Extremism: More a question of politics than religion

In Sri Lanka there are influential sections across the ethnic divide, which believe that the on-going attacks against the Muslims, and the attempts to put up Buddha statues in the Tamil areas in the North and East, are manifestations of “Buddhist religious extremism”. But this description is misleading, writes P.K.Balachandran in Daily Express.

In a recent article in a local daily, Laksiri Fernando, suggested that there could be a violent streak in Theravada Buddhism as such. He was basing his proposition on the fact that Theravada Buddhist countries have been violent while countries or areas where the dominant religion is Mahayana Buddhism, have been peaceful.

Fernando has cited Sri Lanka, Mynamar, Thailand and Cambodia as examples of violence-prone Theravada countries.

Since the problem is rooted in religion, it is suggested that the solution should be sought in religion. Either there should be a revival of religion’s peaceful essence or it should be reformed. It is also suggested that religious leaders should have inter-faith dialogues to iron out doctrinal differences or create a better understanding of them.

Laksiri Fernando, who described Theravada Buddhism as being more rigid than the Mahayana form, has suggested that the Buddha Sasana should discuss reviving the peaceful and accommodative essence of Buddha’s teachings, before interpretations came about.

Recently, at a conference in Jaffna, it was suggested that the government should  make religious study compulsory for students on Sundays. The idea is that boys and girls should imbibe the teachings of their respective religions at an early age so that they will be righteous and peaceful.This idea rests on the theory that the study of any religion will automatically make the young peaceful and tolerant.

But in reality, this may not happen at all.  As the Islamic Madrasas have shown, religious schools which teach only one religion, may actually sharpen religious differences and create communal barriers. Though all religions preach the maintenance of peace and communal harmony, doctrinal differences are raked up by their followers to buttress their arguments in times of political, social and economic conflict.

Religions acquire a political color when they become the identifying marks of secular political groups. The religious identity is used by politicians because it is easy to evoke. It is almost a primeval loyalty which is readily evoked.

Buddhism has become the identifying mark or stamp of the Sinhalese majority, in contrast to the Tamils (who are largely Hindu) and Muslims. It has proved to be easier to evoke than any other factor.

Therefore, the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict over territory and political power becomes a Buddhist-Hindu conflict. Buddhism becomes a weapon in the Sinhalese struggle for dominance. To intimidate the Tamils, radical Sinhalese groups insist on putting up Buddha statues in the Tamil areas. The Tamils, on their part, see this as Buddhist “aggression” and put up stiff resistance.

Likewise, the economic conflict between the Sinhalese and Muslims is portrayed as a Buddhism-Islam conflict. It is the Buddhist monks who lead Sinhalese mobs against Muslims shops and mosques.

In Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, political and economic conflicts between the indigenous people and Muslims have been turned into religious conflicts with the Buddhist monks leading the majority Burmese, Thais and Khmers.

In Sri Lanka, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) had attacked Muslims in 2013 and 2014 and continues to do so now too. The government is turning a blind eye to it as it thinks that this is one way to earn the appreciation and electoral support of the Sinhalese majority. What we see in action in Sri Lanka is political Buddhism, or Buddhism used for political purposes by politicians in their struggle for power.

Buddhism has been a rallying point for Sri Lankan nationalists also. While most Sri Lankans have been and are Buddhists, most outsiders who had their eyes on Sri Lanka down the ages, practiced other religions. The Tamils of India, who kept invading Sri Lanka, were Hindus. The ancient Mahawamsa  chronicles the struggle of the Sri Lankan Buddhists against Hindu Tamil invaders. The Portuguese intruders were Catholics; the Dutch were Protestant Christians; and the British were Anglican Christians.

During the independence struggle, Buddhist revivalism became the hallmark of Sri Lankan nationalism. Leaders of the independence movement tried to purify Sri Lankans through the Buddhist temperance movement. Buddhist education was touted as a  superior alternative to British Colonial-Christian education.

After independence in 1948, Buddhism was used as a rallying point by ambitious politicians like SWRD.Bandaranaike to capture power from the Westernized elite which had inherited the country from the British. With Bandaranaike succeeding in his mission, others followed suit. With the result, today, no Sinhalese mainstream political party can ignore Buddhism and the political constituency woven around it. Every political party, including the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), has a Buddhist monks’ wing. Monks have been put up for parliament.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the Buddhist monks-led Bodu Bala Sena is in the thick of politics. The BBS is being used by political parties to whip up anti-Muslim feelings to exploit a latent anti-Muslim sentiment among the majority Sinhalese-Buddhists who look on with envy, the Muslim traders’ relative prosperity.

In 2013-2014, President Mahinda Rajapaksa used the BBS to whip up an anti-Muslim sentiment to curb the political and economic influence of the Muslims and win over the Sinhalese. The successor government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, was good to them for a while as it had come to power with Muslim electoral support. But with elections round the corner, and having to make up for the loss of support among the majority Sinhalese due to poor governance, the regime is now trying to cultivate this constituency by playing the Sinhalese-Buddhist card.

UNHRC Factor

However, due to the on-going 35 th.session of the UNHRC in which a critical assessment of Sri Lanka’s judiciary was presented by Special Rapporteur Monica Pinto was presented, the Sri Lankan cabinet on Tuesday condemned religious hate and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on Wednesday even said that new laws would made to curb it. (newsin.asia)

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