Freedom of religion in Sri Lanka

By Rohana R. Wasala


The United States State Department’s 2016 International Religious Freedom Report on Sri Lanka is replete with distortions of the factual situation in the country regarding religious freedom. This is my personal view as an ordinary Sri Lankan for what it is worth. Genuine reconciliation through religious harmony among other things cannot be created by suppressing the truth. I am writing in the hope that the truth about religious freedom in my country will ultimately emerge.


Those who want to add a religious dimension to the alleged ethnic problem that they falsely claim to afflict Sri Lanka will be thrilled by this report, which appears to have been compiled by a person or a group of persons who are entirely out of touch with reality and who have relied on biased information freely supplied to them by interested parties inimical to Sri Lanka. This is not different from the way Sri Lanka is being persecuted over unsubstantiated war crimes and human rights violation allegations through the agency of the UN, which has become a mere cat’s paw for the powers that be. Exploiting an imaginary ethnic conflict, they are shoving down our throats the unwanted medicine of ‘reconciliation,’ which is big business for NGO mercenaries. With this Report, the US is taking another aggressive step towards disturbing the religious peace that traditionally exists in our country mainly due to the tolerant accommodating attitude of the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community. Most ordinary Sri Lankans wonder whether the Americans are only trying to create disharmony between the majority and minority communities for their own purposes.


The Report sees the “foremost place” accorded to Buddhism in the current constitution as incompatible with the “… freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice” enshrined in the same constitution. Being West-centric and absolutely ignorant of our great history and our most humane Buddhist cultural values, the author of the document seems unable to understand the really beneficial implications of such constitutional recognition of Buddhism for the people of this country. It is due to the accommodating and protective Buddhist religious background that minorities have been able practice their different religions in peace for centuries. Usually, a person like the author/s of the Report cannot be expected to know that Buddhism does not advocate the establishment of any form of theocratic government unlike totalitarian monotheistic religions they are probably familiar with.


Strictly speaking, Sri Lanka, which gives prominence to Buddhism while guaranteeing equal rights to the minority faiths, is no less secular than the US, UK, and Norway, which explicitly put Christianity on a pedestal. The latter three are prominent examples of countries deemed secular despite having a virtual/implicit state religion. Buddhism is none. The truth is that, of the four major religions professed in the island – Buddhism, Catholicism/Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam – the first best guarantees peaceful religious coexistence in a multi-religious environment. Before the European intrusion in 1505, and even after, Buddhists did not create any problem to Hindus, Muslims or to Christians unless they were compelled to react to aggression from any of them. During four and a half centuries of European domination, Christianity was privileged over the already existing religions of Buddhism , Hinduism and Islam. Particularly Buddhists, and Hindus to a lesser extent, were actively discriminated against because of their religion.


The Report points out that in terms of religious demography Buddhists are 69%, Hindus 15%, Christians 8%, and Muslims 8% of the Lankan population; the US estimated the total population of the country to be 22.2 million (July 2016). Something that is not mentioned in the Report, but what is still significant, is the fact that these percentages do not strictly correspond to the overall ethnic proportions, because Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam include individuals from all races, while adherents of the Hindu religion are exclusively from the Tamil race. Buddhists are mainly Sinhalese. Though Buddhism is a non-theistic religion unlike the polytheistic Hinduism, Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka have enjoyed implicit interreligious harmony for centuries. The phenomenon of considerable numbers of Buddhists and Hindus taking part in religious activities in each other’s shrines and in each other’s religious festivals and processions is very familiar and normal. It is ridiculous to talk about reconciling those who are already living in peace. They hardly ever attack places of worship even in times of trouble created by politics. But the compiler of this Report is extremely biased against Buddhist monks and their lay followers for alleged intolerance and militancy.


If the officials of the State Department used its resources to impartially inquire into whether there is any irrefutable evidence to substantiate the plethora of allegations against groups of Buddhist monks and their lay followers (young and old) who are said to be engaged in activities that threaten religious coexistence, they could have easily found out the truth. The truth is that Buddhist monks epitomize tolerance and non-violence. If they are forced to assume apparently militant attitudes that seem to contradict this image, we expect our foreign well-wishers, who think it alright to interfere in our internal affairs, to extend to them enough respect and recognition to listen to what they are actually trying to say, and what their grievances are. But these powers don’t, because they are really not concerned with communal harmony, human rights, etc which ordinary Sri Lankans have always observed without being able to talk learnedly about those concepts. However, it is regrettable that a few activist monks shoot themselves in the foot through their unrestrained speech and conduct, which their critics seize upon to indiscriminately insult them all and to drown out their cogent plea for justice.


The Report is proof of unfounded anti-Sinhalese Buddhist bias. By dismissing the monks as a bunch of tribalistic troublemakers, these nosy-parkers are doing a great injustice to the Buddhist monk activists, and a greater injustice to us ordinary Sri Lankans of all communities who love our motherland for her own sake, not for the sake of what she gives us. The so-called militant monks have for many years now been raising their voices, in vain though, against three main issues that the majority community are confronted with: one is that the anti-Buddhist activities of foreign-funded fundamentalist Christian and Islamist sects (which go unreported in the mainstream media in the name of ‘reconciliation’) that conduct aggressive unethical proselytizing campaigns among impoverished sections of the Buddhist population (while Buddhism itself is not a proselytizing religion); another is the fact that, under the false pretext of creating space for settling war displaced Muslims, a government minister (of Muslim ethnicity) has been engaged, for years now continuing from the days of the previous Rajapaksa government, in destroying large swathes of virgin forests in the forest reserve areas of Wilpattu; a third issue is the deliberate vandalizing of Buddhist archaeological sites and other marks of the Sinhalese Buddhist cultural heritage in the north and east, and the encroachment of lands belonging to ancient Buddhist monasteries and shrines, which need to be protected as the common inheritance of all Sri Lankans. Successive governments have played shy of tackling these issues through the application of lawful measures in terms of the current constitution. Why? Because politicians seem to believe that resorting to such deceptions as the spurious foreign imposed ‘reconciliation’ project, and the globally discredited policy of ‘political correctness’, will cost them least electorally.


At one point the Report implicitly confers its stamp of genuineness on a baseless complaint made by the so-called civil society groups and politicians in the north and east: “Civil society groups and politicians in the north and east stated the construction of Buddhist shrines by Buddhist groups or the military in parts of the Northern and Eastern provinces became contentious symbols of perceived Buddhist Sinhalese religious and cultural imperialism.” The true background to this issue has completely been ignored. Many Sinhalese Buddhists who were earlier living in these areas were forced to leave due to ethnic cleansing by separatist terrorists. Their places of worship were either destroyed or encroached upon. These displaced Sinhalese also have to be resettled in their previous places of residence. Vandalizing of ancient Buddhist archaeological sites in these provinces, some of them over two thousand years old, is a critical issue that has been unnecessarily politicized. It is absurd to talk about non-existent “Buddhist Sinhalese religious and cultural imperialism”.


Some opportunistic minority politicians conveniently exploit these deceptions usually exploited by politicians of the two main national parties. When minority politicians talk exclusively about the welfare of their own people as if it is separate from the welfare of the majority community and as if the latter enjoy rights and privileges that are denied to other communities on grounds of ethnicity, they are not condemned as communalistic. But when members of the majority community open their mouths, after decades of forbearance, to speak up about injustices and anomalies that are inflicted on them because of their ethnicity, they are unjustly attacked on all sides as tribalistic and racist. Dr Wijedasa Rajapaksa, who was recently removed from the post of cabinet Minister of Justice and Buddhasasana (as punishment for opposing the yahapalana government’s policy of ignoring the advice of the Maha Sangha not to bring in at this moment a new constitution that it has not got a popular mandate for, instead of attending to the more pressing problems that are immediately affecting the general public, and its policy of selling off all the valuable economic assets of the country), is the only important government member who is displaying enough courage to admit in public that it is actually the majority community that is at the receiving end of injustices. He is being excoriated by his colleagues in the government and by foreign- funded NGOs and their local employees for his forthright stand.


The heated exchange between Dr Wijedasa Rajapaksa (then Minister of Justice and Buddhasasana) and UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-terrorism Ben Emmerson (who was in Sri Lanka on a visit from July 10 to 14, 2017) was due to this lone Sri Lankan government minister with a backbone refusing to kowtow to the latter, who is not even a member of the salaried UN staff.


The Report mentions certain police arrests of ‘leaders of militant Buddhist and Islamic Organizations’ on successive days in November (15 & 16, 2016). It says nothing about the background to those arrests. Buddhist activists were reacting to an act of vandalism (apparently, the destruction by some Muslims of a Buddha statue installed by the road in a certain place in Colombo) and some incendiary speeches by the leader of an extremist Islamic organization advocating the introduction of sharia to Sri Lanka (both these incidents can be seen in You Tube videos, from which I derived this information, but I now cannot recall the links). Had timely police action been taken to arrest the person who allegedly initiated the problem, it could have been nipped in the bud. Our perception is that wherever alleged attacks on Christians and Muslims and their places of worship by Buddhist monks and supporters are reported, unbiased investigation would reveal that these Christians and Muslims have connections with fundamentalist sects and that they only have a tenuous relationship with the traditional mainstream faithful of those religions; that they somehow irritate Buddhist sensitivities by their proselytizing zeal and by trying to erect new prayer-centres in predominantly Buddhist areas that are likely to disturb the normal peaceful religious co-existence that prevails; and that both groups of these fundamentalists adopt what has now become one of global religious extremists’ common strategies, the ruse of playing the victim card. The biased global (Western) media invariably invert the situation, turning the aggressor into the victim in all conflict situations. Buddhists are the real victims, and when they react to their experience of victimization (this happens elsewhere too including Myanmar and Thailand). Even issues between fundamentalists and mainstream Christians and Muslims in areas where Christians and Muslims are concentrated in large numbers (for example, Ja-Ela in the Western province, Christians, and Mutur in the Eastern province, Muslims) are also falsely attributed to Buddhists and Buddhist organizations (something that Ven Dr Medagama Dhammananda, Secretary of the Asgiriya Chapter, explained in a speech recently: / August 20,2017)


The Report alleges that the government ‘had not prosecuted Buddhist monks involved in attacks against Muslims and Christians in 2014’ (by the time it was written). The document mentions a number of nationalist organizations only to implicitly condemn them as mindless hate-mongers. Something that is not revealed is that all these Buddhist organizations include (at least a few) members from among Christians, Muslims, and Hindus showing their solidarity with their Sinhalese Buddhist compatriots as common Sri Lankans. Not all nationalists are exclusively Sinhalese Buddhist.


The Report translates the name of one organization literally: Sinha-Le, Lion’s Blood. Actually, ‘Sinhale’ is the historic name of the island and the word means the ‘Land of the Sinhalese’; this is the original name from which the European/English form ‘Ceylon’ is derived. ‘Sinha-Le’ is actually a play on the word Sinhale. Sinhale, the homeland of the Sinhalese, has always been home to an inclusive society where people speaking other languages than Sinhalese, following other religions than Buddhism, and giving expression to other cultures than Sinhalese Buddhist, coexisted peacefully and integrated easily with the majority Sinhalese. The enthusiastic youngsters who formed the organization so named have done so out of their nationalist ardour by splitting the word into two parts: Sinha, Lion, and Le, blood; the latter word ‘le’ is the common Sinhala word for blood. Here it means the Sinhalese race, the Sinhalese bloodline. Every race is concerned about perpetuating their gene pool. Love of one’s own race is ultimately a natural biological fact. The over two millennia old island civilization that the Sinhalese built up is firmly founded on Theravada Buddhism. The race and the religion (the Sinhalese and the Buddhasasana) are organically connected. If the Sinhalese civilization is a tree, the Sinhalese are the wood and Buddhism the bark, which are interdependent (as a Tamil patriot of Sri Lanka put it).


The general perception of these young activists is that unless one makes a genuine effort to understand their very rational and reasonable point of view, one will be too ready to condemn them as retrogrades. What they are demanding is an end to the very real emerging threats to the survival of the historical Sinhalese Buddhist cultural base of our country that protected for centuries all minority faiths and let them flourish within its broad cosmopolitan, tolerant, and peaceful ambience redolent of the Sinhalese Buddhist culture. The genuine issues raised by the monks remain to be investigated and appropriately remedied before today’s threatened slide towards unprecedented religious disharmony can be averted, thereby helping reconciliation.

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