In mid-June, Sri Lankan Buddhists observed Poson, the festival marking the arrival of Buddhism from India. At June end, the country’s Muslims began Ramadan, their month-long fasting season. In between these religious observances, some members of the two groups were engaged in violent confrontation.
Long before the country fell under Western rule in 1505, Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese and Tamils had lived in peace with descendants of visiting Arab traders since the 12th century. The pacific lifestyle of the native peoples had offered an oasis for the Islamic traders from the arid climes. The only prior confrontation between Buddhists and Muslim had been in 1915. If those riots led to more deaths and destruction, the magnanimity of naive leaders helped heal inter-ethnic wounds and even pave the way for the country’s freedom struggle against British rule.
Still fresh after the yet-unresolved outcome of the 30-year war in the North, the recent Buddhist-Muslim clashes in the South raise a familiar question once more. Has political freedom equipped Sri Lankans with the moral calibre to forge inter-ethnic unity from the embers of strife? The debate is still open. As yet, much is being said about seemingly sudden provocations that lit the powder keg of ethno-religious attacks and destruction. Some trace it to the harassment of a Buddhist monk by a Saudi-returned Islamic youth. Others blame it on the demagogy of a Norway-visiting Buddhist monk. However, the hate war was more than a random event.
As above allegations infer, the impact of international elements may not be discounted. In recent decades, many local Muslims and non-Muslims migrated to West Asia in search of petrodollars. Trade and tourism drew West Asians to the country. A new power equation emerged, particularly during the 30-year war with Tiger rebels. When money spoke the language of power, rulers tolerated the influx of Wahabism and even jihadism.
While echoes of the Arab spring empowered some local Muslims, the rise of militarism alongside the ethnic war in the North, did not go unnoticed. Some of them found support in the patronage of West Asian powers, even more openly than Tamil Tigers had enjoyed India’s favor under the Gandhis.
Meanwhile, the war as well as post-war victory parades entrenched a war psychosis among some Southern Sinhalese. Instead of extending the hand of peace to fellow citizens of the war-ravaged North, rulers let racism thrive in the guise of patriotism. Extremist lobbies were quick to grasp the message, just as rulers had been to benefit from the war chest of defeated rebels. Opportunism is the refuge of political ambition.
In the absence of a magnanimous patriotic upswell or a Marshal Plan for nation-building, opportunism became an easy path for the establishment’s survival. Momentarily, it tolerated the anti-minorities stance of a few zealots who seemed to capture the momentum of chauvinist Sinhala-Buddhist political groups. Unsurprisingly, their first targets were Evangelical Christian communities. But in the face of international reaction to such arson and plunder, political godfathers changed strategy.
The revised master plan was to kill two birds with one stroke! Ambitious godfathers had watched the collapse of the Norwegian government which once supported the Tamil Tigers. Reportedly, Norway’s new rulers were lobbied to counter their predecessors’ support for the Tigers by backing the Southern ethno-religious surge. It worked. The key Buddhist monk who engaged with Norway became the firebrand of new-born Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, army of Buddhist power). Like India’s Shiv Sena (army of god Shiva) which had attacked Ayodya’s Babri Mosque, BBS led sporadic anti-Islamic campaigns in various parts of the country before the mid-June clash in Southern Sri Lanka.
And now, weeks after that wave of death and destruction, there has been no end to the gimmicks of spin doctors of all political parties seeking to get as much mileage as possible from that disaster. Their ultimate aim is to exploit it to enhance their power base for the elections due in 2015. Goons responsible for the mayhem are blamed or defended with that goal in view. It is not mere politicisation, it is vicious political exploitation. Amid such mean power games, possible economic pressure from 14 Islamic nations adds to the threatened loss of employment to a million locals working there. And instead of getting trapped in such exploitative power play, local or foreign, all religions should rally to rescue people from further abuse. Religious leaders must exit comfort zones of political privilege, and fearlessly champion moral integrity. Otherwise, the future could be far more dismal than during the ethnic conflagration that raged for three decades.
In particular, Christians have a moral duty at a time when the future of the nation is threatened. This season sacred to both Buddhists and Muslims, is also sacred to Christians as the season of Corpus Christi. The festival of fellowship obligates Christians to promote justice, peace and moral uplift, not to connive in exploitative politics. It obligates mutual empowerment with moral integrity – sustenance for the long march of nation-building.
Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka retired as Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Bangkok. Before joining UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring from UCAN Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook