Rising extremism and personal freedom

Wednesday, 20 March 2013 00:17 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Over the past years, rising extremisms over the day-to-day lives of individuals has been noted, the latest being the movement against Halal certification aimed at the Muslim community. Other demands are on the consumption of liquor, the sale of beef, labelling of cigarettes, the abuse of children and prostitution. The new wave of demands made mostly against the Muslim community is spearheaded by a group of hard-line Buddhist monks.

Campaign against Muslims

Hate Muslims campaign made a public appearance in Dambulla almost a year ago, when a small Muslim mosque was attacked by a crowd led by the chief Buddhist priest of the area. The crowd, having attacked the small mosque, continued on to attack a minor Kali Kovil worshiped by a small group of low-caste Tamils, who claimed they are not permitted to enter the main Kovils. For weeks afterwards the streets were patrolled by T-shirt wearing youth displaying ‘Api Dambulla’.

Anti-Halal protests

Anti-Halal protests are organised by a group of Buddhist monks calling themselves the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), who continue to hold rallies, demand the boycott of Halal products and demand the Government to withdraw Halal certification by the end of March.

The BBS claims that by Halal certification, the Muslim community earns a massive income, which is used for pro-Muslim purposes. Anti-Halal and anti-Muslim campaigns are supported by public meetings, posters and through social media networks.

Origin of Halal

Decades ago, animal rights groups in developed countries campaigned and won for the humane slaughter of animals. The method involves making the animal unconscious, away from the slaughter point, in order to reduce the fear and pain of the animal. This method did not comply with the religious requirements of the Muslims and the Jews, and their concerns gave rise to the Halal method for Muslims and Kosher for Jews. Sri Lanka is yet to consider the humane slaughter of animals.

Muslim reply and compromise

Fortunately, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) that offers Halal certification in Sri Lanka avoided direct confrontation and explained their existence since 1924, and their services to companies that offer Halal products especially for exports. ACJU in a media statement disclosed and published their audited accounts, which showed the turnover for the year ending 31 March 2012 was Rs. 17,902,807.50 on certifying 150 institutions, making a profit of Rs. 2,669,420.80.

The ACJU indicated their willingness to withdraw from Halal certification and requested that the Government take over as done by Singapore and Thailand governments, but the Government refused to get involved.

In a subsequent development, Buddhist priests from three Nikayas headed by the Bellanwila Chief Priest, members of ACJU, and industry representatives under the auspices of Ceylon Chamber of Commerce agreed on a compromise solution in order to avoid religious conflicts. The compromise included ACJU dropping the Halal certificate within the country and issuing the Halal certificate for export purposes without a fee. But the BBS is not happy and has vowed to carry on.

The BBS was highly vociferous against Halal certification, but when most of the world is moving towards humane slaughter of animals for consumption and Muslims’ Halal has been an exception to accommodate their religious beliefs, it is shocking that none proposed to end suffering of animals prior to slaughter in Sri Lanka. Can our public be so ignorant?

Anti-family planning

A couple of months ago the Bodu Bala Sena protested against a family planning clinic organised by a NGO in Bandaragama, claiming that the Sinhalese population numbers are coming down due to family planning and that Muslim numbers are increasing.

The BBS carried out house-to-house campaigns urging Sinhala people to have more children. Unfortunately no one produced demographic data that would have shown that the gradual increase in Sinhalese percentages, which stood at 69.41% in 1946 census and have grown to 74.88% according to 2011 census.

When the world’s population is exploding, Sri Lanka has managed to keep population expansion under control, but the Government yielding to BBS pressure instructed the health authorities to end vasectomy and sterilisation operations of consenting adults, undermining decades of patient family planning work, mostly over poor villagers. The ending of State healthcare would only lead to an increase in the number of illegal abortions carried out under unhygienic conditions, supposedly in excess of 600 per day.

Unwanted babies

The local press frequently reports the murder of babies and children by the parents and the sale of young babies, which attacked by various welfare groups well supported by the National Child Protection Authority. In 2011 Police raided an orphanage run by the Catholic Church, accusing them of the sale of children from unwed mothers, but when the Church intervened, the Police withdrew charges.

When an unwed mother delivers a child, she is faced with public stigma and also lacks the means to raise the child, whereas thousands of childless couples wait to adopt a child. Official adoption procedures involve a long-drawn process and acceptance by the courts, whereas the mother wishes a speedy, quiet disposal of the child.

When the mother hands over the child, the recipient naturally would give some money in gratitude, which is highlighted as a sale and ends up in court, whereas it is well known that some officials in the National Child Protection Authority wish to get involved to make capital out of the situation.

Child molestation

Children’s rights groups in Sri Lanka have been very vocal and have a number of legislation enhancing children’s rights to their credit. Having got definitions of sex and molestations amended, even the flimsiest offenders are sentenced to long prison terms. In sex offenses involving children both below 18, the current law considers the male to be the offender and the female as a minor.  With under-aged mothers, the male partner is charged in court and sentenced to years of imprisonment. Prison authorities highlight instances of unmarried mothers with their child visiting the offender in prison, awaiting the father’s discharge to support the child.

In other countries when both parties are below the age of consent, the law takes a different view for ages 18 to 16, 16 to 14 and below 14 considering the age. Our law does not differentiate ages. The children’s rights groups in Sri Lanka seem to consider that only girls below the age of consent need sympathy and protection.

Monk convicted in London

Meanwhile, a report from BBC Sinhala service dated 1 June 2012 accessible over the internet titled ‘Sri Lanka’s hidden scourge of religious child abuse’ reported that a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk who runs children’s homes in Sri Lanka has been found guilty of child abuse by a Court in London.

Quoting from the report: Research carried out by the BBC Sinhala service has revealed that over the last decade, nearly 110 Buddhist monks have been charged for sexual and physical assaults on minors in Sri Lanka. Many of these cases – especially those of a sexual nature – were barely reported by the Sri Lankan media and seldom resulted in convictions.

Yet, according to figures from Sri Lanka’s National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), only three Buddhist monks have been convicted of child abuse in Sri Lanka in recent history. One of those died from poison he drank after he was sentenced for raping a girl aged 13 in 2005.

The Children’s Affairs Minister told the BBC that he is “shocked and ashamed” over the extent of the problem. However, he rejected accusations that political leaders are trying to influence the Judiciary to get culprits released. But if the Minister is to be believed, child abuse in religious establishments by both Buddhist and Christian clergy in Sri Lanka is rampant.

It is not only Buddhist monks who stand accused – about 20 Roman Catholic and Protestant priests have been arrested or investigated for sexual abuse of minors over the last 10 years in Sri Lanka (end quote).

Anti-beef campaigns

Following the acceptance of a proposed motion, the Kandy Municipal Council decided to close down the slaughterhouse in Suduhumpola, which has been in operation for over 50 years, with effect from 15 March. Only the three Muslim members in the Council voted against the motion.

In Panadura, during the tender procedure for meat stalls, a Buddhist priest who placed the highest bid claimed that he would close down the meat stalls. It is not clear whether the highest bidder paid the bid price to the local authority. Under normal tender conditions, when the successful tenderer does not execute the tendered work within a reasonable time, the tender payment is forfeited and the tender is awarded to the next bidder.

Labelling of cigarettes

The Consumer Affairs Authority has brought in legislation that cigarette packet labelling should contain explicit photographs of cancer in the mouth to discourage smoking, which has been challenged in court. Apparently the proposed type of labelling is carried out in Australia.

While accepting smoking is detrimental to health and should be discouraged, current legislature prohibits smoking in public. Among the prolific smokers are workers engaged in hard labour, as nattamies engaged in loading and unloading cargo, who after a round of work would relax with a cigarette prior to commencement of the next lot.

The cost of the cigarette may amount to a heavy percentage of his daily earnings, which would be better used to feed his family. But who are we to impose on the labourer over the kind of refreshment he should have? Anyway his cigarette has already made a heavy contribution to Government revenue.

Ban tuition classes on Sundays

It was reported that the Matara Municipal Council in a proposal accepted by the Council has banned the conduct of tuition classes on Sundays between 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. within the Council limits, to encourage students attending Dhamma schools.

Do the local councils have the authority to bring in such legislation and enforce same? How about the offenders and what would be the punishment? Will the legislation curtail tuition carried out in private homes, where teachers charge exuberant sums from affluent children?

Consumption of liquor

A year ago all pilgrims’ vehicles entering the sacred area of Sithulpahuwa near Kataragama were searched by a team of Army personnel, who apprehended liquor bottles from the vehicles, emptied contents and stacked the empties by the roadside for people to see. The stack grew into a small mountain and the move was praised by some of the pilgrims. Fortunately the Army’s liquor patrol did not continue.

In most countries, having an opened bottle of liquor in the passenger section of a vehicle is an offence, even if the passengers have not consumed any. If the same law is enforced throughout the country, especially around places of worship, Buddhist pilgrimages would surely see a drastic reduction.

According to reports, for a warm country Sri Lanka ranks amongst the heaviest consumers of liquor and heavy drinkers exceed 40% of all consumers. In soft liquors, alcohol content in local beer varies from 4.5% to 9% and the stronger beers are more popular. In most US beer, alcohol is only 3.5 to 4.5%.

Safety in public places

Irrespective of our stringent laws, our country has produced a society possibly the worst in the whole world. Our women are not safe in public transport, on the road and even in their own homes. Reports of rape and killing have become daily item in the media.

Lapses in so-called free education have only managed to extend learning years, and the age of marriage is pushed higher. Nearly two million Sri Lankans accepting employment abroad has left a similar number single in their homes.

The adventures of Sri Lankans extend well beyond our shores. A few months ago it was reported that a former High Commissioner to a European country was found guilty and fined in a court of London for having misbehaved towards a girl in a massage clinic. In another report an Australian court found a Sri Lankan youngster guilty for mishandling a girl in public transport. The incidents show that the habits of our society members continue even in permissive societies.

Harassment of sex workers

Police crack-down on brothels, massage parlours, check girls’ handbags for contraceptives and are charged in court. The harassment of sex workers continues under the pretext of being checked for diseases are charged in Courts under ‘The Brothels Ordinance’ and ‘Vagrants Ordinance’. Some are fined, yet others are imprisoned for months, supposedly for rehabilitation.

Calls have been made to legalise the sex trade, including a proposal made by the UPFA Member from Southern Provincial Council to the Economic Development Ministry. The pro-legalising lobby cites its effective impact in curbing criminal involvement and drug use, decreasing health risks as HIV and sexually-transmitted diseases. But others point out that with a degree of protection to workers, legalising of the sex trade would lead to expansion.

Personal freedom

Sri Lanka as a predominant Buddhist community which advocates tolerance and moderation should have been a model society. But today’s society continues to deteriorate and has failed to achieve fairness and unity among citizens. Personal freedom of the individual is continuously being attacked by the so called do-gooders.

Various groups including NGOs, civil societies and extremists continue to preach actions supposedly to correct the undesirable situations, but which only add to the problems. The fundamental issues remain unresolved.

Meanwhile, politicians tend to take the easy way out and worsen the situation. The President’s discussion with Bodu Bala Sena group is looked upon by the public as indirect support extended by the Government. A Police raid conducted on a PS Member’s house near Negombo over a year ago, supposedly for possession of drugs, found nothing, but the President’s visit to console the PS member is seen by the public as a poor example.

People work hard and wish for a private life without interference, spend some earnings in pleasures according to individual taste – a beautiful house, a comfortable chair, a meal one enjoys or an enjoyable drink, without intruding into others’ privileges. The deprivation of the wishes of an individual would reduce the incentives to work hard. Today’s society is under pressure by various pressure groups, and if problems are not resolved soon, it is bound to explode in one way or the other.

There needs to be a honest discussion among responsible society based on the ground situation without getting into rhetoric, so that underlying problems could be addressed to enable unity in diversity. But whether the politicians and hard-line groups such as BBS would allow such action is yet to be seen.

(The writer is a Chartered Civil Engineer graduated from Peradeniya University and has been employed in Sri Lanka and abroad. He was General Manager of State Engineering Corporation of Sri Lanka and currently employed with a Chinese construction organisation. He can be contacted on tudor@rivendaleresort.com.)

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