President Rajapaksa Should be Worried that Some Extremist Monks are Increasingly Questioning his Leadership in Public Pronouncements-Sunday Times

(Text of an Editorial in the “Sunday Times”of June 21st 2014 Under the Heading“Buddhism betrayed by extremist monks”)

It is the supreme irony of our time that, in claiming to defend Buddhism, a handful of monks with their hate speech and instigation to violence have managed to do quite the opposite. The mob attacks this week on Muslim houses and businesses in Aluthgama, Beruwala and Dharga Town drew international censure. Attracting equal, if not more alarm was video footage of a radical Buddhist monk spewing revulsion and animosity at the Muslim community during a public rally just hours before violence broke out. It is not the first time he has done this.

The international reporting has made little distinction between the country’s ordinary Buddhists, the majority of whom do not condone the attacks, and the extremist groups that fuelled it. “Sinhala Buddhism” — as it has come to be known — is being labelled, per se, as “extremist”.

This is neither fair nor accurate. But as we said in our editorial of May 11, 2014, it is time to turn the searchlight inward. The actions of these fringe elements are undoing the yeoman service rendered by our Dhammaduta or missionary monks overseas who preach Buddhism as a pacifist, non-violent philosophy. Even as more and more Westerners are embracing the teachings of the Buddha, a motley crew of misguided radicals here is distorting the message beyond recognition.

There are, in this country, countless Buddhist monks who are humbly and silently, working for the good of people. They are not seen at political rallies, do not have propaganda apparatuses and do not deliver incendiary speeches inciting violence against fellow citizens. But because they are not ‘visible’, the public face of ‘Sinhala Buddhism’ has become those monks that dive headfirst into any situation with their arms flailing and their voices dripping with contempt.

The violence that broke out this week is deeply worrying, not least because of its ethno-religious nature. The attacks seemed orchestrated and must be condemned in the strongest terms. Their target was a minority community that was powerless to fight back. Many felt so scared after two days of assaults that they did not return to their houses (some had none left) for days.

While the scale was significantly smaller here, this country has seen it before — and it ended in three decades of strife. Just five years after the end of a bloody and agonising war, do we really want to drag ourselves into this morass again?

In Parliament, the Government alleged it was the June 12 assault of a Buddhist monk and his driver by some Muslims in Dharga Town that had first bred tension. The first attacks on Muslim shops and houses happened on that day. As revealed in our political commentary, some Muslims also hit back, damaging a few shops and houses owned by Sinhalese in Dharga Town.

Three days later, police authorised the rally at which inflammatory speeches were predictably made. A convoy of vehicles taking the said monk — who had been discharged from hospital and was at the meeting — back to his temple was then allegedly stoned and hell broke loose. Criminal misdemeanours exploded into a full-blown crisis.

There is dispute over who cast the first stone. Selective interpretations continue to be made. The facts are in danger of being lost amidst wild spinning by various sides. But there is no argument that a serious breakdown of law and order ensued and that the police and Special Task Forces stood powerless against it. As mobs swept through the towns, the state machinery whose duty it is to protect the citizenry just plain and simple failed.

In this country, brute force is used to crush labour and student protests while court orders are secured at the drop of a hat to deprive the populace of their right to assembly. This time, despite the very real prospect of violence, the precautions taken were pitifully inadequate and action came too late. What excuse could there be for this?

The Penal Code contains several sections applicable to those inciting religious hatred. One of these is Section 291B under which a British tourist with a Buddha tattoo was recently deported — lest she “wounded the religious feelings of any person”. While it might be difficult to establish a direct link between the hate speech and the riots that followed, the law gives the police sufficient grounds to act at least on “lesser” grounds. And, yet, the chief protagonists have gone free. The lapses have led to growing speculation of a link between them and the Government.

It should worry the President that some of these extremist Buddhist monks are increasingly questioning his leadership in public pronouncements. They are calling for a leader for the Sinhala Buddhists on the implication that he is doing a bad job of it. Crucially, the Sinhala Buddhists are his chief vote bank. Are these groups acquiring a taste for power and, thereby, turning into a force the Government will find hard to contain?

Intolerance is growing, fed by rabble-rousers. And underneath the violence are niggling religious, demographic and political insecurities that will need to be addressed dispassionately, fairly and humanely. There is concern about unethical conversions and the sudden mushrooming of prayer centres. There is also a creeping tide of fundamentalism among some Muslim groups, especially in the East. More and more people are returning from West Asia with religious practices unfamiliar to local communities.

These and other worries will not disappear overnight. But neither, will the bad blood between Muslims and Sinhalese, fuelled by the unpleasantness of this week. Nothing was achieved by wrecking the lives and livelihoods of people. Every community has core issues and anxieties. That doesn’t give anyone the right to take an axe to the other.

We have said this before and it must be repeated now: “Buddhist fundamentalism” must be in the Dhamma, where it all began. Not in aggressive action. There is a need to step back from the ongoing rampaging over the rights of others. Nothing is further from Buddhism than what is being done today in Sri Lanka in the name of that revered philosophy. It is time, not only for reflection, but for a sincere effort to ensure that what happened is never replayed.

The burning down yesterday of a Muslim-owned clothes shop in Panadura is an indication that some people might want this violence to spread. Sabotage is being mentioned. It is immaterial what motivates the miscreants — whether it is ethno-religious hatred, political ambitions or criminal tendencies. Law and order is at stake. The minorities have as much entitlement to live in this country as the majority does.

If this scourge is not nipped in the bud, there is no saying where it will take the nation. Is our hard-won peace so cheap that we squander it away like this?

Courtesy:Sunday Times