Legacies of impunity

Thursday, 16 January 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out- Because I was not a Jew - Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) Bible burning and church razing – that is the horrific legacy of 18 months of carte blanche for extremist forces masquerading as Buddhist religious movements. It is the bequest of unchecked hate speech from public platforms of the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sihala Ravaya which has coloured the teachings and the discourse in every Buddhist temple, from the smallest villages to the largest towns across the island. Religious tensions had been simmering in the tourist town of Hikkaduwa over the Christmas season, with leading Buddhist monks in the area demanding the closure of two Christian churches in the area on grounds that they were ‘unauthorised’. The tension had led to three churches in Southern Sri Lanka being attacked on Christmas Eve. Assemblies of God Hikkaduwa had been one of them. So when Police turned up at the church last Saturday to inform the Pastor Chinthaka Prasanna that a protest against them had been planned for the next day, members of the congregation decided it would be prudent to take certain precautions. Gathering inside the small hall at which Sunday services are held, some members of the congregation locked themselves inside. The main gate had also been locked and reinforced. At 8 a.m., Sunday service commenced as usual. Upon request, the police had assured Pastor Chinthaka that religious services could continue as usual because police officers would be deployed for protection of the church premises.       Mob attack But during the service, when a mob of about 250 persons descended upon Baddegama Road where the church is situated, only three policemen were standing guard outside the premises. Three wheelers carrying loudspeakers were blaring anti-Christian slogans. Buddhist monks who had formed an organisation calling itself the Hela Bodhu Pawura were leading the demonstrators. Young children, clad in white Daham Pasal costume carried large Buddhist flags at the front of the procession. Men and women, also wearing white as is customary for visits to the temple were among the unruly Sunday crowd. Led by the saffron robed, these devotees of Gautama Buddha whose philosophy was one of peace, love and non violence laid siege to the Christian church. When they found the main gate could not be breached, the mob crashed in through the side entrance. They broke the church roof, demolished windows and equipment and forced worshippers to flee. Pastor Chinthaka who had led some members of his congregation to his home adjoining the church for refuge, claims he was forced out by Buddhist monks who threatened him with death unless steps were taken to close the church. Not even the few policemen stationed to protect the premises against the mob attack had been spared. Rough-housed and verbally insulted by the monks, these officers offered weak and ineffectual resistance as young men in saffron robes vandalised the church. When the crowd moved on to the Calvary Free Church a short distance away where the Sunday services were just concluding, police personnel managed to stall an invasion of the premises by holding the demonstrators off until the remaining congregation could be safely moved out of the church. Moments later, the mob had moved in for its second onslaught. Teenage monks ripped religious writings off church walls and smashed chairs and pews inside the church. Gathering Bibles, hymnals and other religious material, the mob laid them out in the church garden and set them on fire. The crowd cheered. Predictably, not a single arrest was made, despite the number of crimes committed by the mob and even though ample photographic and video evidence is available to identify perpetrators. But this should come as no surprise after the events of the past year. After Dambulla, Pepiliyana, Grandpass and now Hikkaduwa, scenes of saffron splashed violence met with the impotence of men in khaki have grown in eerie familiarity. Every attack against religious minorities that goes unpunished spurs on another. Each attack is greater in intensity and audacity than the last.       Broadening the net Hardline ethno-religious groups commenced the latest cycle of religious intolerance with the storming of the Dambulla mosque and rampant Islamophobia that manifested itself in pseudo controversies like the Halal certification. A thriving culture of impunity for violence in word and deed against religious minorities has encouraged these groups to widen their net. Evangelical Christians whose proselytising campaigns have irked sections of the Buddhist population for years are their latest target. Just as it was with whipping up sentiment against Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, extremist groups have found it childishly simple to exploit certain inherent prejudices within the Buddhist community to inflame passions against the Christians. Their campaigns against Christian churches – especially in the Southern Province – have found an outpouring of support from local government officials and top regional law enforcement officials. In Hikkaduwa the Hela Bodu Pawra managed to co-opt the support of officials at the Divisional Secretariat and high ranking police officials in the area. Basing their claim on a circular issued by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs in October 2008, that orders the registration of all new religious centres being constructed with the Ministry with effect from the date of the circular, the Divisional Secretariat issued letters to both churches attacked last Sunday insisting they could not continue to hold services in the premises because they were in violation of the circular. However the pastors and lawyers for the two churches have argued that the churches pre-date the circular by several years. Following discussions with senior police officials in Galle on 27 December 2013, the Christian pastors and their lawyers met with the Secretary to the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs in Colombo four days later to argue their case. Ministry officials admitted they had been misinformed about the existence of the two churches and said the churches would be permitted to continue their worship services while the matter was being cleared up. Still, 10 days later unruly mobs of Buddhist protestors are permitted to take the law into their own hands. The Police Spokesman claimed eight suspects involved in the Hikkaduwa religious violence have been identified, but no arrest has been made so far.       Silence More tellingly, four days after the Hikkaduwa horror, no word of condemnation has emerged from any political quarter. The Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which is constitutionally mandated to ensure the freedom of conscience and religion for every Sri Lankan citizen has remained deafeningly silent about the complete breakdown of law and order in the southern tourist town. This sanction by omission not only galvanises forces like the Hela Bodhu Pawra that will mobilise at the next possible opportunity but reinforces the international perception of the Sri Lankan Government as a persecutor of minorities and a Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic regime. But the political paralysis runs much deeper. With the opposition intent on distancing itself from moderate ideologies in a bid to court Sinhala Buddhist voters who prefer the nationalistic tenor of the Rajapaksa administration, raising a voice against violent hardline movements has proven far too risky.       Karu: A lone voice It came as a surprise therefore that at a time when the United National Party’s Catholic and Christian members have chosen stony silence; the party’s Leadership Council Chairman Karu Jayasuriya has raised a lone voice against the Hikkaduwa violence. The protestations could come perhaps from no better man. Jayasuriya’s Buddhist credentials are strong; he is beloved of the Sangha and a practicing Buddhist. In a statement filled with angst that was released to the media two days after the brutal attacks on churches in Hikkaduwa, Jayasuriya accused the hardline movements of trying to destroy Buddhism by perpetrating violence and persecution in its name. This orchestration of violence against ethnic and religious minorities is...also an attempt to destroy the concept of Buddhism as taught by Lord Buddha, who gave the world a philosophy of peace, loving kindness and non violence towards all beings. The actions of certain extremists claim to represent all Buddhists but by their every action they only befoul and denigrate the teachings of the Buddha. The impunity these groups have come to enjoy has brought Sri Lanka to very brink of communal strife yet again,” he warned in a blazing statement against religious violence and state inaction on Tuesday. The UNP Leadership Council Chief makes a valiant attempt to portray the main opposition as a party of pluralist values that will stand against religious fanaticism and intolerance of every kind. “As a party that believes in studying and learning from the mistakes of the past, the UNP holds firm to the values of pluralism and freedom of conscience. As standard bearers of the country’s oldest party, we will stand for the religious freedoms of all Sri Lankans. If we hold true to the concept of one Sri Lanka, then our reaction to an assault against a mosque, church or Hindu kovil cannot differ in strength to the reaction against an attack on a Buddhist temple,” Jayasuriya’s statement said. He believed, the statement said, that the majority of Sri Lanka’s Buddhists were still moderate, peace-loving citizens who were repulsed by this spate of violence against religious minorities. At a time when every politician appears to have deserted the moderates as being irrelevant players in electoral fortunes, Jayasuriya’s words proved a true aberration.       The need of the hour In an age when politicians hailing from minority faiths are too afraid to speak out, the fight against religious bigotry will have to be championed by moderate Buddhist leaders with sufficient foresight to understand the dangers of today’s trend. Leaders who will refuse to be swayed by the expediency an enraged and insecure majority community offers. If Jayasuriya stands up to the fray, he will be positioning himself exceedingly well, as a statesman willing to swim against the popular tide, offering Sri Lankan Buddhists a different narrative – one that is founded in Buddhist doctrine. If politicians like Jayasuriya can find the strength to galvanise the forces of moderate Buddhism from among the Sangha and the laity, it will prove the greatest challenge yet to the hate and intolerance propagated by extremist groups. It may prove the greatest challenge also, to the hegemonic agendas of the ruling regime. The absence of alternative political discourse that challenges the kind of insular thinking that spawns extremist ethno-religious movements is helping to entrench the current political rulers. If the ideology and rhetoric of the present regime feeds prejudice and mistrust, the desperate need is for an alternative political movement that breaks them down and fosters understanding and pluralistic thinking.         Liberal alternative? Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, always quick to feel a political pulse proved she had recognised this political vacuum last week. The South Asian Policy and Research Institute, chaired by Kumaratunga organised a colloquium on religious freedom and pluralism, bringing together several scholars and experts on the issue. The UNP that is intent on trying to best the Rajapaksa administration at its own game by pandering to the baser instincts of the majority community should attempt to understand why the Government is infinitely more jittery about President Kumaratunga’s re-entry into politics than facing off against the Greens at any number of future elections. In retirement, Kumaratunga is becoming the champion of liberal causes and despite a somewhat chequered 11 year reign, is looking the part of the political alternative, even if as she claims, she has no further interest in active politics. For reasons best known to himself, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has all the political capital and moral authority to tell the hardline monks to cease and desist – and ensure they fall in line – has chosen to look the other way. Like his predecessors before him, President Rajapaksa is choosing to pander to ancient prejudices. By sheer inaction, his Government is fanning the flames of communal strife. Perhaps the Rajapaksa administration believes that arranging a Papal visit this year will be sufficient to placate the country’s Roman Catholics. Perhaps it believes the visit will prevent the Catholics from reacting to the persecution of Christians and ensure some support for the Government at a major election. Thus far, those calculations have proven accurate.         Pluralistic response When hardline groups took arms against Sufi shrines in Anuradhapura and Kuragala, the reaction from other Islamic sects was lukewarm at best. But these initial attacks, met with silence for the most part, paved the way for the attacks on mosques in Dambulla, Grandpass and countless smaller incidents of violence against Muslim places of worship. Similarly, it is not enough for Christians alone to be enraged by the attacks on Christian churches. Until every community can empathise and stand up for the other, the hardline groups will win every battle. With every attack that is met with silence from greater society, the rights of all ethnic and religious minorities are more gravely endangered. Once the Christians are effectively silenced, like the Muslims, will these groups come after the Catholics? And when the Catholics are suppressed, will they turn their eyes on the Hindus? And once every religious minority is put in its place, will the battle then rage over who is the better Buddhist? For there is little doubt that if current trends continue unchecked, moderate Buddhists will soon become the last religious minority, the final hurdle to be overcome and exterminated before religious fascism can rule.    

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