Mohamed Saleem, in the Island, 7 August 2013, where the title reads “Need an enemy? Target Muslims: Souring Buddhist-Muslim Relations”
For months Sri Lanka has witnessed orchestrated anti-Muslim campaigns. Some Buddhist-clergy, self proclaimed saviours of true Buddhism, branding as Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balakaya are instigating Buddhists, particularly the youth, into a state of frenzy that manifests in hate rhetoric against the Muslims, desecrating their belief systems and places for congregational worship. Stereotyping and targeting with the intent of causing social disharmony, although unacceptable in any cultured society, the anti-Muslim exuberance in this country is flourishing as the perpetrators feel encouraged to perform under the watchful eyes of the law enforcement agencies that have no qualms about Muslims being picked as targets.
Buddhist sponsored anti-Muslim campaign is gaining currency in the South Asian region, and recently it has taken a violent dimension in Myanmar as Rhoinga Muslim villages are torched and inhabitants condemned to statelessness by a Buddhist group calling it 969. The Buddhist clergy (Ven. Wirathu), giving leadership to this group in Myanmar, in concert with some other radicals, passed on 10th September 2012 a four point anti-Muslim resolution (Don’t sell, rent or pawn Buddhist owned properties -houses, lands and fields- to Muslims; Buddhists women shall not marry Muslims; Buddhists shall only buy from the shops run by Buddhists; Buddhists, under their names, shall not buy, build or rent houses, lands, fields or buildings for Muslims) which seems to have energized a new hate-impetus against the Muslims in other Buddhist majority countries as well, including Srilanka, and also has triggered anti- Buddhist reactions in Buddhist minority countries. Souring of Buddhist-Muslim relations does not seem spontaneous, and there may be manipulating undercurrents at work. While questions are being raised who stands to gain from a Buddhist-Muslim clash, what most Sri lankan Muslims cannot fathom is why should it happen to them, and that too why the Buddhists have taken an anti- Muslim position now?
Srilanka is blessed but, still an unsettled country. Srilanka is now a multi-religious and multi-ethnic ethnic country as the autochthonous natives of one time embraced varying religious tenets that periodically reached its shores. Adherents of four major world religions have been living in harmony, and particularly the Buddhists, who account for more than 70% of the country, have had an intimate relationship with the Muslims as their villages and habitations intertwine with each other. History speaks of loyalty and trustworthiness of Muslims to merit being chosen by the country rulers to lead trade delegations and negotiation teams internationally. Their service in army to fight alongside the Sinhala Kings, as dedicated royal physicians and as servants earned Muslims land and encouragement to settle amongst the Sinhalese. Post independence, Sinhalese majority constituencies have elected Muslim members to the parliament and Muslim MPs have occupied important cabinet positions. Even during the time of insurgency and armed struggle for territorial control the Muslims have stood by the majority community and, they have been totally against the division of the country for which the Northern Province Muslims earned LTTE’s wrath of being subjected to ethnic cleansing in October 1980. This being the background how did the Muslims become a target of Buddhist hate today? Has there been a long festering dissatisfaction with the Muslims that suddenly exploded after May 2009 with the feeling of triumphalism over terrorism?
Exclusion: The whole country takes pride of defeating terrorism but, search for a new identity for Sri Lanka has led to a perceptive exclusion of the minority communities by the majority Sinhala community. During the war against secessionist claims the main focus of the country was on containing the terrorists and, the Buddhist and Muslim communities, the younger generation in particular, probably were deprived of the social interactions that had existed between these communities. This increased suspicion of each other and has now become a fertile ground for sowing seeds of hate. The anti-Muslim resolution passed in Myanmar provides additional reference points for militant anti-Muslim campaigns in Srilanka.
Muslims in Srilanka are also citizens of this country. Therefore, they are entitled to respect and privileges like everyone else including freedom to practice their faith. Equally, Muslims too have a stake in safeguarding territorial integrity and nation building. They too are committed to Sri Lanka’s integrity as a sovereign nation in spite of having increasingly come under accusation by the extreme Buddhist groups that Muslims are working with a hidden agenda to make Srilanka a Muslim country, and using a number of means to achieve this end. The way Muslims make choices of what is permissible and what is not (Halal), for consumption, is ridiculed. Their preferred dress codes for women to preserve modesty, natural family progression, expansion in business undertakings, places which have served them many years for congregational prayers or to pay homage for assumed sanctity etc are now being questioned as contributing to the hidden Islamization agenda, and constitute grievances against the Muslims.
Majority of Sri Lankans are followers of Buddhism, and it is understandable, after overpowering terrorists bent on dividing the country, it now wants to reassert its Buddhist identity. In some quarters this is being equated as ensuring Buddhist majority character and dominance in every sphere of life Vis-a- Vis governance, civil service and administration, economy, property ownership etc at all levels in every part of the country. Some even argue that although Sri Lanka as a whole has been considered a Buddhist country the Buddhist majority character is not reflected everywhere. It was therefore easier for secession aspirations to be cooked. Reassertion for a new identity is only a corrective measure to reflect the true national Buddhist character, and an insurance against repeat of LTTE episode. The downside of it is in the measures adopted to achieve it, which are sending out a clear message that the country belongs only to the Buddhists.
Nation building: Since independence, majority politics has become the game plan, and in this, minorities are considered peripheral entities in nation building. Measures adopted sidelined the minority from the majority, and suspicion caused by adoption of Sinhala as the official language and restructuring administration to ensure Buddhist hegemony continues to this day. Following the LTTE defeat and liberation of entrapped Tamils from the terrorist’s grip there was a lot of expectation that the country could move towards rebuilding with the goodwill of the entire citizenry but it did not happen. President Rajapaksa in May 2009 sent out a clear reconciliatory message that “…there are no minorities in this country and only Sri lankans…”and people saw a new opportunity to unite and jointly rebuild this country. However, subsequent actions are rapidly moving the country away from national reconciliation, and rebuilding trust between the different communities seems least of the priorities. It is in this context that the souring of Muslim-Buddhist relationship should be viewed.
The Rajapaksa government came to power with a solid Buddhist Sinhala backing, and had the LTTE not boycotted the 2005 presidential elections this country may have been under a different regime and terrorists enthroned somewhere. The Rajapaksa government also seems to believe that no matter what it does the Tamil and the Muslim voters cannot counted for supporting it, and continuity of the government will only be assured by consolidating Buddhist voters and, towards this end, any price is worth paying. Anyone with future presidential ambitions may also be tempted to adopt this strategy of consolidating only the majority group (at the expense of the others), and therefore will not hesitate to use panic sensations to mobilize people. At a time of global islamophobia finding a common enemy in Muslims (to rally support against them) is not difficult, and Muslims of this country have now become such a target.
Hate rhetoric: Muslims always wish to be peaceful citizens within the socio-religious mosaic of this country but, since the creation of Muslim Congress and other parties that splintered out of it found politically advantageous to isolate the Muslims from the rest, which also constitutes their main vote-catching slogan. Although there is growing realization that Muslim-slanted parties have been responsible for widening gap between the different communities and there was a vote swing away from these parties in the recent elections, which had all the signs to increase in the future, the on-going anti-Muslim campaign is likely to strengthen the standing of those parties among the Muslim voters. President Rajapaksa is the leader of the entire country and not only for the Buddhists and, in spite of growing concerns with the government, he continues to be rated highly by everyone as the only leader who could bring about sanity to this country. Freeing the country from hate-rhetoric by one community against another is one way out.
The democratic experiment in Myanmar seems to have curtailed those who wielded power and influence when the military was in control although most members now in parliament have been in the previous military administration. According to some in Myanmar, Muslims are soft targets and the Buddhist-Muslim crisis is stage (politically) managed to impress upon the people that only a tough military administration can provide security, not a civilian government, and to justify constitutionally approved recall of the armed forces to maintain law and order. One can only pray that such thinking has not benefited the anti-Muslim campaign in Srilanka and, if it had, it will be the end of democracy.
The two photographs are from the mid-British period and are part of the illustrative material in the book Potency, Power and People in Groups, Marga Publications, Colombo, 2012.