Groundviews

A Repugnant and Lethal Betrayal in Sri Lanka

The monk Ashin Wirathu, center, was the guest of honor at the Buddhist Power Force convention in Colombo, held in 2014. Credit Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, via Sangam

“I will fight until such time that a leader can say that this is a country of Sinhala-Buddhist.”

Bhikku Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara (Japan Times – 17.6.2017)

The presidential election of 2015 was more than an electoral contest. It was a political war between two opposing worldviews, a contestation for the soul and future of Sri Lanka.

The battle-lines were clear. Mahinda Rajapaksa represented familial rule and dynastic succession, a Sri Lanka which was anti-democratic and Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist. Minority-phobia and race-baiting were the main political weapons of the Rajapaksa camp. A relentless campaign was waged to resurrect old Sinhala-Buddhist fears about Tamils, Muslims and Christians and to create new ones. The opposition was depicted as witless-puppets of diabolical forces committed to the dismemberment and destruction of Sinhala-Buddhist Sri Lanka. Bodu Bala Sena, which campaigned hard for Mr. Rajapaksa, told the media that in the event of victory it will ask for the setting up of commissions to probe “non-government organisations, political parties and politicians have been part of financing deals that have taken place”[i].

The stakes were understood by everyone. That was why all minorities came out in unprecedented numbers to vote for Maithripala Sirisena. That was why moderates of the majority community placed their reservations on the backburner and rallied round the opposition. That was why the Rajapaksa camp labelled the outcome of the election as a ‘minority victory’.

For the next two years, Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists skulked on the margins of polity and society, deprived of the powers and privileges they had enjoyed previously. Extremism was not dead and gone, but it had lost the ability to command the state, dictate to the government and ignore the law.

Post-election, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government gradually turned its back on various aspects of its mandate. It gave into corruption and nepotism; it imposed unbearable economic burdens on the people; it failed to deliver on promises of devolution and justice; it gave up on accountability and transparency. With each step in the wrong direction, it began to narrow the gap between itself and the Rajapaksas.

Now the government seems to be committing another betrayal, the worst so far – succumbing to Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism.

There is no official racism; yet. But increasingly a level of tolerance is being accorded to the most toxic purveyors of Sinhala-Buddhist racism which bodes ill for the dream of a pluralist, tolerant and humane Sri Lanka.

The BBS is on the march, once again. Attacks on Muslim shops and mosques have proliferated. The attacks are not limited to any particular locality, but extremely widespread, from urban Dematagoda via suburban Maharagama to rural Mahiyangana. So far the police have been inexcusably incompetent in prevention and in detection. And Lankan police suffer such generalised and spectacular failure only when a political hand is holding them back.

The suspicion of a political-cover for anti-Muslim arsonists is bolstered by the sudden transformation of the incendiary Sinhala-Buddhist monk, Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara into a modern day Scarlet Pimpernal. He is giving interviews and issuing threats, even as the police supposedly seek him ‘here, there and everywhere.’ His elusive power is clearly not his own; it cannot come from the Rajapaksas either, even though he is serving their agenda, wittingly or unwittingly (In June 2016, Mahinda Rajapaksas reportedly defended anti-Muslim violence saying, “that monks are ‘only human… I have never seen a Buddhist monks advocating killing’”[ii]). He has other patrons, power-wielders ensconced at the highest levels of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. Names are being mentioned, especially that of Champaka Ranawaka, a man whose political existence depends on Sinhala-Buddhist racism. But in the end, the buck stops with President Sirisena and Premier Wicrkemesinghe. They owe a responsibility to the people who elected them, to the country and to the future. And they are failing, again.

A Government of Moral Cowards

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s response to the plague of religious racism has been slow and tepid so far, limited to anodyne statements, pious declarations which mean less than nothing when unaccompanied by necessary actions. There is no need to bring in special laws, as the PM says he is willing to do. The problem is not the absence of laws. The problem is that the existing laws are not being implemented. Arson is against the law. And there are two court-warrants against Bhikku Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara. Yet, anti-Muslim arsonists, attackers on evangelical Christian churches and the BBS head-honcho are enjoying a level of impunity not available even to most cabinet ministers.

Though religious extremism is not a charge which can be levelled against either the President or the Prime Minister, their unwillingness to openly condemn the BBS or to unleash the full force of law on the criminal attackers indicates a worrying absence of will. The government has been ceding the moral high-ground on issue after issue, from corruption to environment, from the economy to foreign relations, from devolution to justice. The lackadaisical response to renewed anti-Muslim/anti-Christian violence amounts to one more step down this same road of moral cowardice and political opportunism.

When progressive and moderate Muslims campaigned for reforms in the archaic Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), the government retreated into silence and inactivity. It feared to take a stand, feared to incur the wrath of Muslim extremists who demonstrated in Colombo defending child marriage. When some of those extremists openly threatened moderate Muslims, the government kept its collective mouth firmly shut.

Now the government is displaying a similar inability to stand up to the criminal dealings of the BBS. Had the government acted decisively and allowed the police to complete investigations and arrest all suspects, the situation would have returned to normal by now. By allowing the BBS to break the law with impunity, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is providing encouragement and succour to extremists.

There was a prehistory to Black July, consisting of the teaching of contempt and the spreading of fear. It was that seeding which enabled Black July.

Today we are living through the pre-history of an anti-Muslim riot. The demonising of all Muslims as fanatics hell-bent on taking over our land, our economy and our women is already happening. Once the kindling is ready, any spark, real or spurious, would do.

The plague is not an exclusive Lankan malaise. From Hindu India and Islamic Indonesia to Buddhist Myanmar, extremism is gaining ground and claiming victories. The Middle East is now closer than ever to the Sunni-Shia war its previous rulers had the sense to avoid. A madness has seized Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist minds, making them immune not just to pity and decency, not just to reason and logic, but also to obvious self-interest. If moderates of all nations – political and religious leaders, opinion-makers and ordinary people – do not speak louder, stand firmer and act faster, religious strife will become the norm in the East, as it was once in the West, denuding whatever development and progress we have achieved in the past.

As Martha Nussbaum points out, the real clash of civilization is “within virtually all modern nations —between people who are prepared to live on terms of equal respect with others who are different, and those who seek the protection of homogeneity and the domination of a single ‘pure’ religious and ethnic tradition.”[iii] And in that clash the BBS is on the same side as the Islamic State. The question is will the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration honour its mandate and stand with the forces of moderation or will it betray its own people by ceding the stage to extremists?

Tolerating Intolerance

Religious intolerance was once an Occidental vice, a vice for which the Christian West paid a heavy price, in blood and devastation, in lost opportunities and retarded progress. The nadir of politicised Christianity and the theocratic experiment came with the Thirty Year War. Fought mainly along Catholic vs. Protestant lines, it claimed around 9 million lives and turned Central Europe, its main battleground, into a wasteland, with survivors condemned to a life of destitution and barbarity, not excluding cannibalism.

When Christian Occident was mired in religiously-motivated bloodletting, Hindu, Buddhist and Islam Orient were places of relative tolerance. Asia, Africa or the Middle East never underwent the equivalent of a Thirty Years War or Roman/Spanish Inquisition. It was the East rather than the West which gave birth to enlightened rulers whose political visions were far in advance of their times, from Ashoka to Akbar. As Amartya Sen pointed out, “When Akbar was issuing his legal order that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of religion…’ and was busy arranging dialogues between Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsees, Jews and even atheists, Giodarno Bruno was being burnt at the stake in Rome for heresy…”[iv]

The East did persecute the religious-other, but not universally or continuously as did Europe, and not with such unrelenting brutality. There were beheadings and incarcerations, but no systematic auto-da-fes or witch hunts. Perhaps the most potent symbol of that difference was the final Eastern outpost in the West, the city of Granada. Islamic Granada in Catholic Spain was a metropolis of mosques, synagogues and churches, gardens and libraries, Europe’s sole oasis of religious pluralism, a place where people of Islamic, Christian and Jewish faiths could live in harmony. In his lyrical drama Almansor, Heinrich Heine expressed in three short lines the transformation of Granada from a haven of tolerance into a hell of fanaticism, after it fell to Spain:

“I hear the poor old woman as she weeps –

She liked to eat roast goose on Friday, therefore

Now she herself is roasted, for God’s glory.” 

Europe suffered, and learned the wages of religious fanaticism, even though the learning curve was a long and uneven one. In the end, the excesses of religion led to its own downfall. The constant bloodletting in the name of God caused public weariness and cynicism, paving the way for the growth of scepticism and secularism.

We in the East, thanks to our histories of greater tolerance (or lesser intolerance), were spared of major religious wars. As a consequence, we have no real understanding of what religious conflicts can do to people, countries and civilisations. In our ignorance we are opening national and regional doors to theocratic ideas and intolerant practices, thereby risking the kind of bloody strife which convulsed Europe for centuries.

The growth of Sinhala-Buddhist extremism cannot but lead to a reactive growth of Islamic extremism. Majoritarian extremism gave rise to minoritarian extremism in the ethnic realm. The same disaster will be repeated in the religious realm as well, if the government fails to honour the mandate of January 8th and August 19th 2015.

The danger is particularly acute given the ongoing developments in the Middle Eastern region. The Islamic State’s dream of a regional and global Caliphate is ending in defeat. But the annihilation of the IS as a quasi-state will not amount to a defeat of its extremist ideology. The former soldiers of the IS will seek other battlegrounds and other targets, across the world, including Asia. Afghanistan is already suffering, the best cases in point being the horrific suicide bombing in Kabul’s diplomatic district and the capturing by the IS of parts of the Tora Bora mountains, once Bin Laden’s hideout. The moral cowardice of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is not just repugnant; it is also deadly given these geo-political conditions.

The lessons of history are clear. When Colombo failed to stand up for the rights and defend the lives of Sri Lanka’s Tamils, in desperation, they turned to Madras, Delhi and the LTTE. Lankan Muslims must not be pushed to make the same homicidal-suicidal journey. If the government fails to protect Lankan Muslims, if moderates of all communities fail to come together in defence of democracy, pluralism and justice, Sri Lanka will once again become a killing field on which none thrives but extremists.

[i] http://www.srilankamirror.com/news/item/1430-set-up-commission-to-probe-foreign-interventions-bbs-tells-president

[ii] http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2017/06/17/commentary/sri-lankas-firebrand-monk-invokes-muslim-menace/#.WUaGb5Lytdh

[iii] The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future

[iv] The Argumentative Indian