Will Sri Lanka be in a state of conflict for all time? Will ‘timid’ Government responses encourage anti- social elements?

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Galaboda Aththe Gnanasara Thero

by Gnana Moonesinghe-

Will Sri Lanka be pushed into the cauldron of conflict once again with the governance mechanism in limbo, slow to react responsively to conflict loaded situations?
BODHU BALA SENA
Sri Lanka is no stranger to conflict. In the present context what is bewildering and disconcerting is the perception that the present government (as did the previous one) is watching passively while the Bodhu Bala Sena, a radical Sinhalese Buddhist organization appear to be pre -programmed to rouse religious and communal hatred towards institutions and communities and thereby create friction in the already fractured social relationships.
To date it was possible to dismiss some of the Sinhala Buddhist ‘activists’ as the foolhardy fringe of extremist folly, but it is not possible any longer, in particular, following the statement issued by the Mahanayake of Asgiriya, at the conclusion of the discussions at the Karaka Sangha Sabha of the Asgiriya chapter.
THE INTERVENTION OF THE SANGHA
The misty environment in Sri Lanka has turned increasingly dark and threatening and provocative following the statement issued by the Mahanayake of Asgiriya. This statement received weightage as it is the considered conclusion to the discussions within the Karaka Sangha Sabha of the Asgiriya chapter. It can be gathered from the press release that while the Sangha was not in empathy with the ‘style of communication’ of the Secretary of the BBS, Galaboda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, they were sympathetic to his line of ‘thinking’.
The statement called upon all “patriotic people” to act in unison to confront the challenge to Buddhism. The majority of the Buddhists in the country look for guidance to the Sangha. This call asking Buddhists to protect the challenge to Buddhism will be construed as asking the Buddhists to support the BBS standpoint.
The Daily Mirror of June 6 carried another statement issued by all three Mahanayake’s and other Sangha Sabhas. The statement:
1. that there is no need or urgency to bring another Constitution or an Amendment to the Constitution
2. Government should find swift resolution of the SAITM issue.
3. Proposed that ‘bringing the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances Bill to parliament should be delayed to enable parliament to study the Bill;
4. That a special committee be appointed to look into the grievances facing Buddhists with regard to religion and culture, and the prevailing racial and religious unrest,
5. Attention to be focused on protecting religious places of archeological interest in the country;
6. Buddhism to retain the foremost position in the constitution;
7. Retain the Executive power of the President.
Invasion of the constitutional space of Parliament
The Sangha must be of the opinion that it is within their territory of immediate concern to ask for a committee to be appointed to look into the above mentioned issues. But an in-depth analysis of the suggestions makes one conclude that the Sangha is invading the political space of the country’s elected representatives, a potential intrusion of the sovereignty of Parliament.
The statement of the Sangha may be looked upon as a directive to the Buddhists; at this point the Sangha becomes a contributor to conflict situation in society.
Has Parliament abdicated its policy initiative and its decision making prerogative? Apart from the religious bodies other organizations like the Trade Unions some of whom are also seen to be dictating to policymakers on what should be strictly be an aspect of the constitutional right of Parliament. While suggestions on policy making are welcome as the democratic right of the people, insistence and intimidation through work stoppage etc is not.
In this context yet another contentious issue is raised: Can there be any unstated compliance between the GMOA and other Trade Unions to pressurize the government to toe their line of thinking through trade union action? Where then is the relevance of the voice of the people as expressed and reflected in Parliament through periodic elections? Ideally the Sangha should not be seen or even suspected to be in collusion with other partisan socio-political organizations. Even on religious matters there is the bending of rules of objectivity while no attempt is made to look into the position, challenges and problems of all the other religions and communities.
This stains the image of the Sangha as an independent and objective body.
At a time when attempts are being made to seal the bonds of inter community spirit making a plea to stall the legislation on enforced disappearances appear to be mischievous if not downright controversial. The same observation can be made for the issue of a new Constitution.
Lord Buddha’s directive an example of
studied response
It is pertinent at this present moment to recall the Buddha’s reaction to an incident related to calculated mischief directed at the Sangha drawn from a community of persons among whom the Buddha and his disciples were residing. The Buddha did not rush to find solutions to the controversial issues that disturbed some from the rank of monks living with him. He had said in response to the abuse hurled at the monks that:
“Unguarded men provoke with words like darts,
Let fly against an elephant in battle.
But when hard words are spoken to Bhikkus
Let him endure with unruffled mind.”
Buddha’s advice was not to rush to defend or be proactive, a lesson from the Great Teacher that all Buddhists in the country ought to follow. Although it was originally meant for the Bhikkus the advice is equally applicable to laymen as well. Objective and studied counsel is essential to diffuse the probability of inciting violence. In the light of Sri Lanka’s past history of conflicts and violence, everything possible must be done to calm people down. Experience shows how difficult it is to bring peace once confrontation takes place.
Following the military defeat of the rebels in the 30-year war in 2015, declarations of the government’s intent to initiate reconciliation and encourage integration had been given prominence. But the process has been slow, arrested as it is by the diktat of political power play for a populist stand. At this juncture it will be detrimental to national unity if any ‘extremist’ – ‘Patriotic Front’ – add to the country’s woes by injecting fresh reasons for conflict and violence. The directive of the Sangha Sabha, as well as the offensive sound bytes of the BBS against the Muslim minority and Christians, is controversial. It could provoke a violent reaction if faced with street demonstrations and offensive diatribes against these communities.
Need to investigate contentious issues
Pluralism is central to the existence of the Sri Lankan nation. BBS wrath directed towards the religious minorities may be based on a misinformed position. It is for the government to step in and clarify the questionable issues so that peace can be secured. The two major issues to be investigated will be the charges:
1. “Muslim extremism prevails in the country.”
2. Buddhist archaeological sites are being destroyed in the Eastern Province by Muslims.
If the government fails to act quickly, it will be construed as if some agreement or empathy exists between the government sources and the BBS.
The request by political activists for legislation preventing hate speech was to contain just such ill- informed provocations that invariably seem to end in violence and turmoil.
A recall of events during this period would indicate that it would be extremely foolish to permit communal disharmony to take root in society that can within minutes destroy all postwar initiatives for peace and development. Putting to right the destruction after the war takes time and even longer to restore mental equanimity as seen with the experience in the North, the East and other affected sections in Sri Lanka.
Unfortunately over the years policy makers have become preoccupied more with sustainability of power for themselves rather than with the urgent concerns of the people and the imperative to keep people from resorting to violence. What had come to central position are not people but politicians keen on political power play manipulations through corruption, both financial and systems adjustments. Viewed from this point interpretation of what is right and wrong has become tenuous.
Is the Tamil leadership a contributor to conflict?
At this juncture to muddy the already muddied waters as it were, enters the Tamil politicians, once again, in conflict with the ‘other’ while all claim to speak for the Tamil underdog. But a closer look will reveal that they are all vying for power by outsmarting each other to reach the voter base. While on this subject it is indeed a tragic sight to have the most senior Tamil politician who is trying valiantly to strike a note of moderation and compromise, in confrontation with the ex -Supreme Court Judge, the Northern Province Chief Minister. Much expectation and hope was vested on the Northern Chief Minister purely because of his experience on the bench which had it been applied to the problems in his jurisdiction in the North could have yielded much towards reconciliation and consensus building. Instead the judge transformed himself into a politician no different to any seen around.
Playing politics for high stakes is not what is expected of the Chief Minister or from a retired Supreme Court Judge; his attention has to be directed to the needs of the people, many of whom are in dire straits. The need of the hour is not to play the old game of rousing the people without looking for resolution of the urgent problems of the people. Extremism has always struck quick resonance with people as it requires an appeal to emotions and not to logical interpretation.
It is pertinent to ask whether the Tamils as well as the Sinhalese want to unite with the Sri Lankan State or if they want to form a separate state. A section of the Tamil leadership has opted to work towards reconciliation and integration within the country. To that extent they are cooperating with the Government in their constitution making process hoping to find a response to their aspirations in the new constitution. Whether they will find it or not is a matter of conjecture to be seen soon. If however there is patent disunity and hostile divisions within the community, their bargaining power will be lost and the minority Tamils will land on the same spot as before – helpless and alone. If viewed objectively there should be the application of a sense of proportionality in the demands and expectations which perhaps is the way to set about negotiating. Certainly asking for all of100% will not deliver results.
It is hoped that wiser counsel will prevail and politicians and others including the revered religious leaders will not by their short sighted attitude subject the country to another period of violence and its consequences. In a global setting it can be seen that boundaries between countries have blurred and concepts of majorities and minorities have no significant relevance. Religion is a personal concern. It is humanity that matters not religious or racial identities. Respect for the other is essential. There can be no other way for the nation to progress and to live in peace.
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