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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 1944

Violence against Muslims threatens secularism in Sri Lanka

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Constituency politics, the bane of Sri Lanka’s democracy has prevented important issues being discussed openly as political parties have not taken the initiative to do this fearing a loss of votes from their constituencies. This inaction has left these issues to simmer beneath the surface and mutate into ugly extremist viruses that threatens the secularism of the country. Unless there is an open discussion now on issues that causes friction amongst various religious groups in the country, the nation will become sick and not a healthy country for the future generations.

The historical English proverb “for want of a nail, a Kingdom was lost” describes a situation in which the failure to anticipate or correct some initially small dysfunction could lead to more critical and undesirable outcomes, describes the situation in Sri Lanka. The country witnessed this in recent times when in the late seventies/early eighties, then President J R Jayewardene brushed aside the LTTE as a handful of disgruntled youth and that he could handle them with no difficulty. More than 30 years later, history now tells us a different story.

The violence against the Muslims in Sri Lanka, specifically in Aluthgama, Beruwala and some areas in the Uva province, allegedly orchestrated by a few extremist elements led by a person who calls himself a Buddhist Monk, when everything he seems to be doing is anything but what a Buddhist Monk would do, has led to many negatives for Sri Lanka.

A government minister has made a statement saying Muslim Jihadis supported by the US were behind these incidents. Rather than aiming wildly, and taking the often stated view that someone else and not Sri Lankans themselves are responsible for their problems, the minister concerned, and more specifically the government, should provide details about who was responsible for this outrage to the general public in Sri Lanka if what many seem to believe, that is, the BBS or elements of it were responsible for this violence is unfounded.

It needs to be noted that the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) a research and link aggregator owned by the Beacham group, had classified Bodu Bala Sena as a ‘terrorist organization’ in April 2014.

As mentioned earlier, this incident has shown serious dents in Sri Lanka’s secularism. Firstly, it has led to some saying that communal and religious harmony in Sri Lanka, despite an outward display of harmony, has always been extremely tenuous, fragile and operating on very thin ice, ready to break and fall into an abyss when lit by even the shortest fuse.

Some say this harmony is a myth, and underneath a façade of harmony, there lies a latent but simmering discord within minorities that could erupt at any time.

These could be unkind generalisations as an overwhelming majority of all Sri Lankans are tolerant and respectful of each other’s ethnicity and religion and they have lived in peace with each other. They have and will continue to co-exist as fellow Sri Lankans.

However, as recent history has shown, it has always been a minority, even a handful of extreme elements that have been responsible for shaming the majority, and shaming the country internationally.

The responsibility for this is not just with that minority. It is far more clearly with those who have been empowered to act decisively by the majority, to ensure extreme minorities do not disrupt even the fragile harmony of the country.

President JR Jayewardene failed to do this in the early eighties, and the country experienced a 30 year period of violence unprecedented not just in Sri Lanka but even in many other countries.

Unless President Mahinda Rajapaksa takes decisive action to stop these extremists in their tracks, he could suffer substantial political damage, the country would be shamed and will suffer, and there could be serious economic consequences to the country that could lead to dissatisfaction, unrest and even widespread violence.

Unlike the LTTE, which primarily drew support from Tamil Nadu and for domestic political reasons, drew some support from some Western nations, and also some international organisations, the Muslims of Sri Lanka could draw support from 1.5 Billion Muslims, and economic consequences from the Middle Eastern countries could cripple Sri Lanka.

Secondly, some who wanted to believe in the direction of the current government despite some misgivings have begun to feel helpless and dejected as they feel that governance is not on the basis of what is right, but what is politically expedient.

Although it is not the practice of this writer to mention rumours that are unsubstantiated, it needs to be mentioned, that there is an underlying disquiet that powerful sections of the government have been close to the Bodu Bala Sena, although it is now known that the founder President Ven Kirama Wimalajothi Thera had disassociated himself from the BBS some six months ago and he has now resigned as the head of the BBS claiming it has gone out of control.

According to Ven Kirama Wimalajothi Thera. The BBS was formed to assist Buddhist Monks to teach Buddha’s teaching; exactly what Buddha wanted the Maha Sangha to do. In this context, one cannot criticise the government for having had some communications with the BBS, as they would do with any organisation, religious or communal for political purposes.

However, what one cannot but help wondering is why a powerful government, knowing the head of the BBS had not taken any active part in some laudable BBS activities, had watched in silence while extreme elements bent on violence and inciting violence, had taken control of a benign organisation.

The feeling of helplessness and dejection comes with the growing disenchantment not just with the government but even more so with the main Opposition party the UNP and the absence of a powerful and effective Opposition which many feel has been an ineffective element in the governance system in Sri Lanka.

Thirdly, there seems to be a growing opinion that in order to counter the above two points and the human right violations of the minorities, external intervention of some description is needed to ensure these rights are not under threat. Ironically, some who opposed the UNHRC enquiry on Sri Lanka, now appear to be saying that it is in fact needed as the intolerance shown by some Sinhala Buddhists, albeit a very small minority of them, is an indication that atrocities may have been committed against the Tamil minority during the last few years prior to the war against the LTTE and during the war as well.

There are other developments related to this spate of violence that is equally or even more concerning. This is the insidious violence that is being perpetrated against people who have been opposed to the extremist, violent brand of Buddhist supremacist advocacy, like the Ven Watareka Vijitha Thero who has been subject to the most inhuman kind of violence, and two policemen in Mawanella who had acid thrown at them reportedly because they prevented some persons from harming Muslims in Mawanella.

These incidents, although isolated as they seem, are somehow dangerous signs of intolerance of opinion as violent extremism appears to be not as isolated and limited to a few people as it is made out to be. These developments cannot be taken lightly and neither can one take an Ostrich attitude with the head in the sand and imagine the issue will simply go away.

The government needs to act quickly and decisively to firstly make sure the incidents of the last few days do not happen again and that all communities are able to live without fear and persecution, and secondly, they need to weed out the root cause of this intolerance against minority communities so that whatever genuine issues are there amongst religious groups could be discussed by moderates and solutions found.

There are issues that may need to be discussed by all parties. The concerns that some Buddhists have are not without foundation. A degree of religious extremist orthodoxy that causes friction within the social fabric of the country and seen amongst some Muslims, was highlighted by a prominent Islam scholar Dr Amir Ali in an interview with Ranga Jayasuriya appearing in Ceylon Today was mentioned in article published in the Asian tribune on the 23rd of July 2013 (Muslims in Sri Lanka are self-alienating themselves from the mainstream community – Dr Ameer Ali)

Dr. Ameer Ali, a prominent Islamic scholar and a former adviser on Muslim Affairs to former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard's Government, and an academic at the Faculty of Management and Governance of Murdoch University, had said that Muslims in Sri Lanka are self-alienating themselves from the mainstream community.

He had said the crucial issue for the Muslim community in Sri Lanka is to decide whether they want to be Muslims of Sri Lanka or Muslims in Sri Lanka. Dr Ali noted that since the 1970s, there has been the development of orthodox Islam, something new to this country and many issues had come up due to the new brand of imported Islam.

Friction that this may have caused with Buddhism and Buddhist activists has never been addressed by successive governments and the period of LTTE terrorism and violence had left this simmering issue in the backburner while orthodoxy amongst some Muslims grew and spread wide and deep while resentment amongst some Buddhists got more and more acute.

Counter activism by some Buddhists would have taken root when no action was taken by the State to initiate a discussion amongst all groups to arrive at a consensus solution to this issue. It is possible that the BBS may have been formed to counter this situation by activists engaging in the spread of Buddhist teaching.

Constituency politics, the bane of Sri Lanka’s democracy has prevented important issues being discussed openly as political parties have not taken the initiative to do this fearing a loss of votes from their constituencies. This inaction has left these issues to simmer beneath the surface and mutate into ugly extremist viruses that threatens the secularism of the country. Unless there is an open discussion now on issues that causes friction amongst various religious groups in the country, the nation will become sick and not a healthy country for the future generations.

- Asian Tribune -

Violence against Muslims threatens secularism in Sri Lanka
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