Last week’s extremist monks-led mob attack on a safe house for Rohingya refugees in Mount Lavinia marked a dangerous new low in Buddhist extremism in Sri Lanka. Some government ministers had the guts to condemn it. Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, the former foreign minister, described the attackers as a group of ‘thugs in robes’. Co-Cabinet Spokesman and Health Minister, Rajitha Seneratne denounced the monks who carried out the attack as ‘animals’. The JVP in a statement called it an attack on humanity.
But where is former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, the self-proclaimed ‘appachchi’ of the nation?
His many acolytes who regularly flood the media with press releases, more for self-aggrandizement than for public consumption, seem to have thought this one was not worth enough bothering about.
Mr. Rajapaksa does not denounce Buddhist extremism for he thinks it offers a glimmer of hope for him to crawl back to power. Behind the curtains, he has done much to keep this poisonous pot boiling.
To give the man his due, Mr Rajapaksa is not a racist, but just like many other politicians in this part of the world, he is not a principled politician. He is a selfish operator of power. Even when he was firmly in power, he equivocated on the Bodu Bala Sena and the attacks on Muslims. The reason being he valued his electoral prospects more than security of ethnic minorities or ethnic peace in the country. He was a victim of his miscalculations (he lost the election for that), but diehard habits and thinking live long. Now, he is dreaming about a wave of raging Sinhala nationalism that would wash away the proposed new Constitution. For him, this is the time to cozy up to bigots, why slam them?
There is also the noticeable silence by the Mahanayakes and this is rather disturbing since those like the Ven. Maha Nayaka of Asgiri Chapter has recently been hyper active in defending Buddhist rights, including the foremost place granted to Buddhism in the Constitution. That provision, this writer himself agrees is worth retaining, taking into account the demographic reality of this country, and the sensitivities of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, for any Constitution making exercise to be practical. However, defending Buddhist rights also means defending it from being smeared by bigotry of a few who claim they represent Buddhist interests. A few saffron-clad racists who regularly spew forth bigotry against religious minorities, instigate attacks on Muslims, and last week terrorizing of hapless pregnant women and children who were in a UN safe house in Mount Lavinia have done more damage to the image of Buddhism than Velupillai Prabhakaran could manage to do during his three decades of a nihilistic campaign. Temples destroyed by terrorists could be rebuilt, though some could still be irreplaceable, but when a religion is hijacked by bigots to advance their sinister ends, it cannot easily be redeemed. You have seen it in graphic detail in the Middle East.
This is however not a problem unique to Sri Lanka. All faiths and their chief interlocutors have failed to a varying degree to keep up with the upsurge of modernization and enlightenment in the post-modern world; and in some cases, they try to block that progress and have found receptive retrograde elements in their respective societies.
What is important for the government and of course for the religious elites is not to let those fringe elements to blackmail the State or the religion. That the Police have arrested five suspects in connection with the attack on refugees is a sign that the government has the political will to confront the bigots who masquerade as the defenders of Sinhala-Buddhist interests. However, that the monks who were seen instigating the attack have not yet been arrested smacks of a degree of vacillation in the part of the police and probably the government. Those individuals are known peddlers of racism and need to be locked up by any sensible government that values ethnic harmony and national security.
What is important for the government and of course for the religious elites is not to let those fringe elements to blackmail the State or the religion. That the Police have arrested five suspects in connection with the attack on refugees is a sign that the government has the political will to confront the bigots who masquerade as the defenders of Sinhala-Buddhist interests
Sri Lanka should not differentiate between Buddhist extremism and Tamil separatist extremism, which ravaged this country in the past. Extremism by any community is evil and socially destabilizing, and begets extremism in the other communities, since other communities would not submit to it lying down. What could have been the public reaction had last Tuesday’s attack been committed, say for instance, by the Eelam loving Tamil fringe on Sinhala interests and broadcast live on social media for several thousands of its followers (which the attackers did last week)? Such an incident should have mandated any proactive government to double its security measures, monitor these groups, arrest them, and probably lock them up in preventive detention under counter terror laws and adopt a long-haul strategy to quash any long-term threat. Human right champions may have a different take on things, but a government that fails to provide security and stability (and in our case to maintain that hard won security) is not worth to be in power.
The same criteria should apply here, because the last week’s attack was not an isolated incident. It was the latest in a long sequence of attacks perpetrated by these groups. A dispassionate take on events suggest that this particular branch of Buddhist extremism pose an emerging threat to ethnic harmony and by extension to long term national security. In the absence of any other significant domestic and external risks, counter measures on this particular threat should be prioritized.
It is often argued that the police and criminal justice system is better equipped to confront such threats. But, it has been proved to be a lie, now in the West and long before in Sri Lanka. Both Tamil insurgency and the JVP in the 80s grew in numbers and strength while the police were trying to catch the troublemakers. Finally, Rohana Wijeweera was dragged out of his hideout in Ulapane by the Army’s Rapid Deployment Force, a precursor to the Special Force, and during the height of LTTE terrorism, security in the South was ensured by a combination of a hardened military intelligence apparatus.
Of course, Sri Lanka should not use a sledgehammer to kill a fly. Security measures should be proportionate. But, it should also not under react, because, if you do so, terrorists and extremists would prevail and at one point, a future government, though grudgingly will be forced to induct all those unsavoury elements, its predecessors had to use in the South and the North in the past. At that point, such measures become a necessary evil, if the country is to be salvaged, even at the expense of a bout of brutality.
A series of past attacks by Buddhist extremists highlight the need for these groups to be confronted with available security and legal means. They also need to be regularly monitored. Police have their hands full of law and order issues. Terrorism Investigation Division and military intelligence units can do a far more effective work in monitoring extremism in this country. They raise the stakes for extremists. The government should not mollycoddle Buddhist extremism; there is no guarantee that it would be different from other forms of extremism.
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