A few months ago, I wrote a piece on the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s ability to redress the wrongs of the nation’s ethnic strife. The argument was based on his government’s seemingly unshakeable position of power that would allow Rajapakse to make the tough decisions and compromises required to solve the Sinhala/Tamil divide. Lesser attempts by previous governments have been viewed as betrayal by the radical Buddhist right, who see the defence of their faith as a national duty. Would Rajapakse, one of the strongest presidents in the island’s history even called a dictator by his opponents, cave to similar pressures? Its litmus test came in the form of recent attacks by Buddhist radicals on a Mosque in one of Sri Lanka’s historical capitals. The result? Appeasement; failure.
The Saffron Robe, Sceptre and Sword
Sri Lanka’s radical Buddhists have played a major role in shaping the country’s political environment. They were successful in pushing the government of Prime Minster Solomon Bandaranaike to go through with their controversial “Sinhala Only” act of 1956; an influential piece of legislation that made Sinhala the official language of the state, dominating everything from road signs to education. Even during Sri Lanka’s 25 year Civil War, they helped push a narrative of good vs. evil; one that called for neither for mercy nor compromise. In the aftermath of the LTTE’s first major attack, a collection of influential monks pressured then President J. R. Jayawardene to wage war and “eradicate” the problem. Jayawardene, known as a strong Buddhist himself, questioned the group’s “Buddhist identity,” saying it was not a “Buddhist” request to kill or act inhumanely.
In 2004, a group of clergy formed a political party much to the distaste of ordinary Buddhists who did not believe politics was within their realm. The Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage Party or JHU) had modest success and attempted to introduce an anti-conversion bill to combat Buddhist conversions to other religions. Leading up to these elections, numerous churches were attacked by radical groups, many of whom supported the JHU, and forced President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to post armed guards at all the major churches.
Birth of a new conflict?
The recent attack on the Dambulla Mosque has raised fears of a new ethnic/religious conflict in Sri Lanka. It didn’t come out of the blue. Just last year, a small group led by radical monks destroyed a 300 year old Islamic shrine in a neighbouring region, fearing it would become a Mosque in the heart of Buddhist holy land. The Dambulla attacks carry similar reasoning, with radical monks protesting the presence of an Islamic mosque and a Hindu temple inside what they consider to be holy ground. The government issued its response through Prime Minister DM Jayaratne, who said the mosque would be relocated to another area after the protestors threatened to demolish building.
For Rajapakse, perhaps the risks outweighed the rewards? He has little to gain from the Muslim minority, who usually vote for the opposition, and did not want to anger the radicals who were part of his support base. However, there is no imminent election on the horizon. Even if there were, few doubt that Rajapakse’s hold can be challenged by the opposition.
What the appeasement does show is that this government, like its predecessors, is not willing to stand against the radicals. If there is unwillingness or fear to act against these perpetrators and uphold religious rights and freedoms, one can not expect the current regime to address the plight of the Tamils; one that will require compromise in the shape of autonomy in the North and East. Such actions will be casted as a scandalous betrayal of Buddhism, the forfeiting of Buddhist land to foreigners or Hindu invaders.
Therefore, I apologize for raising hopes that Rajapakse, despite his many flaws, may have held a royal flush to bring a viable solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic divide. Even worse is that his inability and lack of will, might lead to the rise of another divide; one between the country’s Buddhists and Muslims.