Minister Mangala Samaraweeara is made in the liberal mold. So, it not surprising that, time to time, his views run up against the grain of the conservative majority of the country. Nonetheless, he shows the audacity to express views on difficult subject matters that we would rather avoid.
This is not an opinion piece about him, far from it, but it has born out of his recent observation that Sri Lanka is not a Sinhala Buddhist country which bounds to run afoul with many Sinhala Buddhists. Such bold opinions though, bring up opportunities for necessary dialogs on uncomfortable subjects that hold us back as a country.
It is noteworthy, up front here, that this is not an attempt to second or reject anyone’s opinion on this highly sensitive matter but more of a closer look at what imposes by and consequences of such assertions and a broader look at the basis of the current unrest.
Further, this piece may not form the most popular opinion around in this charged up atmosphere but dissecting a problem from all possible angles is necessary for us to draw the best informed conclusions whatever they might be.
Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist majority but does that make us a Sinhala Buddhist state, automatically? And if we are, what makes us such a state? Technically, we are not a Sinhala Buddhist state because our constitution doesn’t define Sri Lanka as such. And, more importantly, we are not governed by the Buddhist principles and our economy, trade and judiciary system are not based on the teachings of Lord Buddha.
So, if we are not one today, are we using that proclamation to advocate rolling back the current system to one based on Buddhist principles? Or we use it to imply that other ethnoreligious groups are not wanted here and/or not allowed to practice their faiths? Latter would be a “Sinhala Buddhist Only” country. Or, are we using Sinhala Buddhist country as a proxy to Sinhala Buddhist’s country, which are different from one another? And what are the expectations of a Sinhala Buddhist’s country? Does it mean that others are not considered true sons and daughters of this country with equal rights and equal dignity? Well, the very first cannot be the realistic belief because there are no serious demands even from the far right elements to expel all minorities from Sri Lanka or prohibiting their right to worship.
Moreover, historically, Sinhala Buddhists have allowed other religions and subcultures to prosper in Sri Lankan soil and there hasn’t been a continuous resistance against them. Then, are we invoking the second belief that seems less extreme, that our refusal to accept minorities as true Sri Lankans? Or all these are meant for something that are less aggressive and far more achievable?
If we liken the first belief to removing a tumor with blood and scars then the second is that we are letting it in to kill us slowly. Mere thought that considering minorities as guests in this country may seem futile but it has far reaching consequences for our social dynamics. For minorities, such recognition is a matter of pride, matter of belongingness and a sign of equality. Besides that, such predisposed beliefs lead to more severe prospects and executable actions such as the notion that majority should be able to impose on them. This underlying belief represents one pillar of our fractured race relations. On a practical level, this is why a quarrel between two individuals from two different ethnicities spin into much larger conflict while two from the same community stops at where it starts.
While it is no excuse, such prejudice is not a unique to Sri Lanka, a prime example is the rising nationalistic trends that we see in the western hemisphere today. Getting back to focal point here, on the other hand, if Sri Lanka were a Sinhala Buddhist’s country today, then they certainly don’t see much benefit of that. Sinhala Buddhist’s don’t receive undue institutionalized advantage over the others in education, in career opportunities or other aspects of daily life and Law and order do not provide any special privileges to Sinhala Buddhists.
Dysfunctionality of law and order, that we visit later, is very real and often observed in Sri Lanka, is not necessarily due to the racial bias because secular aspects such as power, wealth and social status factor far more heavily into the ineffectiveness of it. Further and more importantly, there are no statistics to prove that Sinhala Buddhists are at advantage, socially (e.g. education) and economically (e.g. income level), under normal circumstances, over the other ethnoreligious groups. Such indicators would be strong symptomatic of a truly prejudiced and unequal society.
So if it is not asking for Sri Lanka to be a Sinhala-Buddhist-only state or asking for special privileges for Sinhala Buddhists, then what is it about? Historically and in the long run, it is the demand to hold Buddhism to prominence and protect it from external threats. That reasonable deduction can be made from the lack of attributes otherwise as stated earlier and from all most all ongoing grievances associated with the Sinhala Buddhist/Buddhist’s country assertion. That is very different from what those phrases indicate superficially, because giving prominence to Buddhism does not imply that giving priority to Sinhala Buddhists and thus creating an unequal society.
If we believe that it will happen so, then we have the opportunity to put forward required preventive measures because our constitution does not provide such exceptions to any group. This is why the use of “Sinhala Buddhist/Buddhist’s country” is misconstrued. More importantly, it is a far more comforting proposition and achievable one in a multicultural society. So why giving protection to Buddhism will alleviate anxieties of Sinhala Buddhists? It is because of the deeply rooted belief in the Sinhala Buddhist culture that as long as Buddhism exist, Sinhalese will survive. However, in the present, those are also counter-slogans, counter-strategy and counter-threat-rhetoric against presumed threats to Buddhism.
Higher frequency use of those phrases today, would infer that. So where do we start to find ways to fulfill Sinhala Buddhist expectations in a multicultural society and how far are we from each other? Well, Sri Lanka has been a Sinhala Buddhist majority throughout the modern history and, naturally, that has to count for something. One thing it has done is to shape and nurture Sri Lankan culture.
So, if you are a minority who has found comfort in that culture and believe that culture will allow you to keep your way of life, then you have already subscribed to a notion that is based on Sinhala Buddhist values and you have had no problems with it. On the other hand, if a Sinhala Buddhist feels that this is still his culture, then he has had no disputes with the changes and additions brought to it by other religions and cultures. That is the Sinhala Buddhist nature of this country. So we are already somewhere there and that has happened effortlessly and organically because our senses were not overly awaken by the rhetoric and the charged up atmospheres during that process.
One reason for that coalescence, one may find exceptions here today, but by large, Buddhism as a religion is quite accommodative and relaxed. For example, Buddhists, until very recently, did not keep counts on kovils, churches and mosques that have been built around the country. Even when the LTTE attacked the two most sacred Buddhist symbols in Sri Lanka, Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi and Temple of Sacred Tooth Relic, that war stayed as an ethnic conflict. That was because at a deeper level Sinhala Buddhists understood that what that war was about. The difference between the separatist conflict and the one that we are trying to avoid with the extremist elements within the Muslim community is the religious nature of it.
It is the impression that Buddhism and Sinhala Buddhist way of life are under attack by rapidly expanding Islamism. That is why in this context, halal certificates, rapid expansion of Mosques, Madrassa schools and cries for sharia law all feed in to that narrative. In a perfect word, or in a different time, I would assume that consuming meat would be frowned upon by itself in a Buddhist society and not particularly worry about the certificate. But time has changed and we all need to make necessary exceptions and compromises to fit into the time that we are born into.
It is said, and the constitution has it, that “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana”. Mistake was that, however, our approach has been to find leaders to fulfill those responsibilities and deliver them to us in a top down manner. That is unrealistic in a democracy and often misinterpreted by others. Instead, we should have asked that what the responsibilities of the country are when it comes to Sinhala Buddhist expectations. Such bottom-to-top inclusive, transparent effort will have far less chance of alienation and mischaracterization.
So this is where the recent comments made by Cardinal Malcom Ranjith and parliamentarian Mano Ganesan fit in to the discussion, that their recognition of the Sinhala Buddhist nature of Sri Lanka. It can be seen today, that significant number of Buddhists use those remarks to revalidate Sinhala Buddhist country claim. Cardinal’s recognition, however, was conditional.
It was conditional on the necessity for a dynamic system that respect and accept minorities and their subcultures within a Sinhala Buddhist cultural framework with no reservations. The underlying condition to both those acknowledgements were that we shelve our pre-notions and accept everyone to be true sons and daughters of this country with equal rights and equal dignity.
This is a valuable opportunity. Leaders of two major ethnoreligious groups have publically offered an opportunity for a broader consensus to a problem that has been holding us back for decades. Now, as a country, we need to take that baton and run Sri Lanka to the victory.
So merging those two concurrent and conflicting views, can we find a compromise and concede that Sri Lanka is an equal multicultural society with willing minorities to accept the Sinhala Buddhist nature of it and Sri Lanka has a steadfast responsibility to protect and foster the source of that culture, Buddhism. That is not a very high bar by any mean for any of us and significantly different and nonthreatening one from above slogans. That is recognition of the Sinhala Buddhist nature of this country.
By Pradeep N Perera, PhD
Fortunately, religious disharmony in Sri Lanka is not based on deeply rooted theological differences or long running historical religious divisions but rather on simpler earthly issues such as unethical conversion, fear of expansion, fear of extinction and disputes over historic religious sites.
Those are far less intricate and practically solvable by procedural means. And, one source for these disputes is our perception of the broadly defined status to the Buddhism in our constitution. Opinion on what it implies by foremost, foster and protection can mean different things to different people. So, it required that definitive actions and definitions are derived from those words to address day to day affairs to general consent.
For example, fostering and foremost status sometime could be as simple as setting up state sponsored vibrant mechanisms to dissipate and conserve Theravada Buddhism and align ourselves as the foremost authority for such knowledge and the conservation center for Buddhist literature and artifacts from around the world. That is putting Buddhism first because Sri Lanka has a reasonable responsibility for it even from a history and heritages of mankind point of view. The world has a reasonable expectation on us fulfill that responsibility. Now, that is no cause for minorities be alarmed but, yet, that is fostering Buddhism with prejudice against none.
However, contentious ethnoreligious relations in Sri Lanka cannot be solved without addressing other enduring issues. For that we may need find a compromised position between absolute religious freedom and religious harmony. For example, we may need to revisit how we look at religious conversion and find a balance between protecting one’s right to choose a religion of their liking and preventing efforts of unethical conversions that hinder one’s freedom to choose by attaching perks and other benefits to the process.
We may also want to think about having officially recognized religions and denominations in Sri Lanka as a way to get a handle on mitigating fringe sectarian views are forced on to our society by external elements. On this point, for example, construction of places of worship of all religions can use a necessity based criteria that use factors such as locality and demography.
Expectation is that one don’t built a place for worship and look for worshipers but you build one because worshipers have a reasonable necessity for one. It is redundant even mentioning it because it so obvious but, we need clear and rigorous demarcation and identification process for all historic sites and artifacts in Sri Lanka and those sites and assets should be vested under central government’s authority to end such disputes.
Now, these may sound like stating-the-obvious kind of ideas and that is actually true. They must have been uttered umpteenth times by many. In many cases, there must be very clear regulations and protocols to deal with these aspects. That will take us to the second pillar of the current dispute.
If we look at the specifics of the incidents that have contributed to the Sinhala Buddhist-Muslim unrest in the recent past and all the revelations that have surfaced since the Easter Sunday attack, there is a common denominator. The root cause that has significantly contributed to the manifestation of the current problem, as well as all most all problems that we face in this country, is the lawlessness that we face every day. Lawlessness and corruption in a society are like a multi-headed monster.
This time it has raised its’ head as an enabler to Islamic extremism. One incident after the other, what we have learned so far is the failure to uphold existing laws of the country to halt the activities of these extremist elements and political interference to prevent application of those laws. In this particular case, it happened to be some Muslim politicians but it is no secret that this is very common occurrence in our country to the extent that we have become immune to it.
We should also remember that, for every Muslim politician who allegedly protected/abetted these extreme elements, there are many Sinhala Buddhist bureaucrats and politicians who acted along as accessories to make those requests become realities. So in some ways, portion of the anger misdirected at the Muslim community today is actually our anger against a corrupt system that allow these things to happen. When people lose trust on the system, they seek for alternatives. That anger has pushed some of Sinhala Buddhists to seemingly align with hard line ideologies. It is a protest against and abandonment of a dysfunctional do-nothing system and taking matters in to their own hands.
At the same time, minorities also do not expect that dysfunctional system to deliver justice for them when it is required because a corrupt system is unjust by its nature.
Further, a corrupt society has a multiplicative effect. For example, at the core of the current issue, is the growing economic power of the Muslims. In a corrupted system, however, that economic power has the ability to proliferate into disproportionate political influence. People understand that and expect that, thus further escalating the original cause.
So, if we want to solve this problem and alleviate anxieties of every group, we should address the lawlessness and corrupted nature of our society and shelve our penchant to work in secrecy. It is does not matter what new regulations and laws are introduced to solve a problem if people have already lost trust on the ability to execute those in a crippled society. Then, those effort will be seen as political circus and become laughing stocks.
More importantly, in such environment, people take preemptive measures such as denying opportunities and rights to others because of the fear that the system is not capable of dealing with the elements that will misuse those opportunities to further their harmful activities distinctively. That is what we what we see today.
More pillars make a structure stronger and last longer. For the third, we have to go couple of decades back. There was a time that a small fraction within the Muslim community was supporting Pakistani cricket team over ours whenever two nations were playing against each other. That might be water under the bridge in current context but still was symptomatic of a deeper problem. It was not stalled by the Police or Sinhala Buddhists alone but was done by speaking against it as a country and mostly by wise, unselfish Muslim politicians who publicly addressed the untowardness of such activities.
Unfortunately, it seems that we have far few of them today. For what we see today, Muslim politicians and community leaders, both moderate and fringe, should take a significant amount of blame for not seeing the consequences of what was happening around them.
Some of those politicians, especially the new generation, have apparently equated that strong arming leaders of the country, who happened to be Sinhala Buddhists, on various issues in to consent, to strong arming Sinhala Buddhists in to consent. And they were moving too fast and didn’t stop to think the necessity of addressing concerns, founded or otherwise, from the rest of the country, especially from Sinhala Buddhists. That was a mistake. Sinhala Buddhism survived in this country for more than two and half millennia for a reason and that reason was not the leaders. If anything, Sinhala Buddhist history teaches them that is the constant external threats they have faced throughout their history. That may have contributed to their paranoia as well but that has made them resilient.
Such unwise and hasty actions by some of the Muslim groups have contributed to building a growing fear and suspicion among Sinhala Buddhists today. For example, one thing that has riled Sinhala Buddhists is the general appearance of Arabic language within the Muslim community (e.g. name-board signs in Arabic language).
Now, we have no evidence to claim that is a spill over from radicalization process. In part because of our ignorance on the relationship between Arabic language and Islam in the religious context and we should have been educated about it and a slow moving process would have allowed it. But for Sinhala Buddhists today, it is a reason for suspicion because all they see is that Muslim community didn’t see a necessity for the use of Arabic language for daily activities for centuries and it is reasonable to ask why now.
Furthermore, if anyone advocates the Muslim community in this country to align themselves with foreign attributes such as the use of Arabic language as a way to protest against a perceived alienation in their own country. That is imprudent. They should have been guided to fight against for such alienation by fighting for recognition for their Sri Lanka identity instead.
The question that still remains for some Sinhala Buddhists, however, that they are the strong majority of this country, the major presence of the military and police and the selectors of most of the politicians to lead Sri Lanka, so why do we need to compromise. That is a brute-force way of thinking and a shortcut for self-destruction.
Resort for violence is a sign of ideological bankruptcy. Twenty five years of separatist war sent us back decades, economically and socially, and spent, according to a book published by India’s former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, USD 200 billion and that is without the opportunity cost during that period. That is equivalent of 23000 billion Sri Lankan rupees in 2008. For the argument that we are making here, if we had been able to avoid that war and had spent that money on social and economic development of Sri Lanka, seventy percent of that would have gone to the Sinhala Buddhists in this country.
If them had diverted two hundredth of those benefits for fostering Buddhism that would have been one million per every temple (~12000 of them) in Sri Lanka, per year over twenty five years. I wonder how many Buddhist institutions have seen that kind of state sponsorship. That is the kind of the economic freedom that Sinhala Buddhists should crave for, that dwarfs our necessity to depend on a corrupt political system.
So, if we hastily go down on a similar road again, we will put economic development and sustainability at great risk. In few more decades, we may look back and wonder why we had failed to protect and foster the “Sinhala Buddhist country”. You may find ways to blame minorities, capitalism or imperialism but after some retrospect, you may find that the decisions that we had made for ourselves have cost us opportunities to have a stronger economy and stronger country.
We live in an ever connected global society that everything is decided by economic strength, let it be an individual, or a group, or a country, and self-destructive actions to prevent achieving that strength is unforgivable.
While outlook may seem grime, this is also an opportunity. So if the effort is to protect, foster and sustain Buddhism and Sri Lanka culture we should not miss this opportunity to reach across the aisle for a broader dialogs and find common grounds for all of us.
Unfortunately, it seems that that we are failing on that test today. There was a broader coalition forming after the Easter attack against extremist views in our society and consensus for stronger actions against them. We may be have started to stalling that budding front by overplaying our hand by using defeating terrorist elements as an opportunity to dictate on a minority group.
We may think that the worst is over. But now the shock and confusion on Easter Sunday event has passed and clear picture have immerged. That shock and confusion prevented another Black July in this country. Since the Easter attack so much fuel has been added and we are one sizeable spark away from a full blown communal violence. We, each single one of us, should do our utmost responsibility to prevent such situation.
(The author is a scientist who is currently living in California, United States)
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