By Jehan Perera –
The latest attack on a Muslim mosque in Colombo is a further sign that the Buddhist nationalist upsurge is continuing to grow and not diminish with the passing of time. While the police belatedly acted to bring the situation under control, its lax approach to apprehending the aggressors indicates the continuation of an apparent government policy to treat them with deference. The six Muslim ministers of the government have appealed to it to take effective action noting the “lukewarm and ineffective measures taken by the law enforcement agencies on previous occasions.” In the latest attack on a mosque in Grandpass, the attackers had gathered as a mob, thrown stones, shattered windows, and also attacked adjoining Muslim houses in the same way. Although the attackers were clearly identifiable there are no reports of any deterrent action by the police in regard to apprehending the aggressors. The pattern of incidents that have taken place in the recent past is an indication of the threat to pluralism, multi-culturalism and religious tolerance in the country.
The attitude on the part of those who are aggressors that they can disrupt the activities of others is a violation of the freedom of assembly and freedom of religion guaranteed in the Constitution. The attitude of the law enforcement agencies to permit those who break the law and get away without legal sanction undermines the credibility of the government as a secular one. This lack of commitment has led to the fomenting of religious and ethnic tensions in post-war Sri Lanka. It is ironic that the Buddhist nationalists to whom the government is paying so much deference, perhaps on account of their claim that they are protecting Buddhism in the country, are engaging in behavior that is the antithesis of what is found in the ancient Buddhist texts of Sri Lanka during that period of time regarded as the golden period of Sri Lankan Buddhism. Some gleanings of this are available in the Sanghasarana, which was part of the classical Sinhalese texts translations of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and National Heritage.
The Sanghasarana, which is about the life of Buddhist monks of the Anuradhapura period in the first millennium gives very direct and simple stories to highlight the values that must guide those who seek to follow the Buddhist religion. A consistent theme is that any action that harms another living being is unacceptable. There is a particularly illustrative story of a monk who falls sick and requires a special remedy to regain his health. A tree spirit who seeks to be helpful causes an innocent child to fall sick, and asks the parents to prepare the special medicinal preparation and give it to the monk if they are to cure their child. However, the monk refuses the medicinal preparation when it is given to him. “Having seen that the tree deity had caused it to be cooked by inflicting pain upon the son of that family, said, Friend, this food is not suitable for our consumption. Remove this.” This is the strict teachings that the Sinhala Buddhist people were taught and have followed, in which means do not justify ends. This is also unlike the violent Buddhist nationalism of today to which the government looks to be giving deference.
The government’s very cautious if not supportive approach in dealing with the harm to religious and ethnic coexistence by the nationalist Buddhist section of the polity is in sharp contrast with how the police dealt with the demonstration against a factory that was accused of polluting ground water in Weliweriya last week. In that incident, the police apparently abdicated their responsibilities to the army which was swiftly brought in to bring a public protest to an end at the cost of the lives three persons and causing serious injuries to many others. The protest was a community-level one only against the contamination of groundwater consumed by village people in the area by a factory. It was hard to believe that four years after the end of the war, the same style, and militarized thinking that once dictated military operations in the north and east of the country, still continues to motivate some actions of the government.
However, the Weliweriya incident is not the first serious post-war incident involving the military and the civilian population. There have been several similar incidents in different parts of the country in the intervening years. These include the recent breaking up of civilian protests against the take-over of lands in Veligamam North in the Jaffna peninsula, the shooting death of one person in the break up of demonstration by fishermen in Chilaw over a fuel price hike, another shooting death of a worker in a trade union protests in Katunayake, the killing of over 40 prisoners in the Welikada jail riots, clashes with university students in Jaffna on the commemoration of the war dead, and with civilians in Nedunkerny over the “Grease devils” assailants.
During the years of the war there were sporadic and sometimes regular demonstrations held, for the most part, at the Fort Railway Station or at the traffic roundabout at Lipton’s Circus to protest against some terrible violation of human rights that came to attention time after time. During a war, such incidents are to be expected even if not condoned. But four years after the end of the war, it is disconcerting and most distressing to have such incidents take place again. At the Fort Railway Station last week, it was like those bad old times. Protest groups were out there in the afternoon sun along with their supporters. They delivered the same message of government abuse of power, the need for democratic dialogue and called for respect of the country’s pluralism and democracy. This time around, unlike in the past, those in the protest group included leaders of those who had become victims.
On this occasion it was the words of the Ven. Therippahe Siridhamma who was one of the religious leaders with the people at Weliweriya that gave substance to the words of the veteran democracy activists. His speech at the demonstration in front of the Fort Railway Station would be a wake-up call to any unrighteous government. Referring to the incident at Weliweriya, the monk said, “This was not why voted for the government. We did not come to harm anyone. We did not expect this savagery. Our future is uncertain. I am not afraid to die. But if I am killed, my people will lose my leadership which they expect me to take up.” It also shows the double-edged nature of mobilizing religious sentiment for political purposes especially in Sri Lanka, which has a historical tradition of Buddhist monks getting involved in matters of state to protect the religion. They are also capable of mobilizing and being mobilized to protect the people’s interests.
The savagery that the monk spoke of having experienced was echoed by others who had been to Weliweriya to participate in the funeral or who came from its vicinity. They had firsthand accounts of what had transpired. How the media personnel on the scene were hounded and attacked. How the people cried out that they had supported the soldiers during the war against the LTTE, even offering donating blood for the injured soldiers, and this was how they were being treated now. One spoke of a Catholic nun who barred the gate to the convent where people had run into. Even when a soldier had pointed his gun at her, she refused to move. “We know what you are doing in Pakistan, India…we will take care of you,” he had said, revealing the effects of anti-minority propaganda that is been spread, even to the Sri Lankan military that needs to become a secular force, dedicated to the protection of all Sri Lankans.
On the other hand, the inaction of the police, and by implication the government, in the face of repeated acts of aggression by Buddhist nationalist groups against religious minorities conjures up parallels to Myanmar. In that country, sections within the military government who see their power slipping away due to the popularity of the opposition led by Aung Sang Suu Kyii are believed to be sponsoring Buddhist nationalists who take aggressive action against the Muslim minority and cite reasons of national security and protection of Buddhism as their justification. Even as the government seeks to impress the gathering of the Commonwealth of Nations as to Sri Lanka’s post-war progress, it is important that it should not permit this parallel or other negative parallels to be drawn, by emphasizing its adherence to the traditional Buddhist values as found in the Sanghasarana rather than in the modern version of Buddhist nationalism.