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Perhaps Anti-Muslim Fervour in Sri Lanka May Diminish if Defence Secretary Succeeds to the Throne?

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by

Dr. Ameer Ali

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The attack on the Grandpass mosque last week is the latest of the never ending anti-Muslim provocations conducted by Bodu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya with their extremist mob. Ever since the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 these un-Buddhist militants have taken an apparent pledge to cleanse the island of Sri Lanka of all non-Buddhist elements and transform it into a pure land of Theravada Buddhism in their own image.

The real tragedy is the inaction against and toleration of the activities of this unruly minority by the ruling authorities who are morally, legally and constitutionally bound to protect the security and welfare all its citizens. What is the end game of all this conspiracy?

I want to apologise at the outset to the vast majority of the venerable Sangha for referring to the following incident, which I heard in 1957 when the Prime Minister of the time, S.W.R.de Bandaranaike, was gasping for his breadth in the hospital after he was fatally wounded by Somarama Thera. According to one story that was circulating at that time, the then leader of the United National Party, Sir John Kotalawela, had gone to visit the wounded PM and while holding his hand had remarked, “I tied down the dogs, you let them loose and they bit you”. Whether he actually said this or not, the underlying message behind that remark is not too difficult to comprehend. Politics is not for the Sangha, and politicians who employ members of this respectable institution as tools to achieve their short term objectives are not only devaluing the sacredness of this noble body but also are corrupting democracy itself.

The Sangha certainly has an important role to play in the pastoral care and welfare of the society. Their advice on the ethics and morality of actions in the light of Buddhist teachings should be sought by political leaders, and it was in that context that in 1946 the scholar monks of the Vidyalankara Privena made the declaration that “it is nothing but fitting for Buddhist (Bhikkus?) to identify themselves … (in) activities conducive to the welfare of our people whether these activities can be labelled politics or not, as long as they do not constitute an impediment to the religious life of Bhikkus.” Can anyone explain how the violent and destructive behaviour of BBS is ‘conducive’ to the ‘welfare’ of the Buddhists let alone Sri Lankans and how it does ‘not constitute an impediment to the religious life of Bhikkus?

In its design to make Sri Lanka a uni-religious, uni-cultural and unilingual nation BBS has determined to eliminate all other minorities not only economically, politically and culturally but also if possible even physically. This is the danger that the country is facing and by tolerating the actions of BBS powerful elements in the government are aiding and abetting the growth of a un-Buddhist totalitarian political power base. After vanquishing the LTTE this unruly mob in a mood of schadenfreude is bent on inflicting further humiliation on the defeated party. While the ancient Buddhist hero Dutugemunu was so magnanimous towards his defeated enemy that he built a mausoleum in Elara’s honour the current heroes are denying any self-respect to the Tamil minority and they have now turned their vengeful attention towards the Muslims.

Independent observers have compiled a list of 103 incidents of anti-Muslim provocations between the month of January and March this year alone. That number will increase enormously if one were to push the date back to 2009. In every such incident the Muslim community had shown absolute calmness without reacting in any way except to bring the matter to the attention of the authorities. So far the government has not arrested or punished any of the perpetrators.

In actual fact BBS and its mob want the Muslims to react so that the violence could be spread nationwide to turn it into another July 1983. These militants want a recreation of 1915 on the scale of 1983. The Grandpass mosque attack in which the BBS mob sprang into action at the sound of bells ringing from the adjacent Buddhist temple had all the hallmarks of a premeditated plan. Had not the curfew been declared, even though belatedly, the situation would have certainly escalated with horrendous consequences far beyond the confines of Colombo; yet, there is no guarantee however that another mosque would not be attacked in another place at another time.

Many fingers are pointing at the Defence Secretary (DS) for and accusing him of collaborating with the militants. Critics may say that such an accusation is outlandish and far-fetched but the facts that none of the perpetrators has been brought to books so far and that in many instances of violence including the one in Grandpass the security forces which are directly under the command of the Defence Secretary had remained inactive until the mob had caused sufficient mayhem to property and life add credence to the accusers’ claim. How does one rationalise the behaviour of the DS?

Under dynastic regimes political power-struggle amongst siblings and relatives had been a historical norm. The Nepalese royal massacre in 2001 was one of the most tragic expressions of that struggle in recent memory. In Buddhist Sri Lanka the Rajapakse dynasty currently rules. The top three positions in the government, the presidency, the ministry of defence, and the ministry of economic development are controlled by three brothers and among them they manage about seventy per cent of the national budget. Another sibling is the speaker of the parliament. In addition, there is a cluster of the dynasty members holding strategic positions in the country’s public, private and diplomatic sectors. The dynasty’s political tentacles have spread far and wide into Sri Lanka’s political and economic super structure.

As long as the security forces are in support of the regime prospect of any regime change either through ballots or bullets is a distant dream. However, within the dynasty there is always a possibility of a reshuffle. It is in this context that the anti-Muslim manoeuvres of the DS have to be rationalised. Of all the siblings it is he who has created a stature for himself as an impeccable Buddhist who is not going to compromise either on the security of the nation or its hegemonic Buddhist character. After the defeat of the LTTE one journalist baptised the civil war with the DS’s moniker. It was the DS who took the decision to put the whole nation and its economy on a war footing and it was he who decided on the shape of the outcome. The glory of victory however, went to the President.

Of the three top siblings it is the DS’s family that is one hundred per cent Buddhist, while the rest have non-Buddhist and foreign elements mixed into them. Moreover it was the DS and not the President who was invited to open the Buddhist Leadership Academy established by BBS. In his address to the academy DS said: “These Buddhist Clergy who are engaged in a nationally important task should not be feared or doubted by anyone”. His support to BBS may be one of the reasons why those clergy urged the President make the DS as the Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs also. Thus it is clear that the DS is decisively building his popular base amongst the most vocal and radical Buddhist elements. Still, BBS and the Sinhala Ravaya do not command the support of the vast majority of Buddhists in the country.

That may change if the anti-Muslim provocations turn into a Sinhalese –Muslim racial riot like in 1915 but on a grander scale like the anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983. In the case against the LTTE it was easier to garner the support of the majority because LTTE was determined to divide the country. In the case against the Muslims it will be much harder for the militants to get such broad because the Muslims have always been a law-abiding community and always acted in support of the majority practically in every national issue.

This is why the militants are trying to create a religious confrontation between Buddhism and Islam. By sensationalising through cheap journalism an impending but imagined danger to the nation supposedly arising from non-existent Jihadists and pockets of Al-Qaida terrorists in the country these rabble-rousers are justifying their acts of anti-Muslim violence as a legitimate struggle to protect Buddhism and the country. By not controlling this mob and their actions the regime is earning notoriety internationally. The DS’s insouciance towards if not total support to these groups will tarnish the Presidency, because in the ultimate analysis the buck stops with him. Pictures of mosque attacks and reports of anti-Muslim violence are being televised and broadcast in Muslim countries.

Lee Kuan Yew, the veteran leader of Singapore has already dubbed the President and not the DS as a Sinhalese extremist. It is in this progressive erosion of the President’s international image that one sees the political rationale for the DS’s strategy. The more the President’s image falls into disrepute locally and internationally the louder will be the clamour from within and outside for regime change.

Given the nature of the support structure built around the regime that change will not be a dynastic change but a change in its leadership. Who is more suited to succeed the throne than the Defence Secretary? Perhaps after that succession the anti-Muslim fervour may diminish.

(Dr. Ameer Ali is presently at the School of Management and Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia )

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