A week ago, we disgraced ourselves. Racist louts, some in the garb of Buddhist monks, engaged openly in speech and behaviour so violent, even those who led it were forced to suggest later the footage broadcast on TV and now globally viewed on YouTube was doctored.
Sri Lanka’s tryst with militant Buddhism is not new. It is the fundamental basis of the JHU, which is today deeply embedded in government. As much as the telegenics of last week’s outrageous violence shocked many, it is this very behaviour that most temple-going Buddhists in Sri Lanka have nurtured over decades, and continue to unquestioningly venerate when they support, through silence, word or deed, this violence.
Much remains to be said by the President, government and media on Dambulla. Not so long ago, a journalist – J.S. Tissainayagam – was jailed, tortured and humiliated for writing the government thought incited communal hatred. No such action will even be contemplated against the Mahanayaka of the Rangiri Dambulu chapter Inamaluwe Sumangala thero. The Ven. Thero joins the ranks of good Buddhists like Mervyn Silva, openly protected, supported and championed by the Rajapaksa regime. Sadly, it is not over Dambulla’s priapic priests that we must be most ashamed about, but our President, his family and government.
There is some hope. On Thursday, fearing more violence, I created a simple blog for people to register their opposition to the soi-disant Buddhism on display in Dambulla. The responses, available online, are a humbling counterfoil to a saffron rage, and showcase a Sri Lanka that’s extremely diverse and refreshingly different. Excerpts from a few I reproduce below. There are literally hundreds more online.
Read them, and I urge you, add to them.
I am Mohamed Niyas, a Sri Lankan Muslim, professionally a Teacher. I respect all religions and beliefs in this country and teach the same to all my students of all ethnic groups. I was shocked how can the monks who always preach saamaya, maithriya, karunaawa like great philosophies could lead such a racist mob in Dambulla. I feel relieved to know many of Buddhist people in Sri Lanka condemned this violence.
fahima7s: This is the first time the violence towards other faiths has been filmed so vividly. Many churches and kovils have also been bombed and burnt in the past. What do these Buddhist monks want? Don’t they know that our culture is enriched with other faiths? We have already lost a lot of our Burghers and Tamils and we are impoverished by it. Even if we build highways and prosper economically, we will still be poor. Cannot Buddhism flourish without the Buddhist monks protecting it?
Iranganie H. Fernando: Have these perpetrators of this incident of shameful violence learnt nothing from the terrible experiences of the past 30 years? All religions teach love & compassion to all beings and respect for each other… there must be action & strategies to prevent such abominable behaviour. I am a 73-year-old woman who grew up in a mainly peaceful society in pre & post independent Sri Lanka… Certainly these horrific acts of violence are not in my name!
Maithri: During the war, the government tried to show the world and the country that SL is a nation of cultural and religious diversity. And I believed in it, and to an extent that is still true. But this whole thing has just gone to show that the government don’t care about that unless it is in their own interest. Shameful behaviour from them, and members of the sangha who should really know better.
My name is Chhimi Tenduf-La. I am not Sri Lankan but I am embarrassed. I am proud to live in this amazing country and, for the most part, I think you would be hard pressed to find nicer people than Sri Lankans anywhere in the world. Most foreigners would say this (except, to be honest, when driving). The actions of this mob, and the official response which as good as sanctioned it, is very sad indeed. We can only be proud of the brave woman in the video who stood up to these bullies. She is a Sri Lankan. Not really sure what the other people are.
David Blacker: Some of us fought, killed, died, were crippled, and watched our friends die beside us so that this country would remain united and free. We did not do it so that another bunch of violent extremists could divide our country again in the name of religion; nor for you, the government, to support it.
Published first in the print edition of The Nation, 29 April 2012.