Divisive role of religion grows in Sri Lanka
Unless the government takes deterrent action against those who are fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment, this trend is likely to continue and grow. The pattern of incidents that have taken place in the recent past is an indication of the threat to pluralism, multiculturalism and religious tolerance in the country, writes Jehan Perera from Colombo
THE most likely point of new inter-community conflict at the present time is between those who espouse nationalist Buddhism and the Muslim community. Although not widely reported, the attacks against Muslim places of worship and Muslim owned businesses are continuing. In a six-month period from January to June this year, at least 155 anti-Muslim incidents were reported by the Secretariat for Muslims. The attitude on the part of those who are aggressors is that they can with impunity disrupt the activities of others even in violation of the freedom of association and freedom of religion guaranteed in the constitution. These rights need to be upheld in a practical manner to prevent the fomenting of religious and ethnic tensions in post-war Sri Lanka. However, the attitude of the police and other 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.
Speaking at a public forum on the role of religion in reconciliation organised by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies, the Ven. Galkande Dhammananda, who lectures at the University of Kelaniya, made some very pertinent observations. He noted that ‘the theme of the conference itself suggests that we are yet to achieve reconciliation, although some four years have slipped away without much notice of that historical responsibility. Tragically, today, whether you may accept it or not, we are on the verge of another social crisis or conflict.’ He added that even if we are able to attribute responsibility for the past years of conflict on the previous generations, this time around it would be the present generation that would be held responsible for any return to conflict.
Unfortunately, the law enforcement agencies have been generally inactive in taking deterrent action against those who attack Muslim establishments and defile their places of worship. The function of the police is to act under the criminal procedure code and the police ordinance and uphold the rule of law. However, the general ethos in cases where Buddhist religious clergy are involved is to let the perpetrators off without legal action, leaving space for them to act again with impunity. At this time, when the country is preparing for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka, and also for the Commonwealth People’s Summit it is important that the government should take the necessary steps to protect the space for religious and civic groups to function freely, without fear and harassment.
Although the government is making great efforts to ensure that the Commonwealth events are successful, the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate. It must be understood that governance is not about creating positive images for foreigners to see as they pass through, but about improving the lives of the populace through adherence to basic values of justice and freedom. Governance is not about a theatrical performance where the props are in place and everything is on cue. It is also not a one-act play where the actors are applauded, but is a continuing commitment to a discipline in which the rule of law and time-tested systems of checks and balances and institutional integrity prevail. But the evidence at present is to the contrary. This observation is born of my experience recently as a member of the National Peace Council.
AS PART of its post-war peace building initiatives the National Peace Council has been conducting an educational programme on the LRRC report in different parts of the country, including Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Colombo, Matara, Galle, Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mannar, Puttalam, Ampara, Kurunegala, Batticaloa and Trincomalee. These LLRC workshops have been very popular with community leaders and local level government officials of all ethnicities. However, on Saturday July 27, 2013 a workshop discussion between community leaders and experts on land law and policy conducted by the council in Batticaloa was forcibly disrupted. The workshop that was disrupted was part of the council’s follow-up activities, done at the request of the participants themselves, who consisted mostly of community leaders from areas of resettlement. Its purpose was to educate them on the government’s rules and regulations and provide a legal point of view on land issues.
Those who disrupted the meeting consisted of a Buddhist monk from Batticaloa and several of his followers believed to be from the neighbouring Ampara district. They accused the council and those at the workshop of having a hidden agenda of foreign powers and having the motivation of discrediting the country in Geneva. On his arrival, the monk and a few of his followers (on account of the limited space) were accommodated at the workshop in a polite and respectful manner. They were given an introduction to the objectives of the event in the Sinhala language, and at the request of the monk he was given time to express his views to the participants. He said that the event was to make biased decisions on land issues in favour of Tamil people although the organisers explained this was only an educational programme and not one at which decisions on land would be made. The organisers of the event were thereafter physically assaulted and even kicked by the monk and his followers.
The police who came on the scene did well to control the situation and prevent the crisis from escalating. However, in an ironic twist, when the organisers went to the police station to make their statement, the police requested them to make peace with the monk, even to the extent of asking him for pardon, presumably for organising the event and not inviting him. This is not first occasion on which the police have chosen to be unofficial mediators in the case of aggressive actions by some Buddhist religious clergy. The disruption of the NPC event is similar to that experienced by other civil society groups who have faced similar obstructions. There too the police have adopted a passive stance, which furthers the sense of impunity and strengthens the impression that political constraints prevent the police from carrying out their duties impartially.
THE assertive role played by sections of the Buddhist clergy in the country’s political affairs is not a new phenomenon. There are many references in the historical chronicles of efforts of the clergy to safeguard both the people and the land. This provides a powerful justification for the continuing interventions that are being encouraged by sections within the polity. However, the present day reality of Sri Lanka as a country in which there is a substantial multi-ethnic and multi-religious population does not harmonise with the assertiveness of those who have a vision of a Sinhala Buddhist polity. This creates the possibility of new forms of conflict which take the centre stage after the ending of the three decade long war that pitted the state against separatist Tamil nationalism.
Unless the government takes deterrent action against those who are fomenting anti-Muslim sentiment, this trend is likely to continue and grow. The pattern of incidents that have taken place in the recent past is an indication of the threat to pluralism, multiculturalism and religious tolerance in the country.
So far, the anti-Muslim campaign being currently undertaken by extremist groups has not been challenged publicly by any significant section of the polity. The current trend of growing religious polarisation is contributing to disharmony, violence and disintegration of social relations in a context where the government’s preoccupation is on infrastructure development than an effective process of reconciliation ensuring human and political rights. There is a need to be concerned that the use of politicised religion for electoral gain could turn out to be double edged if it takes on a life of its own and expands to new areas of contestation.
In his presentation at the public forum on the role of religion in reconciliation, the Ven. Galkande Dhammananda (who was a student of the great Buddhist scholar monk, Ven. Dr Walpola Rahula) recommended that ‘an apex body of dedicated representatives of all the religions who can work to eradicate suspicions and work to build trust and understanding will be the solution to address this issue.’ Encouraging religious clergy to demonstrate universal values and loving kindness in their thought, speech and behaviour is the primary responsibility of religious clergy. It is also important that the political leaders of the country resist the temptation to secure their vote banks by adopting divisive stances that can attract the votes of the ethnic and religious majority. The mobilisation of nationalist Buddhism will lead to a diminished space for the government to make the necessary political compromises necessary for consensual governance in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.
‘If you ask me to point out the most important message that I can derive from Buddhism for reconciliation in our society, I would like to remind you of this verse from the Dhammapada… “Victory breeds hatred; the defeated sleeps in sorrow; the peaceful sleeps happily, abandoning victory and defeat.” Accordingly, I can say any sort of victory celebrations certainly affect negatively on the idea of reconciliation. As long as we keep the “victorious and the defeated” dichotomy in society, we are keeping alive the “hatred and anger”. If we want to have reconciliation and a peaceful country we need our people to get away from “victory and defeat” mentality. It is not my word. It is the word of the Buddha.’ These words of the Ven. Dhammananda give a hint of the treasure this country has in the Buddhist religion, which the ancient Sinhala historical chronicle, the Mahavama, said will finally be protected in Sri Lanka.
Jehan Perera is the executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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