Image courtesy Colombo Telegraph

On 12th April, around 7pm, I was amongst a group of people gathered on the pavement, outside the Sri Sambuddha Jayanthi building, situated at 32, Havelock Road, Colombo 5. This is the address of the Bodu Bala Sena, which has been accused of inciting and unleashing violence against minority religious communities, particularly Muslims and Christians. We gathered without obstructing anyone passing by on the pavement, or road, or those entering the building. Infact, people walked passed us on the pavement and vehicles moved along at normal pace on the road, and several Buddhist Monks and men had come out of the building without any problem. I and some other friends had gathered in response to a public notice on the internet (http://www.yamu.lk/event/vigil-to-safeguard-the-dhamma.html) inviting people to attend a peaceful candlelit vigil in the face of rising racial tensions in Sri Lanka and to protect the Dhamma. Others would have been organizers. It was organized by the facebook group Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena, but I also met some Muslims and Christians amongst participants. I think I would have known less than 10 persons I knew before, and they clearly didn’t seem to be in leadership positions.

Article 14 (1) (b) of the Sri Lankan constitution guarantees right to freedom of peaceful assembly to every person, and according to article 15 (3) of the constitution, restrictions on the exercise and operation of this right can only be “as may be prescribed by law”.

But Buddhists Monks and men claiming to be belonging to the Bodu Bala Sena who came out of the Sri Sambuddha Jayanthi building, objected to us exercising this right. Some men were wearing T-shirts with the name Bodu Bala Sena. They called us unpatriotic and called themselves patriots. Some of them photographed and videoed us. Another man accused the organizers of illegally changing the words of the national anthem, but when questioned, said he doesn’t know which law or article of the constitution was violated. A Buddhist monk claimed that these were not real Buddhists, but “night club Buddhists”. Another man claimed that participants for the vigil were using NGO money. All of them called on the Police to arrest us or chase us away and not allow us to have the peaceful vigil.

Before the event, the organizers had posted on facebook that the Officer in Charge of the Cinnamon Garden Police and the Police Intelligence Unit in Colombo had been informed and that the Police had guaranteed the right to have the event and wished them well.

The Police, instead of protecting our right to peaceful assembly, arrested some of us (at least five) without informing the charge, violating also article 13 (1) of the Sri Lankan constitution, which states that no person shall be arrested except according to procedure established by law and that any person arrested shall be informed of the reason for his arrest. They were subsequently released. The Police also questioned and took statements from those who came to participate in the vigil, but did not question, take statements or arrest those who were threatening and obstructing our peaceful and legitimate protest.

The Police instructed us to give up our constitutionally guaranteed right of peaceful assembly, and disperse. When some of us asked how can it be illegal to assemble peacefully and light candles, one Police Officer said that there is a new law which makes this illegal and allows them to disperse us. There was no clarification on what this law was, who had passed this, or when. When I stood several feet away from the original site of the vigil, on the opposite side of the road, on the pavement, next a petrol station, a Police Officer asked me to leave. When queried on what basis he was asking, he said because I didn’t have permission to stand on the pavement. He went away – but only after I insisted that it is not a crime to stand on the pavement as long as we were not doing anything illegal (and also that I prefer to stand on pavements and not on roads) and questioned how the Police would deal with a situation where all persons had to go to Police stations to get permission simply to stand on the pavement and talk with a friend.

Earlier on, a senior Police Officer said that they would be leaving the scene soon, and that we should also leave, as it maybe not safe. Another policeman was heard to say in derogatory tone that Muslims are also here. One would have thought that Police’s duty would have been to stay and protect us exercise our constitutional rights, but this was not to be.

Some Monks and men who called for our arrest also called on rulers to wake up and if not, they will take matters into their own hands. Police was silent and didn’t seem to do anything about those who threatened to take the law into their own hands.

Around 7.25pm, I called the hotline of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), provided my name, organizational affiliation, address and mobile number and requested that the NHRC immediately intervene to protect our fundamental right of peaceful assembly. The NHRC officer answered that they cannot intervene at this stage to stop or prevent violations and that we could make a complaint later and that they could inquire into the matter later. I pointed out that the NHRC has a specific powers under the Human Rights Commission Act to investigate any infringement or imminent infringement of fundamental rights, and again requested immediate interventions. The officer categorically rejected my request. This is not the first time the NHRC refuses to take immediate action when we call and report ongoing and imminent violations. I asked whether the officer could update me on actions they take, which the officer agreed to, but till now, I have not heard anything.

The Police insisted that we leave the place and pushed and herded us like cows. We walked southwards on Havelock Road and stood at the Gower Street junction. Monks and men claiming to be from Bodu Bala Sena followed us, frenziedly screaming at us from across the street, whilst waving sheets of paper in the air (that had been distributed by the organizers of the Silent Vigil,) and accusing us of “conspiring” to change the National Anthem. The truth couldn’t have been further from the truth, as the sheets contained Gathas (teachings of the Buddha) to chant during the vigil, to remind the BBS how far their words and actions have strayed from the Dhamma. An excerpt from the National Anthem had also been highlighted to emphasize the point. They were on one side of the road and we on the other and the Police was in between. Then, the Police again insisted that we who were assembled peacefully leave, without asking those who were threatening us to leave.

As violence from both Police and those claiming to be from Bodu Bala Sena seemed imminent, we proceeded further Southwards on Havelock Road. Some dispersed and some assembled at the Vajira Road junction. Again, the Police followed us, and insisted we disperse.

We finally left just after 8pm, tired, distraught, but determined to fight on.

Some of us reflected that we can consider ourselves lucky, since peaceful protesters had been tear-gassed, beaten and even shot and killed by Police and Army. And on other occasions, Police had watched as goons and unknown persons attacked peaceful protesters.

Sms alert services like Ada Derana and Daily Mirror, which informs us of cricket match scores several times a day did not inform us about this incident through even a single sms. Several mainstream newspapers had also not covered the story today. Indeed, one sms alert service had been explicitly told by the Government’s Media Centre for National Security not to send out sms alerts in relation to this event. This has also happened in relation the attack on Fashion Bug in Pepiliyana by Buddhist Monks and men claiming to be protectors of Buddhism. This seems be quite telling of the Government’s direct connection to the groups such as BBS and their actions, and reluctance of mainstream media to carry this type of news.

Government’s response – patronization and silence with condemnation by few Ministers

Concerns that the organizers and participants who came for the vigil are shared by at least two Ministers, who have been very critical of the rising trend of hate speech and physical attacks on minority religious communities, and lack of Police action.

Minister of National Language and Social Integration Vasudeva Nanayakara was reported as having submitted a Cabinet paper seeking a ban on extremist groups, including the Bodu Bala Sena, claiming that Bodu Bala Sena and such groups are spreading hatred and disharmony among religions and other communities and accused the police of failing to take action against such groups despite them openly advocating hatred.

The Minister of Justice, Rauff Hakeem, who is also the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress is reported to have requested President Mahinda Rajapaksa to convene a cabinet meeting to discuss the rising religious unrest and civil disturbance in the country, and expressed his displeasure and condemned the attack on a private business site, which he  believes was carried out as a sequel to the ongoing attacks on the religious places and hate campaigns against Muslims and other religious minorities in the country. The Minister of Justice had also reported to have expressed dismay at the ineffective response of the law and order machinery in containing the spread of such violence and unrest that fuels insecurity and peace of all minority communities in Sri Lanka. He was also reported to have said that he was convinced that the so called settlement of releasing suspects on the attack of a Muslim owned business was forced, that the rule of the law had been challenged and that releasing the suspects within 24 hours stating that the two parties involved in the incident reached a settlement cannot be accepted.

The Tamil National Alliance, which primarily claims to represent Tamils in the North and East, had also expressed concerns about fears and concerns of the Muslims.

However, it does seem that the BBS and other such groups are tolerated, supported and even promoted by the highest levels in the government – no less than the all powerful Defense Secretary has patronized the BBS.

Rule of Law and Sri Lankan brand of Buddhism – messages and lessons

The Police has teargassed,  beaten, shot and even killed peaceful protesters in recent years. 

And in the previous weeks, months and years, Police had stood by, watched and allowed violent protests by those claiming to be Buddhist Monks and Buddhists men, on businesses owned by Muslims, houses and churches of Christians, and even offices of opposition members of Parliament, in places ranging from the Colombo district to Killinochi district. People were injured by these mobs wielding sticks, stones and perhaps worse weapons and extensive damage was caused to private property.

And yesterday, the Police insisted that they can’t allow a peaceful assembly by a small group of us, armed only with candles, herded us like cattle, threatened us, arrested some of us, and dispersed us.

So, what are the messages conveyed and lesson to be learnt about how the Police and some persons claiming to be protectors of Buddhism see our constitution, rule of law and equality before the law?

  1. Peaceful protests are not allowed, but violent protests are allowed?
  2. You will be arrested if you protest peacefully without causing bodily harm to anyone or physical damage to any building or obstruct even a road or pavement, but you won’t be arrested if you use violence and injure persons and cause damage to property?
  3. And if some violent protesters happen to be arrested, they will be released soon, by threatening the aggrieved party to settle the matter?

And what is the message conveyed and lesson to be learnt about Buddhism in this country where Buddhism is given foremost place in the constitution over other religions?

  1. That the real Buddhists and protectors of Buddhism are those who use sticks, stones and other weapons to attack religious minorities and threaten peaceful protesters?
  2. Those urging Buddhist Monks to utter civilized words of metha (compassion / love) that promote unity, peace as against rough, uncivilized words that promote hate and disunity and rejecting violence (which the organizers and participants of this vigil tried to do) are not real Buddhists?

And will our judgements on any of the above be based on the person’s religion, ethnicity, job, social class, clothes they wear, language spoken etc., or based on human principles and law of the country?