Decoding the Buddhist violence in Sri Lanka

The monks, instead of stopping the riot, are seen inciting rioters and taking part in violence

Getty Images
Getty Images

Veeragathy Thanabalasingham

It is customary for political leaders from southern Sri Lanka to always hold a small group responsible whenever violence is unleashed on ethnic minority communities and reiterate that the most people of the majority community have always wanted goodwill and peace among the communities.

Even after violence against the Muslims in Kandy and around last week, the leaders have said so. It is true that the majority of the majority community abide by law. But when they are so civil, the question is how small groups could unleash violence for several days together disrupting the normal life. I cannot help but recall the quotes of two of the great sons of the last century in this context.

The theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity, one of the two pillers of modern physics, Albert Einstein, said that the world was a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil but because of the people who didn’t do anything about it. American civil rights movement leader Martin Luther King Jr. said that we would have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.

It is also true that during the violence, the victims from minority communities have received support and help from friends, neighbours and well wishers from the majority community. But why couldn’t these friends and well wishers along with the majority of the majority community help create a culture of tolerance and civility that could prevent ethnic violence? There needs to be a change in the current situation where these ‘good people’ are helpless spectators when violence is at its peak. This is, no doubt because of the political patronage received by the so-called small groups. Hate politics against minority communities is not something new to Sri Lanka. It is an inherent trend that has grown parallel to the evolution of ethnic majoritarian politics of modern Sri Lanka. But it remains a cause for major concern that southern Sri Lanka’s polity fails to recognise the genuine grievances, rights and legitimate political aspirations of the minority communities even after three decades of a bloody civil war that had catastrophic effects on all communities.

There is a saying that it is easy to be wise after an incident. Our politicians are adept in analysing after an incident is over. The politicians, who had said that Sri Lanka suffered a bad name in the international arena during the civil war, said the same thing after the violence against Muslims in Kandy and Ampara recently. They again claimed that the economy has been dealt a blow. Hate politics and violence against Muslims have been continuing for the last few years. And the failure to take stringent action against the Sinhala-Buddhist ultra nationalist forces has only emboldened the perpetrators. It is evident that the present government has failed to learn anything from the monumental blunders of the past government.

In a Buddhist ceremony last Sunday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe said: “Only a handful had been engaged in violence and Sinhalese and Buddhists have been blamed for the recent violence just because of this small group. The recent violence in Kandy will affect Buddhists in the whole of South Asia.”

It is in this context we have to look at a relatively lengthy news analysis dispatched from Hong Kong by AFP early this week under the headline ‘Rise of Violent Buddhist Rhetoric in Asia defies Stereotypes’. The following are the paragraphs relevant to the Sri Lankan situation.

1) “Buddhism may be touted in the West as an inherently peaceful philosophy ,but a surge in violent rhetoric from small but increasingly influential groups of hardline monks in the parts of Asia is upending the religion’s tolerant image.”

2) “Buddhis mobs in Sri Lanka last week led anti-Muslim riots that left at least three dead and more than 2000 Muslim-owned establishments in ruins.”

3) “What has prompted this surge in aggressive rhetoric from followers of a faith that is so often equated, rightly or wrongly, with non-violence?”

4) “In Sri Lanka, Buddhist militancy has gone mainstream, with clergy seen clashing with riot police and leading anti-government protests. During the brutal 26 year civil war, the ire of ultra nationalists among the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority was focused on the island’s Tamil Hindus. But after the Tamil Tigers were beaten in 2009, hardliners turned on Muslims, who make up some 10 per cent of the population.”

After every instance of ethnic violence, the Sinhala Buddhist leaders, the most venerable Mahanayakas of the main Buddhist sects, have it as a habit to invite and offer counsel to the leaders of the government of the day and important politicians on establishing peace and goodwill amongst the communities. But why couldn’t they prevent the sizable number of monks from the Maha Sangha headed by them from spreading hate propaganda and engaging in violence?

The yellow robe of the Buddhist monk has always been held in great veneration by the Buddhists in Sri Lanka. This has, in turn, led to many criminal and other elements taking cover under the robe in order to carry out their nefarious activities. After all, to cover one self with the yellow robe of a monk is not all that difficult.

The trouble in Sri Lanka is that the Buddhist clergy has big influence on the politics of the country. In the old days, the kings were advised by the Buddhist monks of that era. Today’s monks seek to advice and influence the government and its leaders. Now they are directly engaged in politics and are contesting elections, turning Buddhism into a political religion. Mahanayakas have been unable to discourage their monks from enetering direct politics. This runs contrary to the basic teachings of the Buddha.

The Sangha, as the body of monks is collectively called, was created by the Buddha as a vehicle to spread his doctrine. But a lot of water has flown under the bridge from the time that the Buddha ordained the original monks and sent them into the world. Today’s monks bear no resemblance either in their habits of life or in doctrinal purity to the original monks of the Buddha’s time. The Buddha taught that monks should have no attachment to any worldly or material things. Today’s monks not only live worldly lives and but even own property.

There is no doubt that during almost all the incidents of communal violence in the country, Buddhist monks are seen not only urging and inciting violence but even committing the acts themselves. It is the robe that gives them the immunity and the protection which ordinary men do not have. It is time that we put a stop to this.

It is unfortunate that the Sangha in Sri Lanka has allowed itself to be infiltrated in this manner, thereby losing the respect of the people. It is difficult to find a parallel between these monks and holy men of other religions in Sri Lanka or anywhere else. Priesthood is sacred calling and it can only be sullied by mixing politics with it. If Sri Lankan society does not separate politics from the Sangha, there is no future for the island.

At last, it is more than relevant to quote the starting paragraph of an article writen by Tissarani Gunasekara, a prominent political analyst in Sri Lanka, during the height of the recent anti-Muslim violence.

“Even as I write these words, Kandy is burning. Muslims, their homes and their properties are being targeted in the name of Buddhism, within shouting distance of the Temple of Tooth. If the custodians of the Tooth Relic, chief prelates of Malwatte and Asgiriya, look out from their windows, they’d probably see the smokes from the fire and fire-raisers. There is no greater perversion of Buddhism than killing in the name of Buddhism. In the Buddha’s teachings, there is no place for any kind of violence, no concept of Holy War or Just War, no room for revenge, whatever be the crime. If they are true followers of the Buddha, they would have gone to the rioters, pleading for calm. But, the only monks visible and audible in Kandy seem to be those who are feeding the fires. The chief prelates and other leading monks are silent, no word of condemnation, no plea for sanity and peace. If the burning of Kandy symbolises the failure of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the silence of the monks indicates why that failure happened.”

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