanisms to be put in place to promote and protect minorities, she does not acknowledge minority dominance in the Sri Lankan economy and the influential and strategic Cabinet Ministerships, in Investment Promotion, Urban Development, Disaster Management, Industry and Commerce, Tourism, etc. held by persons from minority communities, especially the Muslims. She also fails to recognize the powerful government positions recently acquired by members of the Tamil community and the ethical and legal controversies surrounding some of those appointments. In a seeming return to the ‘dominant minority’ position they enjoyed during the British colonial period, Tamil elites have been appointed as the Chief Justice and the Governor of the Central Bank. A Tamil politician was appointed as the Leader of the Parliamentary Opposition even though his Tamil National Alliance party won only 16 seats as opposed to the much larger number of seats gained by the United People’s Freedom Alliance of the Sinhalese.
The U.N. Rapporteur’s Statement brings strong charges against the Buddhist majority for construction of Buddhist places of worship ‘in areas that were traditionally non-Buddhist’. It blames ‘Buddhist extremists’ for inciting ‘violence and hatred against religious and other minorities while proclaiming the racial superiority of Sinhala Buddhists’. The widespread destruction of Buddhist places of worship in the island’s north and the east and incidences of aggression, extremism and violence by members of other religious groups towards the Buddhists, however, are not mentioned in the Rapporteur’s Statement.
The Rapporteur’s Statement ignores the grievances of the Sinhalese even where they are a minority, as in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo and in the Tamil majority Northern Province. It does not mention the plight of Buddhist monks who have been ordered to remove their historic temples from the Northern Province by Tamil politicians. It does not address the case of Sinhala students at the University in Jaffna who were attacked and compelled to leave the campus for seeking to include a Sinhala dance form at a campus ceremony. Nor does the Statement address the Special Gazette notification of 21 August 2015 which allegedly transferred the only remaining Sinhala village of Bogaswewa in the north, from the Northern Province to the North Central Province. Failure of the ‘international community’ to condemn ethnic cleansing of Sinhalese from the Northern Province helps the creation of an exclusive Tamil separate state.
Regional, International and Historical Contexts
Neither Sri Lanka, nor any other country exists in a vacuum. Local realities are shaped by regional and international forces. Notwithstanding the U.N. Rapporteur’s mandate which is restricted to the local state level, minority and majority identities and grievances have to be understood in relation to regional and international demographic realities and political and cultural pressures. Although the majority in Sri Lanka, Sinhalese are a small minority in the South Indian and global contexts (some 60 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu and a total 76 million globally in contrast to 15 million Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and 18 million globally). Although the majority in Sri Lanka, Buddhists are a small minority in the global context (about 5% in contrast to 32% Christians and 22% Muslims). Any serious attempt to address majority-minority relations in Sri Lanka must grapple with the complexities of India’s role in Sri Lanka’s separatist conflict and the fears and resistance generated among Buddhists by evangelical Christian and Wahabi Islamic expansion. These issues are not recognized in the U.N. Rapporteur’s Statement.
According to the U.N. Rapporteur, ‘Since independence, ethnic and religious identity has come to be of a huge significance in Sri Lankan society’. Sri Lankan history does not begin with independence from British colonial rule. Ethnic and religious identities evolved over centuries in the pre-colonial and colonial periods. Historical evidence shows that in the regions in the north and the east of Sri Lanka which the U.N. Rapporteur assumes as ‘traditionally non-Buddhist’, Buddhist civilization flourished prior to Hindu and Islamic settlements. As Buddhism began to be wiped out of India, the challenge of safeguarding the Buddha’s teaching and Buddhist culture was taken up by Sri Lanka and other neighboring Buddhist countries. Support from the state and the monarchy was crucial for the survival of Buddhism in these lands. The foremost place given to Buddhism in Sri Lanka’s Constitution (as well as in the Constitutions of Myanmar and Thailand) is a homage to that historical and continuing challenge. Many are asking: is the attempt to change that historical relationship between Buddhism and the state through international intervention, a deliberate attempt to destabilize and control these countries?
The United Nations today has little political legitimacy and moral authority given its many failures across the world. The U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon himself has admitted the failure of the United Nations in averting the humanitarian crisis at the end of the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. To rebuild global acceptance and respect for the United Nations, its representatives, such as, the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues must provide accurate and balanced accounts that build unity and harmony instead of division and conflict between majority and minority communities.