An old woman waiting at the Trincomalee bus stand was arrested and taken to the Police station because the sari that she was clad in had a motif that was viewed as being similar to the head of the Buddha. A monk in the area then arrived at the Police station with his supporters, berated the old lady in front of her family, threatened her, insulted her while the Police looked on and acted in a completely reprehensible manner.
The lady, who was Tamil, clearly did not mean to give offence and her daughters begged forgiveness from the monk by touching his feet, while he continued to insult their mother in a highly-inappropriate manner. His manners nor his actions were in way representative of his status as a monk and his behaviour is completely unacceptable.
It is deeply problematic that Buddhist monks attempt to take the law into their own hands and intimidate and threaten citizens. It is also even more problematic that they can do this time and again with impunity. This incident has gone viral and the message it gives to all citizens, especially minorities, is an extremely negative one. It tells them that they are not respected and protected in Sri Lanka even though they are citizens and while this situation appeared to have been somewhat resolved, this level of intolerance and aggressive behaviour can have a serious impact on the lives of people.
In a similar incident after the Easter Sunday attacks, a Muslim woman was arrested and jailed for months because she was wearing a dress that both the Police and the Magistrate thought was a Dhamma Chakra, even though it was obviously a ship’s wheel. This kind of mistreatment is a travesty and in complete contravention of the Sri Lankan Constitution that safeguards the fundamental rights of the individual and protects against arbitrary arrest and detention.
In 2014, Naomi Coleman, a British nurse, filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court in Colombo seeking Rs. 10 million in compensation from Police, Immigration and Prison authorities after she was unlawfully arrested and deported. In November 2017 the Supreme Court ordered the Sri Lankan State should pay her Rs. 700,000 as compensation and her legal costs while the two Policemen who arrested her were ordered each to pay her Rs. 50,000 out of their own pockets.
The three-judge bench stated that Coleman was not only illegally arrested, but even the Negombo Magistrate had issued an unlawful order to detain her and that she was subjected to “horrifying and scandalous treatment.” This ruling clearly shows that Fundamental Rights remains important and should be respected by everyone, especially Buddhist monks who are supposed to lead their flock to think with compassion and tolerance.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed concluding his visit to Sri Lanka insisted that it was essential the State must prosecute those responsible for violence and incitement to violence, make efforts to dismantle the networks of hate, and facilitate access to justice to victims of hate crimes. He emphasised that unless the State does so there cannot be peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka as preferential treatment of one group will always sow discord.
The Government must take extra steps to educate Police, the Judiciary and the public to refrain from taking narrow-minded and bigoted decisions that endanger the lives of others, and to discourage religious leaders from spreading discontent and disharmony. This is not the path to unifying Sri Lanka.