David Frum

04.12.13

What Intolerant Buddhist Monks Are Doing to Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka insists that all its inhabitants are equal citizens of the state. The government does not discriminate.

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Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president of Sri Lanka, is easily incensed by campaigns for political autonomy on the basis of ethnic self-determination. Rejecting “different administrations based on ethnicity,” he recently asserted: “The solution is to live together in this country with equal rights for all communities.”

It’s an admirable sentiment, contradicted only by the fact that, since his election in 2005, Sri Lanka has transformed into a rancid ethnocracy: a country where Tamils, after being pulverised in a ferociously asymmetrical civil war, are offered humiliation instead of consolation; where the enforcers of the law have become volitional abettors of vicious ethnic chauvinists; and where saffron-robed Buddhist monks, having designated themselves the defenders of the Sinhala majority, sniff the air each morning for the scent of fresh offence—and follow it to one minority community or another.

In April last year, Buddhist bhikshus stormed a mosque in central Sri Lanka, and, claiming that it had been built on territory sacred to Buddhists, demanded its immediate closure. Police officers who showed up at the scene, rather than hauling the aspiring hagiocrats into prison cells, deferentially cleared the path for them to walk about freely. When news of this assault reached the government in Colombo, the prime minister reacted by ordering the Muslims to move their mosque. Such a swift decision by the government to side with Buddhist chauvinists who had so openly terrorised Muslims rather took the blush off the claim that it’s the guardian of all Sri Lankans.

Emboldened by the example of this effortless early triumph, some Buddhist monks started selecting other targets for “civil policing.” Earlier this year, a group calling itself the “Buddhist Strength Force” staged rallies in Colombo against the halal system of meat certification. As the BBC reported, thousands of men and women gathered in the capital to hear the nationalist rhetoric of the BSF monks. “Our country is a Sinhalese one and we are its unofficial police,” one monk announced. A few weeks later the monks laid siege to a Muslim-owned abattoir in Colombo to halt the slaughter of cattle. To their great disappointment, they did not find any cows on the premises: there has been a legal prohibition against the slaughter of cows within Colombo since at least May 2012. The abattoir was being used as a distribution plant for the meat of cattle slaughtered outside the city. Facing the possibility of a quiet retreat, the monks reframed their charges and started making noises about hygiene. The police who arrived at the scene helped the monks inspect the facility.

Even if the monks were driven, as some of them claim, by a genuine concern for the condition of animals, their programme of intimidation wholly violated the central precept handed down by the Buddha: nonviolence. In the Indian subcontinent, and in its eastern neighbours, the extension of human compassion to animals was accomplished through patient debate and discussion, not through bullying and ultimatums. It was the sermons of the monk Zhiwen that prompted many Chinese citizens to free their animals and burn their fishing nets. And it was Emperor Ahoka’s own personal conduct that made kind treatment of animals an entrenched part of our ethical debates. When Sri Lankan Buddhists proclaim that Muslims are uniquely cruel towards animals, they expose their ignorance: the most eloquent champion of animals in India since Ashoka was the Mughal emperor Mohammed Akbar.

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In any event, many of the Muslim-owned businesses that export meat employ thousands of Buddhists. Despite this, and too keen to placate the monks, the Muslim body responsible for the classification of foods decided to withdraw the halal label “in the interest of peace and harmony.” In return, Muslims have been subjected to even more chilling acts of terror. In the last month, Buddhist monks have attacked Muslim teachers at a law college, accusing them of favouring their own kind, and called for the abolition of the abaya, the niqab and the hijab. “We will fight until this attire is banned from this country, so that there is no chance to unofficially enforce the Islamic Sharia Law in Sri Lanka,” one monk, as if ventriloquising the principal obsession of overzealous European liberals, declared.

And ever since overhauling the raiment of Muslim women replaced the protection of animals as the BSF’s most pressing priority, one Muslim woman was spat at by a passerby on the streets of Colombo and at least four niqab-clad women were attacked at a railway station by a pack of feral men.

For nearly a century now, Buddhist demagogues have tried to suffuse the minds of ordinary Sinhalese with sinister myths about a virtuous Sinhala majority defiled and victimised by alien minorities. “This bright, beautiful island was made into a Paradise by the… Sinhalese before its destruction was brought about by the barbaric vandals,” wrote Anagarika Dharmapala at the turn of the 20th century. “Christianity and [Hindu] polytheism are responsible for the vulgar practices of killing animals, stealing, prostitution, lying and drunkenness.”

In reality: Christians never truly presented much of a threat to Sinhalese Buddhist dominance in post-independence Sri Lanka, and the (largely Hindu) Tamils who attempted to disrupt Sinhalese rule were ruthlessly routed in 2009. But an insecure majority constantly seeks confirmation of its own superiority by searching for inferiorities in others.

What is now happening is a kind of political consolidation by the Rajapaksas, who have distributed the most powerful jobs in the government to members within their family. Sinhala nationalists form their power base, and they must be fed. Muslims, who have been at the receiving end of communal rioting in the past, are now playing the role vacated by the Tamils. This explains why, even as the president talks about “tolerance and compassion,” his younger brother, defence minister Gotabhaya, courts the reactionary Buddhist monks of the BSF. Appearing recently at a BSF ceremony, he praised its members as defenders of “our country, religion and race.” “No one,” he continued, “should doubt these clergy. We’re here to give you encouragement.”

There are many Sinhalese Buddhists who are mortified by the turn their country has taken under the Rajapaksas. But they, like the Tamils and the Muslims, have no voice in today’s Sri Lanka.