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On Buddhist Fundamentalism


Four years after the brutal assault on the Tamil population and the killing of between 8—10,000 Tamils by the Sri Lankan army, there is trouble again. The saffron-robed fanatics, led by the BBS—Bodu Bala Sena: the most active and pernicious of Buddhist fundamentalist groups that have sprouted in Sinhala strongholds throughout the island— are on the rampage again. This time the target is the relatively small Muslim minority. Muslim abattoirs have been raided, butchers shops attacked, homes targeted. Terrified kids and adults in Muslim areas are living in fear. The police stand by watching passively while the Sri Lankan TV crews film the scenes as if it were a school picnic.

A few weeks ago, Buddhist monks led some hoodlums and attacked the car sales room of a Muslim-owned company (Emerald Trading) in Pepliyana. Reason? An employee was stepping out with a young Sinhala woman and her father had complained to a local monk. A journalist on The Sunday Leader (a courageous broadsheet whose editor Lasantha Wickramatunga had, four months ago, denounced President Rajapaksa for corruption, predicted in print that he would be killed as a result and was) reported on 2 April that, ‘Following the complaint, an eye-witness saw a monk leaving one of the temples in Pepiliyana followed by a group of youths, mostly under 25 years of age. The group carried stones and, people were later to discover, kerosene…’

As if the anti-Tamil pogroms were not enough to satisfy the blood-lust, a BBS blogger explained the ‘reasoning’ behind the targeting of Muslims in the Colombo Telegraph (6 March 2013):

“Muslims have been living in this country since 7th century and now only they want to have Halal food in Sri Lanka. Population wise they are only 5%. If we allow Halal, next time they will try to introduce circumcision on us. We have to nip these in the bud before it becomes a custom. We should never allow the Muslims and Christians to control anything in Sri Lanka. What is Halal to Muslims is Harem to Sinhala Buddhists. Slaughtering cow and eating beef should also be banned in Sri Lanka. Instead, we should promote pork. We are glad that the parliament has re-introduced pork in their menu. Hijab, burqa, niqab and purdah should be banned in Sri Lanka. The law and the legislature should always be under the control of the Sinhala-Buddhists and our Nationalist Patriotic president. After all, Sri Lanka is a gift from Buddha to the Sinhalese.”

Difficult to imagine how circumcision could be ‘nipped in the bud’ even by a buddhist, or how the  percentage of the Muslim population could have decreased from 9.7 percent in 2011 to 5 percent today. It has undoubtedly gone down but demographers doubt it could have done so by more than one or two percent at the most. The decline is obviously a direct result of unchecked harassment and persecution. It has gone down over the last few decades. The Tamils did their bit. Muslims in Tamil-majority areas were harassed and effectively driven out by ethnic purists from both the  communities. They regret what they did now because it has been done to them on a much larger scale.

If it were only the BBS mouthing this nonsense, it would be one thing. But many within Sinhala political-military mainstream pander to rhetoric of this sort. In Pottuvil in the Ampara district, for instance, where the Muslims are a majority, the uniformed soldiers have been collaborating with the local monks and monasteries to erect Buddhist statues and inflaming the region in noise pollution via loudspeakers which start early with Buddhist hymns and a nightly replay. Local women who own land are being driven off it: the monasteries steal as the army provides protection.

The 1911 consensus revealed, as has always been the case, that the Buddhists compose a huge majority (70.2 percent), followed by the Tamil Hindus (12.6), Muslims (9.7) and Christians (7.4). Nobody threatens the Buddha or his followers except fanatics from within.

What of Buddha’s gift?  It was stolen by European imperialists for 450 years;  first by the  Portuguese (who intermarried eagerly regardless of caste or social location but insisted on conversion to Catholicism with the locals, leaving behind a socially integrated layer that still bears the old names: Perera, Da Silva, Fernado, Mirano, etc), next came the Dutch who  only married  the local upper castes leaving behind a burgher cast with names like Kretzer, Van der Porten, Ondaatje; and lastly by the British who didn’t  marry the locals at all. Had gay marriages been legal, Lord Mountbatten might well have defied the pattern.

What really freaks the Buddhist hardliners is the suggestion that the gift could not have been given to Buddhists alone. The earliest architectural finds reveal Buddhist and Tamil (Hindu) objects. Hardly surprising given the proximity of South India to Northern Sri Lanka, not unlike Sicily and the mainland. And at one point the island must have been land-linked to its parent. Who came first was a burning issue throughout the colonial period. Now it cannot even be discussed since the ‘solution’ of the Tamil question.

Ever since independence in 1948, Buddhist fundamentalism has been the driving force behind Sinhala intransigence on the ‘Tamil question’. A Buddhist monk assassinated S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the country’s fourth Prime Minister, in 1959. His crime? Making too many (in fact they were too few) concessions to the country’s large Tamil minority had cost him his life and spawned a dynasty. But the deterrent effect worked. Sinhala politicians of all stripes began to pander to the monks. Anti-Tamil discrimination was institutionalised. It was a tragedy for the island. The notion that these warped methods could produce long-term stability is risible.

Mainstream Tamil politicians had nothing to show for their labours in the Sri Lankan parliament. As the situation deteriorated, young people became more and more alienated both from Colombo and the elders of Jaffna. They began to speak of Vietnam, Che Guevara and armed struggle as the only way to free themselves from their rulers. There was an example closer to home. If Bengali Muslims could split from their Muslim brethren in West Pakistan and create Bangladesh, why not the Tamils?

Denied reforms, a  new generation of post-colonial Tamils turned their back on reformism and opted for something more dangerous. Colombo would soon be confronted with the spectre of urban guerrilla warfare. Having denied the Tamils effective autonomy, they were now faced with a civil war.  In 1976, the militants formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and raised the demand for Eelam…an independent Tamil homeland. They succeeded, for a time, in galvanising an entire generation. Their audacity in those early days drew gasps of admiration even from their opponents. Sixteen and seventeen year olds raided banks to fund their struggle, making their getaways on bikes through the old narrow lanes camouflaged by the permanent guard of honour in the shape of the ancient Palmyra trees and their giant leaves. Their targets were police stations and government officials. When state repression multiplied, local Tamil community leaders shielded their children. They were proud of them. Years of collaboration with the last colonial power had given the older Tamils an image of docility, people in a pose of permanent surrender.  No longer.

The tragedy of the Tamils echoed that of similar movements elsewhere. The Tigers were, as armies are, led by their commanders who brooked no dissent. They turned on their own and their mass base became passive and embittered. Sensational acts of terror became a substitute for a political strategy, thus alienating all possible allies in the South. Warring factions fought each other and the Sinhala politicians in Colombo chuckled with delight, bided their time and embarked on large-scale repression that spared nobody. The grand finale in which Tamil men, women and children, without any links to the Tigers were killed in huge numbers, in comparison making civil war in the former Yugoslavia look like a boisterous dinner party. Much of the blame lies with Sinhala chauvinism and its grip on the island’s politics. Even the predominantly Sinhala JVP radicals of the Seventies, the first victims of the government and killed in the thousands for challenging its monopoly of violence had extremely ambiguous positions on the Tamil issue. But the Tigers cannot be exempted for their crimes against their own people. There was no justification whatsoever for their brand of authoritarian terrorism. Suicide bombings which they pioneered in Asia were a cynical tactic revealing the Supreme Leader’s hold on his membership. Cyanide pills—that every guerrilla carried— are an inducement to self-destruction.

The island is now in a terrible mess. The International Crisis Group report of February 2013 makes for grim reading. Expressed in polite language the message is clear. Rajpaksa’s outfit is an authoritarian government, possibly guilty of war crimes for which there is plentiful evidence. The government’s use of the ‘Prevention of Terrorism Act’ to repress Tamil civil rights, the constant presence of the army in Tamil regions, the curbs on the press and the sacking of an awkward Chief Justice are all highlighted. Hewr replacement is a timeserver who has already declared that the civil rights of the population  are not being violated.

The remit of the report does not extend to the scale of corruption in the country. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is also in charge of Defense, Urban Development, Finance and Ports and Highways. One can only imagine the scale of the kickbacks. As if this were not enough, a brother, Basil, is the Minister for Economic Development, another brother Chamal, is the Speaker of the Parliament, a nephew Shashindra is Chief Minister of Uva, a key province, a cousin, Jaliya Wickramasriya is Ambassador in Washington, his brother-in-law Udayanga Weeratunga is Ambassador to Russia and his 25 year-old boy, Narmat, is the MP for Hambantota, a strategically crucial port, funded by Beijing and, together with Gwadar in Pakistan, part of China’s strategic ‘string of pearls.’  Chinese policy towards Sri Lanka  (and, for that matter, Pakistan) today is consistent. Mao Zedong and Chou en Lai supported the Sri Lankan government when it crushed the JVP uprising and destroyed the best of Sinhala’s youth (a mass grave of some of the victims was discovered only a few weeks ago); their successors have given open backing to the current regime  and Chinese state security bigwigs have been photographed with the Sinhala army in Jaffna, enjoying the sights and inspecting regions where Chinese projects of various sorts will soon dot the coastline.

The London-based octogenarian Tamil novelist and writer, A. Sivanandan is despondent. He told me that he fears not just for the Tamils but also the Sinhalese people:

‘Defeated, the Tamils are now rethinking everything, at least in the diaspora which so heavily and uncritically supported the Tigers.  They are no longer talking of independence, but of political rights and democracy. Is it too late? I honestly don’t know. The Buddhist monks will soon turn on their own, denouncing Sinhalese who are not orthodox Buddhists and if Rajapaksa, family and friends back them, they might be in for a surprise. Mass uprisings are in the air. All that is left is hope.’

He might have added Hebert’s ditty to the mixture. The late colonial Bishop of Madras and Calcutta wrote after a visit in 1819:

What tho’ the spicy breezes

Blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;

Though every prospect pleases,

And only man is vile?

The Commonwealth leaders and their Queen who will soon assemble on the island could do worse than sing these lines for a start. And will talk of Burma joining the Commonwealth be nipped in the bud?   Buddhists have clashed with a tiny Muslim minority and driven them out of their villages, though the cause in this case appears to be material rather than ethno-religious Puritanism. The Buddhists wanted the land for themselves. A macabre confrontation resulted in, of all places, an Indonesian refugee camp where the Burmese Muslims had been provided with shelter. Eight Burmese Buddhist fisherman whose vessel had foundered in nearby waters were also rescued by the Indonesians and taken to the same camp. That night the two sides battled and all the fishermen apart from one were killed. Muslim casualties were two dead, and seven wounded.

Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).

Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).

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