Human Rights and Reconciliation Challenged in Dambulla and by Disappearances

In more ways than one, a sleeping Buddha in Dambulla Rock Cave Temple. Courtesy University of Peradeniya

Whilst the country awaits the decision of the regime regarding which recommendations, if any, of the LLRC report it will implement, human rights and reconciliation continue to be challenged, by disappearances and now, the ugly spectre of religious intolerance.

From October 2011 to March 2012, there have been some 56 cases of disappearances and abduction recorded.  Some 29 of these have been in February and March of this year and 19 happened whilst the UNHRC was in session.  Of the 29 cases, 16 have been reported from Colombo and 08 from the Northern Province.  Five of the cases reported from the north are said to be ex-LTTE cadre who had been detained, released and then abducted. Egregious cases include that of

  1. Mr Ramasamy Prabhakaran who was abducted in Colombo two days before his fundamental rights petition was to come up before the Supreme Court. He had been held for 28 months and tortured.
  2. Mr Sagara Senaratne, an in – law of Minister Jeevan Kumaratunga, who alleges that he was released once the President and Defence Secretary were informed of his abduction.
  3. Mr Ravindra Udayashantha, the UPFA chairperson of the Kolonnawa Pradeshiya Council who alleged that the attempt to abduct him was foiled by his supporters surrounding the white van sent for this purpose only to discover that it contained army personnel. The latter were later released and the officer in charge of the police station transferred according to authorities on grounds unrelated to the incident.
  4. The Gunaratnam and Atygalle cases, which were preceded by the disappearance of Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Murugananthan in Jaffna – nothing being heard of the last two since they were disappeared.

The issue is as to what the regime is willing and able to do about disappearances and abductions and increasingly, to dispel the perception that in some of these cases at least, it is complicit – a perception that is lent credence to by the Senaratne and Kolonnawa cases.   Were this to be entirely erroneous a perception or accurate to the extent that there could be rogue elements in the law and order and security establishment at lower levels who operate without the knowledge and to the detriment of the hierarchy, it begs the question of the extent to which the hierarchy knows what is going on.  Assuming that none of this has anything to do with persons in the law and order and security establishment, the question still remains as to what credible steps they are willing and able to take to stop the institutionalization of an egregious human rights violation as a common place occurrence in the country.

It is not clear as to the seriousness and priority with which the regime treats this. The sensitivities of being seen to bow to international opinion on human rights post –Geneva notwithstanding, there is the danger of this becoming a political issue that could haunt the regime and erode its standing nationally.   There was a time when the questions -who is this man? what is he doing?- came to be catch phrases for a dark phase in our recent history. As a columnist put with regard to the Senaratne case – how did they know whom to call? Will that question be the catchphrase of today, tomorrow and tomorrow……..?

Dangerous and frightening is what is going on in Dambulla – the most recent example of religious intolerance but certainly not the only one in recent times.   The legality of both the Hindu and Muslim places of worship aside, the key question, given the need of the hour being reconciliation is as to why the issue was allowed to be dealt with, with violence, intimidation, gross contempt and insensitivity to religious coexistence and tolerance which the peoples of this country have upheld through decades of war and before.

Did anyone know that this incident was being planned? Why was it allowed to proceed and result in the cancellation of prayers at the mosque on Friday?  Questions are constantly asked and accusations hurled at those who have spoken out post –war at majoritarian triumphalism and the muscular assertion of the majority Sinhala- Buddhist identity.  All of this was on display in Dambulla, with the threat to expand the space for it throughout the island.  Particularly tragic, is that the area in which this demonstration of thuggery was enacted in the name of historic religious rights, with its Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu places of worship, has been a testament to religious tolerance and coexistence – not for over a century as the monk sarcastically inquires of the girl who says she worshiped at the Hindu shrine when she was a child – but for decades.

Available evidence suggests that the regime will resolve the issue in favour of the majority.  One can only hope and pray that whatever the resolution of the issue, that it will not lead to further violence and spread. Most importantly, that it will not sow the seeds of religious conflict.  Reconciliation requires that the seeds of conflict along any axis are not sustained or reproduced.

Dambulla is also telling for the deafening silence of those who feel the patriotic compulsion to regularly mouth off on the indignities and subversion of traitors and conspirators within and without.  I have yet to see an editorial in the media on this, denunciation of this blatant violation of the tenets of Buddhism by leading prelates, monks, members of civil society and politicians, except for a handful of the latter and those of us who have been labeled as traitors for upholding basic human rights.  Is criticism of members of the Sangha taboo even when it focuses on blatant violations of the teachings of the Lord Buddha and the overarching imperative of reconciliation to which these teachings are so integral and pivotal a part of?  What of the discipline of the priesthood?  Was the behavior of the monks in Dambulla in keeping with it?

It is time for civil society, its religious and lay components, to step up to the plate of their responsibilities to rid this country of ugly and altogether unnecessary tension and conflict.  It is highly likely that if they do, a populist regime will in turn take the lead from its followers, as populist regimes are wont to, to stay in power.

It would seem that as criticism of members of the Sangha is taboo, so does the minister who threatened to break my legs, enjoy impunity.   We are told by First Brother Basil that he has done good deeds in Kelaniya and that only His Excellency the President can remove him – from the party- that is.  His Excellency appears to be unmoved.

Would it have been any different if he carried out his threat, in this country and regime like no other?

  • PitastharaPuthraya

    The responsibility of ‘Dambulla’ lies not only with the prelate but also with the ruling ideology of Rajapaksha regime. This will not be the first or the last. They would be the logical conclusion of the indoctrination of the stupid Sinhala Buddhist masses by the oppertunistic racist politicians for decades but intensified both conceptually and practically by the current regime.

    This incident, the behaviour of the well-known buddhist prelate of one of the most venerated and visited historical buddhist sites in Sri lanka and the reaction of the Sinhalese buddhist politicians, other buddhsits leader, journalists, intellectuals etc amply confirm my long held beleif that Sinhala Buddhism has nothing to do with the teaching of the Buddha.

    You need not be a Buddhist to understand that what these buddhist monks and Sinhalese buddhists laypersons (Upasaka and Upasika)were trying to do was wrong. But when it was being done in the name of one of the greatest teachers of non-violence it looked rather incomprehensible.

    When I looked at the mood of the mob a chill ran through my spine thinking what would happen to me if I get caught in a mob like this and I happen to be brave enough to challenge them.

    The Buddha was said to have declared that his teaching would only last for 5000 years. However, we can definitely say that it had long ceased to exist in Sri lanka within half of that time.

  • http://www.groundviews.org Groundviews

    A week ago, a violent a mob of about 2,000 Sinhalese, including a group of Buddhist monks led by the Mahanayaka of the Rangiri Dambulu chapter Inamaluwe Sumangala thero, stormed and vandalised a mosque in Dambulla. The mosque was declared an illegal structure, but it is unclear how this far this is accurate.

    The shameful behaviour and expression employed by the Mahanayaka of the Rangiri Dambulu chapter Inamaluwe Sumangala thero, along with the monks he led and the crowd of thugs is not remotely associated with or reflective of the philosophy of the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha, or the way in which a Buddhist monk is supposed to behave and speak. Many online have already expressed their dismay and deep concern over the actions of a few, placing Sri Lanka in the media spotlight again for all the wrong reasons.

    We have a choice, but time is running out. Speak up. Put your name in a comment below and say that this violence was not in your name, and that more calls to violence are futile. Renounce a fringe lunacy and resist extremism. By putting your name below, you are opposing mob violence and bigotry as ways to resolve disputes.

    If we have to fight, let’s fight to keep Sri Lanka free of extremists who threaten not only what they seek to destroy, but also who and what they claim to represent. Add your name below, and please pass the message on.

    Read and sign up today – http://notinournamesl.wordpress.com/

  • Lasantha Pethiyagoda

    DAMBULLA: HISTORICAL FACTS OR FICTION?

    The average Sri Lankan, hearing various versions through the media that serves as propagandist, and being ill-equipped to challenge the vilifying assumptions against an enemy of choice, will be inclined to embrace or tolerate a rationale for unfair decisions. Fear and ignorance, not countered by a rational presentation of historical fact, become the basis of any future attitude.

    Disinformation and deception can be cleverly used to frame the public’s attitudes. These sorts of claims, even if later disproved, can effectively set up targets for attack.

    Take the following facts for example. Many Sri Lankans are ignorant of the fact that Hezbollah, which represents the Shia in Lebanon, is a popular political party (with no record of “terrorism”, by the way). It is highly valued for its efficient dispensing of myriad social services to all Lebanese. As a resistance movement it was instrumental in evicting the Israelis from the south, more than once.

    The international media has conditioned us to perceive Muslim hostility towards Israel as religious animosity, anti-Semitism and intolerance rather than justifiable anger at the occupation, annexation, abuse, displacement and oppression of Palestinians. Atrocities are committed against Palestinians in order to provoke revenge attacks termed as “suicide terror”, which ostensibly justifies perpetuation of coercion and lack of diplomacy.

    Hamas, widely acknowledged as pious, capable and honest in contrast to the corrupt, inefficient but secular Palestinian Authority is portrayed as “terrorist” although it won a democratic election conducted fairly and reflecting the aspirations of the Palestinian people. Do we question the refusal by Western governments, to recognise a democratically elected party while preaching about democracy?

    Similarly, one must become cognizant of facts before allowing oneself to be influenced by innuendo, deception or campaigns for vilification. Popular sentiment against a minority can be instigated at the will of a party with a variety of political interests. As in the case of geopolitical manipulation of sectarian differences and the fomenting of violence in order to cause instability within an otherwise independent nation, forces within a community can also act with similar motivations in order to use the ensuing mayhem to their own nefarious advantage.

  • http://n/a Shelton Dharmaratne.

    Violent contexts are complex and it is hard to come up with a single explanation of its root causes.
    Sri Lanka is proud of being the home of Theravada Buddhism; it is incomprehensible how and why it has experienced various forms of violent activities perpetuated by extremists, the perpetuation of violent activities in the name of one’s own religion.
    Though various forms of violent activities in Sri Lanka have no direct link with Buddhist teachings, the phenomenon of violence in Sri Lanka has challenged and tested the sustainability of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and its continuing influence in Sri Lankan society. And part of the problem lies with those who claim to be Buddhists and this includes (hamuduruwo) monks who seem to have forgotten or ignored the teachings of the Buddhuhamuduruwo.