Religious freedom dies a slow death in Sri Lanka
Intolerance of non-Buddhist minorities becoming the norm
Those who have criticized Buddhist extremism in Sri Lanka, such as the Venerable Watareka Vijitha Thero, have found themselves in the crosshairs of Bodu Bala Sena (Credit: ucanews.com)
The Venerable Watareka Vijitha Thero decided he’d heard just about all the anti-Muslim rhetoric he could stand from his Sinhala-Buddhist brothers.
So, at a Ramadan event in his hometown of Mahiyanganaya, he spoke out against the extremist Buddhist organization Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and the wave of religious intolerance festering in his country.
He talked about the need for “harmony” between Sri Lanka’s various religions, and he condemned recent attacks on Muslims and Christians.
Forty-eight hours later he was sleeping up in a tree, hiding in the jungle to evade a mob led by radical Buddhist monks.
Religious freedom in Sri Lanka, which hosts the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this week, has diminished significantly this year as state-sanctioned violence against minority religious groups goes unchecked. Muslims, Hindus, Christians and even Buddhist critics such as Vijitha have all found themselves to be targets of the BBS.
“Bodu Bala Sena are not following Buddhist philosophy,” said Vijitha. “They are acting like terrorists.”
The BBS is “symptomatic of the growing dominance of Sinhala-Buddhism over the state and public life in Sri Lanka”, said Fred Carver, campaign director at the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice. “We are moving towards a situation where open intolerance towards non-Sinhala Buddhist religious minorities in Sri Lanka is becoming the norm rather than the exception.”
Those such as Vijitha who criticize radicalized Buddhism have been increasingly persecuted for speaking out publicly in Sri Lanka. Earlier this year, Muslim political activist Asath Sally was jailed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for attempting to organize a demonstration against Buddhist extremism.
“Such incidents not only set a disturbing precedent for freedom of expression, but [are] also likely to lead to growing self-censorship and restraint from more moderate voices,” said Carver.
Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said that the current levels of religious freedom and freedom of expression in Sri Lanka were a matter of “opinion”.
“We have enough freedom of speech. I don’t think there’s any restriction,” said Rambukwella.
The Venerable Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, general secretary of the BBS, insists that the BBS is “not an extremist group” and that they have had no part in attacks on people from other religions or their places of worship.
Yet he also contends that the BBS “needs to protect the country's Sinhalese-Buddhist character”.
He is also quick to label Vijitha a traitor. “He has betrayed his nation and religion,” he said, refusing to comment further.
Vijitha escaped the first mob that came looking for him. But a few weeks later he was ambushed while traveling the Kandy road to the capital, Colombo.
“There were about 30 people with batons led by a Buddhist monk,” said Vijitha. “They broke the windows and ripped the door off the hinges, then they attacked me inside the van. They hit me on the head, on the back and on the neck with batons.”
His driver eventually managed to maneuver the van away from the mob. After being tailed to a nearby police station, they received a police escort to a hospital in Colombo where Vijitha was later treated for a neck injury.
One of the reasons Vijitha decided to speak out against religious intolerance is that in July the Arafa Mosque in his home town of Mahiyangana was attacked.
“A gang of BBS members had cut up a pig and tossed the flesh and blood into the mosque,” said A.M.M. Musammil, president of the Kadurata Muslim Council. Windows at the mosque were also smashed.
“[The] BBS is spreading extremism and communal hatred against Muslims,” said Musammil. “Today the whole Muslim community in the country lives in suspicion and fear.”
But the motivations behind these attacks may not be as clear cut as they appear.
Throughout Sri Lanka’s history, governments have held onto power by appealing to the “basest instincts of religious fundamentalism and ethnic nationalism”, said Carver. In practice, this means pandering to the majority Sinhala-Buddhist constituency.
“Such an approach requires an enemy,” said Carver. Since the Tamil Tigers were defeated in 2009, “Muslims have been selected as the new group against which Buddhist nationalists can unify.”
In the past, political elites have “benefitted a great deal electorally from agitating against these ‘problem populations’,” said Carver.
Over recent months, the BBS has stoked anti-Muslim sentiment by condemning everything from halal butchering to beards to the wearing of traditional veils by Muslim women.
Gnanasara defends his organization’s stance on these issues. “The Muslims are trying to impose their ritualistic food products upon this country. Already there is a Muslim banking system in the country,” he said.
“Muslim women should remove their head covers since no one can identify whether they are men or women. We have a right to know whether he or she is a man or woman,” he added.
Vijitha has been vocal in calling out the BBS on the hypocrisy of these criticisms.
“Sinhala-Buddhist people eat beef, mutton, pork, deer. Even a peacock they will eat. The only thing they won’t eat is monitor lizard,” he says. “And before we remove the veils from Muslim ladies, we should get rid of the short skirts worn by Sinhala-Buddhist women.”
Minister Rambukwella claims that the government has no official stance on halal butchering or Islamic dress.
“[Muslims] can carry on with their activities,” said Rambukwella. “We respect the Muslim customs that are practiced.”
Pastor Ariyakankanamage Priyantha stands outside the Living Water Church in Meegoda with a guitar that he was beaten with (Credit: ucanews.com)
There have also been numerous attacks against evangelical churches.
On September 8, a group of 20 men led by two Buddhist monks barged into a service at the Living Water Church in Meegoda.
The attackers entered during a prayer when members of the congregation had their eyes closed.
“Someone pushed me from behind. I hit my head against the wall and fell to the ground,” said Pastor Ariyakankanamage Priyantha. “A couple of people got around me and started kicking me in the stomach and ribs. They kicked me in my head.”
The mob broke most of the congregation’s chairs, hymnal stands, windows, a laptop, damaged the church’s organ and smashed a guitar over Pastor Priyantha. Five people including the pastor and his 72-year-old mother were injured in the attack.
The BBS has taken particular issue with evangelicals, whom they accuse of paying and giving gifts to Buddhists they convert to Christianity.
Pastor Priyantha claims that he has never converted anyone, but argued that choice was a fundamental human right. “People should have the freedom of selecting the religion they want to follow”, he said.
Despite the growing number of attacks, Sri Lanka’s government denies that the country is experiencing a surge in religious intolerance.
“Buddhism is the majority, and there are equal rights for everyone,” said Rambukwella. If any religious groups were engaged in illegal activities then “law enforcement groups would take action”, he said.
For security reasons, Vijitha has been forced to give up his position as Buddhist Affairs Coordinator in the secretariat office of Mahiyanganaya. But he still feels that it’s important to remain a moderate voice in the debate on religion in Sri Lanka.
“There are few Buddhist monks speaking about [religious] harmony in this country,” said Vijitha. “I reject what the BBS is doing.”
Such opposition is key to maintaining a level of stability in the tiny island nation, said Carver.
“Unless action is taken to challenge the impunity of the BBS, there is a genuine risk that Sri Lanka could once again end up in a cycle of retribution,” he said.
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