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A Religious Police For The Rajapaksas

“The BBS will take immediate steps to form a ‘Cane Force’ against those who act in a manner insulting to Buddhism during the Wesak season”. –Rev. Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thero (Lankadeepa – 17.5.2013) 

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Pro-democracy demonstrators protesting against the flawed Iranian Presidential Election of 2009 feared one enemy above all other – the Basij,Iran’s religious police. As the ‘Protectors’ of the values deemed valuable by Iran’s ruling Ayatollahs, Basij is generally occupied with breaking-up parties, destroying satellite dishes, lashing bloggers and attacking women considered ‘improperly attired’. But Basij is far more than a bunch of zealots with a penchant for violence and sadism; it is also an indispensable weapon in the arsenal of Iran’s rulers, a cudgel to be used against political opponents (including dissident Ayatollahs). Basij played a brutally effective role in defeating the 2009 pro-democracy movement. The next Presidential election is scheduled for June 2013 and Basij is busy cracking down on Tehran’s coffee shops, the political-oases of Iranian intellectuals/dissidents.

Mutaween – the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Protection of Vice – is Saudi Arabia’s Basij. Its members also roam the streets searching for offenders, ranging from women ‘violating’ the dress-code and fans of Western music/films/TV shows to non-related males and females who interact with each other. In two emblematic cases, Mutaween arrested a 70 year old woman for having two unrelated men in her house (they were delivering bread; she got 70 lashes) and prevented fire fighters from rescuing female students from a burning school (15 girls died). Mutaween is also indispensable in buttressing the power of the Saudi ruling family. It cracks down on critics/dissidents; its leader recently warned that twitter users – one of the very few platforms available to the regime’s opponents in this über-despotic land – are eternally damned.

Now the Bodu Bala Sena wants to give Sri Lanka and its ruling clan their very own Sinhala-Buddhist religious police.

At a recent press conference, Ven. Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thero announced that the BBS plans to form a ‘Cane Force’ (Weval Balakaya) to ensure ‘proper conduct’ during the Wesak season: “The monks of Bodu Bala Sena will go from village to village carrying canes to control/punish those people who are acting indecently”[i].

It is the BBS’s intake on the Buddha’s final exhortation to monks, to travel far and wide, for the wellbeing of the masses.

Religious fanatics cause damage other religions; but their most irreparable harm is reserved for their own faith. The likes of Taliban, Saudi Wahabis and Iran’s Ayatollahs cause far more harm to the reputation of Islam with their inanely brutal conduct than all the anti-Islamic propaganda of all ages. The Inquisition and the Witch-Hunts are still bywords for violent intolerance and persecution; the midget-descendents of those Christian fanatics still oppose the teaching of evolution in schools and demand the death penalty for homosexuals. Hindu fanatics who defend such repressive practices as casteism and Jewish zealots who demand a country segregated along not just Jewish-Palestinian but also gender-lines are the worst detractors of their own faiths.

If anything would be more damaging to Buddhism than Myanmar’s rampaging monks, it will be Sri Lanka’s BBS types, on the warpath against not just the ‘religious-other’ but also against fellow Buddhists who refuse to accept ludicrously fanatical fatwas.

When Martin Wickremesinghe’s Bava Tharanaya was published in the 1970’s, a vocal-minority of monks and lay people wanted it banned (probably without reading it) as an insult to the Gautama Buddha and Buddhism. Today, the BBS would burn the book, attack the bookshops and pronounce Martin Wickremesinghe to be a traitor in the pay of foreign conspirators.

The BBS’s ruffianly conduct towards a group of Buddhist monks protesting outside its headquarters is a warning of what Lankan Buddhists – including monks – can expect in a country in thrall to fanatics. Apart from a dress-code, a code-of-conduct, an Index of Banned books/movies/plays and a socio-cultural inquisition, the BBS-types might develop their own version of Buddhism, including what monks should sermonise on and which politics are kosher.

Fanaticism is often inane.  During the annual Cultural Festival in Riyadh this April, Mutaween arrested and deported three male delegates from the United Arab Emirates for being ‘too good looking’! Take the artificial ho-ha about a storm named ‘Mahasen’; a BBS-type organisation stormed the Meteorological Department, demanded an immediate name-change and announced that the naming was a foreign conspiracy. This asinine conduct could have been dismissed as an antic of attention-seeking fanatics, expect that President Rajapaksa mentioned ‘the naming-of-the-storm-Mahasen issue’ in his Victory Day Speech, as proof of an anti-Lankan conspiracy.

That was silly; it was also indicative of the symbiotic relationship between the Rajapaksas and the Sinhala-Buddhist lunatic-fringe.

BBS: From Halal to the 13th Amendment

From warring against Muslims and policing Sinhala-Buddhists the BBS has waded into purely political-waters, by declaring war against the 13th Amendment.

The Rajapaksas excel at using cat’s paws. That is how they de-merged the North and the East, checkmated the IIGEP and impeached the Chief Justice (not a single Rajapaksa signed the impeachment motion).

The Siblings need a way out of the Northern PC poll. A postponement might compel Indiato put its weight behind Canada’s call to boycott the HambantotaCommonwealth. Delhihas already warned against denuding the 13th Amendment.

The Rajapaksas can hold a relatively free and fair election and allow the TNA to form a council (reserving the option of dissolving it later), but this option may not suit the Siblings’ maximalist-palate. An election suffused with violence and malpractices might ignite Tamilnadu and compel Delhi to sabotage the Hambantota Commonwealth.

So, why not get Sinhala-Buddhist maximalist organisations to launch a campaign against the Northern PC poll; and to file a case in the Supreme Court asking for a postponement? Then the Rajapaksas can escape retribution by telling Delhi that the Judiciary postponed the election. (Who can doubt Mohan Peiris’ willingness to give any order the Rajapaksas order him to give?)

The BBS, given its willingness to descend to levels even Wimal Weerawansa and Champika Ranawaka are a tad reluctant to – can play a ignobly pre-eminent role in such a campaign. Since it is not a UPFA member, the Rajapaksas can disclaim all responsibility; they can have their cake and eat it.

Just as economic neo-liberalism seeks to make the world more like what it was under pre-socialist capitalism in terms of relations of production, religious-fanaticism seeks a return to pre-Enlightenment (European-Christian) values/morals. Fanatics of all religions are not just viscerally opposed to the progressive, secular and libertarian currents which led to and resulted from European Enlightenment. They are also completely antagonistic to the tolerant ethos which characterised many a non-European civilisation/ruler from the Ottoman and Mogul Empires,Baghdad and Syrian Caliphates and Al Andalus to India’s Ashoka, ancient Greece,Persia and Mesopotamia.

Historically, the religion-politics nexus played a negative role, tearing countries apart, flattening everything progressive in its path, cultivating intolerance and obscurantism and dragging societies to places they never intended to go initially.

Saudi Arabiais the perfect example of what can happen to a country, even in our own time, when a ruling clan combine religion with politics to perpetuate itself in power.

Let us beware. 


[i] Lankadeepa – 17.5.2013

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Sinhala-Buddhists Vs Buddhist Moderates

Sharmini Serasinghe 1Colombo Telegraph

Sharmini Serasinghe

In Sri Lanka today there are two types of Buddhists- the Buddhist Moderates who identify themselves as Sri Lankans and those who identify themselves as Sinhala-Buddhists which they regard as their nationality!

As a Sri Lankan (a Sinhalese and a Buddhist by faith) I have lived and worked amidst the strange practices of Sinhala-Buddhists in Sri Lanka. As such I have observed closely what a Sinhala-Buddhist is as opposed to a Buddhist Moderate.

The following are my observations.

Buddhist Moderates (Sri Lankans) – This group identifies themselves by their nationality- Sri Lankan. Their ethnicity and faith are on a need-to-know basis, usually for official purposes. Moderates understand and respect Buddhism as a philosophy and quietly practice their faith in daily life to the best of their ability. Therefore they respect the religious beliefs and ethnicity of the ‘other’ (Hindus, Christians, Muslims etc) and treat them all as equals.

The Sinhala-Buddhist- This group carries a double-barreled identity; ethnicity first followed by the faith- Sinhala-Buddhist. As such they wear their identity on their sleeve with unfounded pride. This group has heard about the Buddha’s teachings- the Dhamma but don’t practice it. But they do practice a ‘religion’ which they call Buddhism that is diametrically opposed to the Dhamma. To these Sinhala-Buddhists the noble teachings of the Buddha are akin to casting pearls before swine!

The Sinhala-Buddhist regards Buddhism as a ‘religion’ and not as a philosophy and a way of life, as advised by the Buddha. Therefore they regard the Buddha as a God and practice their ‘religion’ by worshiping and venerating Buddhist symbols and objects; totally against the Buddha’s teachings.

Unlike Sinhala-Buddhists, Buddhist Moderates regard the Buddha as their noble teacher and Buddhism as a way of life. They don’t worship Buddhist symbols like Sinhala-Buddhists do, as for them Buddhism is not a religion. The Buddhist Moderate has the highest regard for the Buddha and respects his teachings by striving to live according to those noble teachings unlike the Sinhala-Buddhist label bearer.

Therefore these two groups- the Buddhist Moderates and Sinhala-Buddhists practice Buddhism in two extremely different ways. In today’s context the latter reeks of bigotry, hypocrisy and chauvinism in the extreme. To the Moderate Sri Lankan Buddhist, what the Sinhala-Buddhist practices as ‘Buddhism’ is a type of heresy of the Dhamma!

The Good Buddhist

The Sinhala-Buddhist’s idea of being a ‘Good Buddhist’ is confined only to one day of the calendar month- Full Moon (Poya) day. This day is dedicated to worshiping symbols and objects. As the ‘done’ thing they visit the temple, worship and heap flowers opposite the perceived image of the Buddha, light oil lamps and drench the roots of an over hydrated Bo tree within the temple premises. Then they parrot off the five-precepts with no intention of abiding by them. Most don’t even understand the meaning of them.

All this is done because it is the ‘done’ thing or with the foolish and selfish motive of gaining perceived ‘pin’ (merit) to counteract the ill-effects (or so they believe) of the crimes they commit. It never crosses their minds to question how a tree, clay, concrete or stone object could pardon them or grant them merit. But it is the ‘done’ thing so they do it, though they do not know why they do it. For them this is practicing ‘Buddhism’!

Also on Poya Day, the usually carnivorous Sinhala-Buddhists refrain from eating fish, meat and eggs. This is another ‘done’ thing which has nothing to do with the Dhamma. However some of these ‘Buddhists’ believe that refraining from consuming animal flesh is the ‘Buddhist’ thing to do, therefore bestowing more merit on themselves.

It must be said that all these acts are harmless in themselves if not for the hypocrisy involved!

There is a popular misconception that the Dhamma prohibits followers from consuming animal flesh. In fact, the Buddha did not ‘prohibit’ his followers from doing so, if it is offered by a person in good faith. But he did advise his followers against seeking it and destroying life for it. Buddhist Moderates who refrain from consuming animal flesh do so either for health or ethical reasons.

So in typical Sinhala-Buddhist style, commercial establishments are banned by the State from selling meat on Poya Days. This applies to the sale of alcohol as well. But on the days preceding this ‘sacred’ Day, one may store as much animal flesh in their refrigerators as required and sufficient alcohol  to see them through the days of prohibition.

Most often Sinhala-Buddhists are the first customers at meat stalls and taverns before the day of ‘prohibition’ dawns. So, for whose benefit and for what purpose are such prohibitions imposed? Who is trying to fool whom? This is Sinhala-Buddhist state-sponsored hypocrisy!

Also on Poya Day a few even try to refrain from consuming alcohol, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct or murder/killing- the five precepts. But this is all confined only to Poya Days. Convinced and content that they have accumulated sufficient ‘pin (merit)’ to see them through all their misdeeds in the future, life returns to normal the rest of the month!

Insecurities of Sinhala-Buddhists

The average Sinhala-Buddhist suffers from an acute inferiority complex which is often mistaken for a superiority complex. This could be attributed to a lack of substance in the superficial ‘religion’ they practice by worshiping objects and symbols and a lack of knowledge of the Dhamma.

Besides wearing their identity on their sleeve, a relatively recent ‘fashion’ adopted by Sinhala-Buddhists is the way in which they wear the ‘Pirith Noola’ (Pirith blessed thread) on the right wrist. Instead of the customary three folds of white cotton thread, we now see them ‘exhibiting’ on their right wrist what looks more like ‘Pirith bandages’. This is usually observed amongst Sinhala-Buddhist political VIPs.

This new phenomenon could either be to draw attention to their Sinhala-Buddhist identity and superiority over the ‘other’ or to ensure foolishly imagined ‘divine protection’ as they carry on accumulating negative ‘karma’ through their hypocrisy. In some cases it also could be a combination of both.

Sinhala-Buddhists live in constant fear of their ‘concrete/clay/stone made’ religion which they call ‘Buddhism’ being destroyed. As is obvious to any right thinking individual, all material objects, including Buddhist symbols are vulnerable to natural phenomena and destructive humans.

To the Buddhist Moderate, such fear is unfounded as their faith is strong. It lives and grows within them therefore it can never be destroyed either by destructive humans or natural phenomena. Buddhist symbols don’t carry any weight with the Buddhist Moderate except for the archeological value of some.

Insecurity harbored by Sinhala-Buddhists is nothing new to Lanka. It goes back to ancient times of the Cholas and more recently to pre-independent Ceylon when the British introduced Christianity to the island. The likes of Anagarika Dharmapala (a Sinhala-Buddhist personified) claimed that Buddhism was being destroyed by the British and Sinhala-Buddhists were being forced to convert to Christianity!

The question arises here if anyone could be ‘forced’ to change their faith/religious belief for whatever reason if the person is strong in her/his belief? But that is another subject altogether.

Sinhala-Buddhist Politics

Usually Sinhala-Buddhists practice their ‘hypocrisy’ amongst themselves without causing too many problems for the rest of society. They denigrate those of other ethnic groups and religions behind their backs, but are sweet as honey to their faces. This is only until a Sinhala-Buddhist political regime takes over and starts whipping up ethno-religious emotions for their own political gain. It happened with the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and it is happening now!

Today, in place of Anagarika Dharmapala and S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike we have Sinhala-Buddhist Warlords to carry on the tradition!

This malaise has now brimmed over to extreme proportions. We now have Sinhala-Buddhist saffron-robed thugs masquerading as Buddhist monks denigrating the Buddha and his noble teachings in every possible way. Sinhala-Buddhist parents and teachers are encouraged to teach their young how to denigrate those of other religious faith from an early age. These saffron robed groups appear to be paramilitaries of the Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinistic State who use the sacred Saffron robe as a weapon over the ‘other’- those of other faiths.

Strangely this phenomenon burst forth post 2009 and today Sinhala-Buddhists see ‘demons’ everywhere threatening Buddhism in Sri Lanka!

This could be attributed to the political environment we live in today which is besieged by insecurities of various forms. After the successful elimination of LTTE terrorism, our warlords seem to find it necessary to create another ‘monster’.

This could be to keep the voter on edge and in constant fear and, therefore,  to keep them reminded that only ‘they’ and ‘they’ alone have the ability to keep the country safe from the likes of Prabhakaran and other such ‘monsters’. This they believe is the surest way of keeping the Sinhala-Buddhist voter terrified and forever grateful to the Warlords for keeping them safe.

So today we find new concrete ‘Buddhist symbols’ sprouting like mushrooms throughout the country, especially in areas populated by the ‘other’ (Hindus, Christians and Muslims). This is the Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinistic way of claiming superiority over the ‘other’. Not stopping there, they go on to destroy places of religious worship of the ‘other’.

The Buddhist Moderate looks on in horror and revulsion as these acts go totally against the Buddha’s teaching of sympathetic understanding and respect for other religions!

So today while overtly paying lip-service extolling the virtues of the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha and religious harmony, the Sinhala-Buddhist Warlords covertly give full reign to terrorizing the ‘other’.

All this ugliness takes place in this so called thrice-blessed Buddhist country Sri Lanka!

*Sharmini Serasinghe was Director Communications of the former Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) under Secretary Generals Jayantha Dhanapala and Dr. John Gooneratne. She counts over thirty years in journalism in both the print and electronic media.

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Sri Lanka Monk Self-Immolation Highlights Anti-Muslim Sentiment

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J.S. Tissainayagam

The suicide by a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in Sri Lanka to protest the slaughter of cattle has been hailed as an act of great self-sacrifice and compared to acts of self-immolation by Tibetan Buddhist monks protesting China’s repression in Tibet. Nothing could be more ill-informed. In fact, it is one more step by Sri Lanka’s chauvinist Sinhala-Buddhists to undermine the Muslim political base.

The monk, Bowatte Indraratne, who had been campaigning against the Muslim halal method of slaughtering animals, was also a politician. He was a former elected member of a local government body representing the extreme Buddhist political party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). JHU’s leader Champika Ranawaka lost no time in exploiting the incident to advance the party’s agenda. He said the government should bring in legislation to ban the slaughter of cattle, and religious conversion. Christians have come under pressure from Buddhists for proselytising, a charge they deny.

The campaign to stop the slaughter of cattle and instances of violence against Muslims are not isolated events in Sri Lanka. These are steps to politically disempower Muslims are uncannily reminiscent of the way the Sinhala establishment tries to destroy the Tamil power base.

Persecution of Muslims is taking a particularly virulent form today. But in the past too Sinhala leaders viewed Muslims with suspicion, as they did Tamils. The control they exercised was a blend of coercion, political manipulation of Muslim elites and the policy of divide and rule.

Coercion of Muslims by Sinhalese was applied mostly through violence and intimidation. In recent memory are rampaging Sinhala mobs targeting Muslims in Mawanella (2001) and Beruwela (2002). Other disputes occurred over land, like Deegavapi in 1999.

Political manipulation of the Muslim elite compelled them to take decisions detrimental to their community. In 1956, Muslim politician and diplomat Sir Razik Fareed campaigned with Sinhala leaders to deny Tamil as an official language of the State, despite a large majority of Muslims being Tamil speakers.

Adopting a policy of divide-and-rule, Sinhala leaders forced Muslims – especially in the East – to view Tamils as enemies, which led to Tamil-Muslim clashes. The Sinhala-dominated military used Muslim home guards to target Tamil civilians in the East. The rift was magnified by the LTTE expelling the Muslim population in Sri Lanka’s North.

With the military phase of the conflict with the Tamils coming to an end in May 2009, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists realised they now had the luxury of investing more resources in suppressing Muslims. Further, with President Mahinda Rajapakse intent on consolidating power, extreme nationalism was a good vehicle.

The government has made no secret of its connections to extremist civil society groups. Relations between government officials and the principal vehicle of Buddhist bigotry, the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS), are so fraternal that Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the hawkish head of the Ministry of Defence and brother of the country’s president, graced an important occasion of the organisation. The BBS plays a similar role as the Shiv Sena does to the pro-Hindu regimes in India.

As mentioned above, the objective of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism is to demolish Muslim political power in Sri Lanka. It is no different from efforts to destroy the Tamil power base in the country from the 1950s. The three examples below demonstrate the similarities.

The BBS has opposed the certification of food as ‘halal’ and Muslim women wearing the hijab. These cultural practices are important markers of Muslim identity. The BBS’s campaign is not only to demolish what distinguishes this group’s identity, but also the power its members derive from that identity. For the Tamils, the primary marker of identity is language. That is why Sinhala nationalism sought to undermine Tamil by denying it official language status and placing obstacles to Tamil-speakers’ access to higher education and State employment.

Second, mosques and Muslim-owned businesses have come under assault. It is important to note the significance of both in the political lives of Muslims. The mosque is a forum for political mobilisation. The strength of metropolitan Muslims in Sri Lanka is their success as a merchant community. And they have used their wealth to buy political power. Therefore attacking mosques and commercial establishments is a way to undermine the Muslim power base. In the case of Tamils, assessing that their political base was territorial concentration in the country’s North and East, Sinhala leaders took to dismantling it by settling large numbers of Sinhalese in those areas.

Finally, let’s look at the government’s use of counterinsurgency laws to stifle freedom of speech and political opinion. On May 2, Azath Salley, a well-known Muslim leader, was arrested (and later released) under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). He was detained for an interview he gave to an Indian magazine where he said that Muslim youth should take to arms. But the reasons appear deeper than that. Salley openly criticised the government for anti-Muslim racism. But more than all else, Sally heads a political party which advocates Tamil-Muslim political dialogue to resolve mutually important issues. This, by definition, excludes government and the Sinhalese.

The government arresting and later releasing Salley is reminiscent of the then government criminalising Tamil parliamentarians who even advocated democratic secession. This legislation – the Sixth Amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution – suppressed democratic dissent and left armed rebellion as the only option to give effect to Tamil demands.

Therefore, the self-immolation by Bowatte Indraratne protesting cattle slaughter had a sinister motive. It used religion as a weapon to undermine the political base of a minority community in Sri Lanka. If steps are not taken to check this trend, Sri Lanka’s Muslims could be facing a future of persecution and violence.

*J. S. Tissainayagam, a former Sri Lankan political prisoner, was a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard and Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States. This article is first appeared in Asian Correspondent

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