A Question of Religious Freedom
A group of monks seems to have turned the values of Buddhism upside down by resorting to militancy in the name of religion.
A group of monks has turned the values of Buddhism upside down by resorting to militancy in the name of religion.
The contemporary world is characterized by two conflicting phenomena. On the one hand is globalization, which seeks to create a global culture based on North American-West European values, such as liberal democracy, free market economy and multilateral economic integration, regardless of creed or ethnicity. The other phenomenon, which, in part, is a reaction against globalization, entails assertion of particular identities, such as religion, sect, race and language.
Referred to as identity politics, this phenomenon embodies a claim to power based on a particular creed or ethnicity. In its softer forms, identity politics stands for safeguarding the rights of a community, usually a minority or a marginalized one, by a peaceful, constitutional struggle. At times, however, identity politics goes berserk and fanatically seeks power for a community by means fair or foul, peaceful or sanguinary. And if that community already happens to be in a pre-eminent position, it may seek total domination even if it means annihilating the weaker identity. A case in point is the organization named Bodu Bala Sena based in Sri Lanka.
Before throwing light on the BBS, it seems in order to look at the ethnic and religious demographics of the island state.
The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is a multicultural society with regard to both creed and ethnicity. Buddhism is the dominant religion practiced by nearly two-third of the population. It is followed by Hinduism (12.6 percent), Islam (9.7 percent), and Christianity (7.4 percent). Though not a state or official religion, Buddhism has been accorded a special place by the Sri Lankan Constitution.
Article 9 of the Constitution reads: "The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e)."
Article 10 states: "Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice." Article 14(1) (e) supplements this provision by adding that every citizen is entitled to "the freedom, either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching."
Thus the Constitution of Sri
Lanka makes it obligatory upon the state to give preferential treatment to Buddhism, while at the same time it is the constitutional duty of the state to ensure freedom of conscience and its expression for the followers of other religions. While the state is to protect and promote only Buddhism, the same should not be done at the expense of other religions. For example, the state may set up Buddhist monasteries but it should also see to it that mosques, churches or (Hindu) temples are not demolished for sectarian reasons.
Ethnically, the island nation is divided into two main groups: the Sinhalese and the Tamils on the basis of Sinhala ( an Aryan language) and Tamil (a Dravidian one), respectively. The former make up 75 percent while the latter account for 11 percent of the population. The Sinhalese, the biggest ethnic group, and the Buddhists, the predominant creed, are mutually inclusive: About 93 percent of the Sinhalese profess Buddhism and more than 99 percent of the Buddhists speak Sinhala. Sinhalese folklore enthrones Buddhist heritage as the very pillar of the cultural and political edifice of Sri Lanka.
Likewise, a close connection exists in Sri Lanka between the Tamils and the other two major religions, Hinduism and Islam. About 80 percent of Tamils are Hindus. More than 90 percent of Muslims speak the Tamil language.
Thus, if we combine ethnicity and creed, Sinhalese Buddhists are easily the dominant community in Sri Lanka. And it is the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism that the BBS (translated as Buddhist power) espouses. The nationalism entails supporting militancy against the minorities, particularly the Muslims, to preserve the dominance of the Buddhist-Sinhalese majority. Like the Buddhist Arakanese in Myanmar, the BBS alleges that the Muslim population is growing at an 'alarmingly' high rate thus posing a threat to the Buddhists. It also charges the Muslims as well as the Christians with converting the Buddhists to their respective creed.
Thus harping on the theme of an 'impending' threat to Buddhist-Sinhalese domination, the BBS is whipping up anti-minorities' (read antiMuslim) sentiments. In utter disregard of the country's multicultural credentials, the BBS wants to set up a monolithic polity. In the words of BBS General Secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, "This is a government created by Sinhala Buddhists and it must remain Sinhala Buddhist. This is a Sinhala country, Sinhala government. Democratic and pluralistic values are killing the Sinhala race." Few statements can be more destructive for pluralism as this one.
Accordingly, the BBS has sought to replace the multiple legal systems being practiced in the country with a single legal system. It has also campaigned, and with a lot of success, against halal labeling on food, which it sees as an attempt to impose Islamic cultural values on the majority community; it has also demanded boycott of Muslim-owned businesses. It has carried out attacks on mosques and has supported Muslim persecution in Myanmar. As a perfect index of the BBS mindset, the organization's Facebook page depicts a lion, which traditionally symbolizes the Sinhalese, as devouring a wild boar carrying a crescent and star on its forehead.
Critics allege that the government has been soft on the BBS, if not in connivance with it, so that the ruling party may keep intact the electoral support of the majority Buddhist-Sinhalese community. They point out that the BBS' cultural and training centre in Galle District was officially opened on March 9, 2013 by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is the brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is also alleged that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is the patron of the BBS.
Aptly branded as an "ethnoreligious fascist movement from the dark underside of Sinhala society" by a Sri Lankan diplomat, the BBS is undermining the very fabric of the Sri Lankan society. It's hard to understand why in a country in which Sinhalese-Buddhists are already clearly dominant both numerically and politically, an organization needs to champion their cause and that too in such a violent and fanatical way.
For a multiethnic society in particular, such as Sri Lanka, few things are as lethal as a 'church' gone militant. Religious fanaticism if not checked can wreak havoc. Sri Lanka itself was the theater of a three-decade long ethnic war, which claimed thousands of lives before coming to an end in 2009. This makes the activities of the BBS a dire threat to the island state's long-term stability. Human rights organizations have also warned that the BBS' antiMuslim campaign may stoke 'Islamic fundamentalism' in the country.
Like other great religions of the world, Buddhism preaches tolerance and puts its complete trust in nonviolence. In Buddhism, the word 'Sila' refers to principles of ethical behavior and the first principle or percept is to refrain from taking life. But by resorting to militancy in the name of religion, a bunch of monks seems to have turned the values of Buddhism upside down.