Threats to the peaceful existence of Buddhists in Sri Lanka

Threats to the peaceful existence of Buddhists in Sri Lanka

By Shenali Waduge

Response to Mr. Hameed Abdul Karim

No nation with a clear majority in terms of race, religion and a history that boasts over 2600 years of civilization held together by Sinhalese Buddhist Kings would need to appeal to the world to understand why they are beginning to feel alienated.  That is the predicament that has befallen the Buddhists of Sri Lanka.  The debate with Mr. Hameed Abdul Karim is being pursued to showcase that though Muslims and Sinhalese had been living in peace it has to be acknowledged that it is a new wave of incursions taking place upon the Buddhist space and territory which are disturbing and infringing on the sensitivities of the Buddhist people all of which post-independence politicians have conveniently sidestepped. The apprehensions and the subconscious fears of the Buddhists of this country now need to be raised and articulated properly.

Why Sri Lanka fears it would be called a “Once Buddhist nation”

Given the present trends we foresee a future date where Sri Lanka will be termed a “once Buddhist” nation as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Malaysia, Indonesia and probably Thailand and Burma in time to come will face. Yet, many Buddhists in Sri Lanka are not prepared to be passive observers and watch in silence their religion and culture fade away into the sunset without any resistance on their part. Assurances has not qualified to allay our fears given the dramatic changes we see happening round the world.

Sri Lanka’s Buddhist status never discriminated against any religion at any point in time as seen by the freedom Hindus, Christians and Muslims enjoy freely. It is the Buddhists who are forced to always compromise and sacrifice their vital interests to appease the unrelenting demands of unreasonable ethnic and religious minorities.

It is sad to watch the historic status of Buddhism enshrined in Article 9 of the Constitution been reduced to the status of a white elephant and used only for ceremonial purposes. Buddhist tolerance has been treated as a weakness and exploited to advance the political agenda of other religious faiths.

False notions of Buddhist racism

In desperation when Buddhists vocalize their justifiable fears they are called “racist”, “communal”, “extremist” and in some cases “militant” – just because they demand to know why Muslims were encroaching on Buddhist temple lands, why they were bribing officials to take sacred land areas, why historically non-existent mosques are emerging in areas that are sacred to the Buddhists and why loudspeakers from mosques were targeting largely non-Muslim residents? Buddhists are also asking why politicians are giving one minority community to dictate how other communities should purchase their food as well as why it is violating Article 9 of the Constitution that says it is only Buddhism that has to be fostered and other religions only to be protected – which questions why a Government should build non-Buddhist places of worship?.

Is there any Christian or Muslim country in the world where the State has contributed to building a Buddhist Place of worship – I look forward to Mr. Karim’s response!

Principle of Halal Certificate objected

People forget that it was the principle of the halal that was being questioned. Why did the politicians not take note of how a private institute not permitted according to its statute of incorporation to issue certificates, were charging a fee to issue halal certificates on all food items that are purchased by the population of Sri Lanka. The principle behind this was that if Muslims ate food without halal labels all this time why was there a need for a halal label now, if export-import took place all this time why is there a sudden insistence for halal labels? The argument also revolves around the fact that this institute does not even have a state-of-the-art lab to test the thousands of food for halal compliance whereas beverages like Coke/Pepsi with 0.001% alcohol remains one of the most fast moving soft drinks consumed by Muslims.

Moreover, the Koran does not say of a halal certificate to be demanding that as a religious right since like loudspeakers it is only a recent addition to the faith. In view of the how food was consumed and the recent demands it appears to be a commercial leverage based on a religion aimed to make a political statement to the rest of the world – “we are Muslim/Islam and every non-Muslim must comply with what suits our religion”! The same applies to the dress as seen in all areas where Muslims numerical numbers show a majority and whatever Mr. Karim says the examples prove otherwise. Again we are told to be “tolerant” as Buddhists should be and virtually look the “other side”.

GOSL must declare Sri Lanka a Buddhist nation

What post-independence Governments have failed to do was to clearly articulate that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist nation – no one can argue against this and historical proof prevail to justify and with good reason why Sri Lanka should remain a Buddhist nation. The country’s leaders certainly need to redefine the nation reaffirming the status given to Buddhism. It is too important a function to be left exclusively in the hands of highly vocal minorities.

The multi-religious, multi-cultural norms have turned western nations upside down. People do not know their country’s history. It is a country’s history that holds countries together because people want to preserve what their ancestors fought hard to achieve and which had been protected and passed down through posterity. Wealth and political influence cannot sacrifice the ancient past.

Mr. Karim does not seem to realize that when the Buddhists say the country’s majority Buddhist population is feeling alienated in their own hinterland it is because of a new wave of demands and aggressive behavioral patterns now pursued by a community that came far later. Is it so difficult to understand why it is wrong to be demanding the country adjust to suit the religious beliefs of the Muslim people when it may be violating the beliefs of the other cultures? Is it not the community that came later that must adjust itself to be in harmony with the ethos of the older culture i.e. Buddhist ethos?

Can Mr. Karim deny that it is having reached beyond the level of tolerance that the Buddhists are now coming to say enough is enough and even finding fault with the political establishments for not demarcating the boundaries so that people do not cross them. It is when boundaries are crossed, incursions take place and these incursions have been clearly defined to Mr. Karim. What was needed was for Mr. Karim and others to realize that these new practices, behaviors and actions was what had upset the Buddhists and it had nothing to do with any dislike for Muslims because the way Muslims had lived in the past is what everyone expected them to continue – not the new changes which reflect the conflicts taking place round the world.

Buddhist fears are confirmed

Whatever Mr. Karim says the recent article by Mr. M B M Zubair – Retired Registrar High Court Kandy has let the cat out of the bag. When he says “the fact that Islam is spreading fast all over the world must be admitted by everyone. It is a prophecy of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) that Islam will spread”, he has spelled out what is in store for Sri Lanka as well and which is what our fears are all about.

Do we as an older Buddhist culture not have the right to be alarmed and to address these factors?

No matter what reasons are given by Mr. Karim or others it cannot change the fact that Maldives was once a Buddhist nation. The Dhanbidhū Lōmāfānu copperplates in Maldives dating to 1193AD relate how Buddhist monuments were destroyed and Buddhist monks were beheaded and mosques were built on top of the destroyed Buddhist temples and monasteries.

Destruction of ancient history and idols is part of what Islam’s iconoclasm is all about and we know how through all conquests Islamic rulers destroyed churches, kovils and Buddhist temples and recent events have not shown that Muslims have changed their behaviors. Is that not good enough reasons for our fears, Mr. Karim?

Effects of Islam’s Iconoclasm 

Bamiyan Buddha was not destroyed by a “lunatic fringe” as Mr. Karim claims.  Many attempts had been made to destroy the Buddha statue because idol worship is against Islam. From the time of Aurangzeb in the 17th century till finally in 2001 attempts had been made to destroy the face of the Buddha. Mullah Moh. Omar stated “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to God that we have destroyed them” while the Afghan Foreign Minister stated that “We are destroying the statues in accordance with Islamic law and it is purely a religious issue”.

If destroying statues is part of being Islam as seen by the recent attacks on Buddhist statues in Bangladesh and Maldives where steps are afoot to remove every piece of evidence that ties their country’s history to Buddhism, we can but wonder whether if after the insistence of halal, mosques and other such Muslim demands whether Sri Lanka will also be targeted for the removal of its historical Buddha statues and history one day?

Apologies after attacks will never bring back history that is being calculatedly destroyed and no one has a right to remove history from being preserved. How can peaceful co-existence be argued when what is dear and precious to another community with a history that dates far beyond its own is targeted to be destroyed? Given the historical and contemporary status quo of things, Mr. Karim cannot accuse Buddhists of being unnecessarily alarmed.

Thus, we are conveying fears that are likely to take place many years from now if the Buddhist people keep dormant and behave like ostriches simply because the world demands that they be “tolerant” while for Muslim’s being tolerant appears to imply that the older culture must keep silent about halal labels, halal certificates, proliferation of mosques, incursions on sacred land areas, encroachment of temple lands, destruction of sacred sites and undermining of Lanka’s historic legacy of an animal friendly cultural heritage – all leading to a possible soft usurping of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist civilization.  

What Mr. Karim and others must realize is that we see a stark difference in the attitude, behaviors and practices of the Muslims and these very practices taking place in other parts of the world have led to far serious issues which we do not want to see replicated in Sri Lanka. The wakeup call is realistically for the entire population especially the policy makers and those that govern the country and questions them about why they have not been alert to these changes that correspond with similar issues abroad.

The basic issue is that we are feeling exactly what Western society is now feeling when numerically the numbers of Muslims increase and the older cultures in these countries are asking the same questions that the Buddhists of Sri Lanka are asking. Like the West we are being subject to demands that politicians have fallen prey because they have failed to endorse the rightful place of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Had this clearly been articulated people would not intrude as they now do. So we know the fault lines.

In countries where Muslims have significant numbers they are demanding for Sharia Islamic laws based on the Qu’ran and Hadith – these laws related to women, dress and non-Muslims are what we feel do not conform to the type of governance that the Sinhala Buddhist kings had passed down over centuries and nothing of which Tamils or Muslims felt discriminated against. It is the parliamentary statutes that followed after colonial rule that have led to a series of breaches because of the policy of divide and rule.

The facts are very clear and it is opportune for people to take note.

Sri Lanka is a Buddhist nation – it has a proud history that covers 2600 years.

Buddhist rule in ancient times

The Sinhala Buddhist kings that ruled Sri Lanka on the basis of the Laws of Manu and customary Buddhist laws which upheld the Buddhist precepts that all living beings are to be protected with reverence for life was promoted being the basis of advice given by Arahat Mahinda Thero to King Dewanampiyatiss.

The governing rules of law were clearly articulated, boundaries defined and drawn so that the people knew how to respect and live in peaceful co-existence. The place of Buddhism in the country’s landscape was inviolable and that place was also guaranteed in the Kandyan Convention of 1815 “the religion of the Buddha professed by the chief and inhabitants of these provinces is declared inviolable and its rites, ministers (monks), and places of worship are to be maintained and protected”.

Sri Lanka is the birthright of the Sinhala Buddhists – it is their heritage and their place of refuge.

Mr. Karim’s claims that Muslims want to live in peaceful co-existence is not seen in the manner the Muslim Congress issued the Oluvil Declaration seeking autonomy, or in the manner Muslims insist on halal labels, or that Muslims view tolerance as a one-way street because when people oppose loudspeakers that even the Supreme Court has issued an interim order that the noise must be directed inward and not outward and the Government has even dedicated a separate channel to listen to Azan, that is a flagrant violation of a fundamental right of every citizen i.e. the Right to Silence? This is by any definition indecent conduct. Respect for the neighbour’s rights is the hall mark of decency. Use of loudspeakers constitute an abuse of freedom of religion and trespass of the rights of neighbours.

We are bringing these issues to the forefront because we view the Oluvil Declaration similar to the Vaddukoddai Resolution and we are also well aware that our politicians are late reactionaries and by that time the damage has been done and we have already attracted unwanted elements that lead the situation to far worse corners.

In his last reply Mr. Karim states that Sri Lanka was taken to the world by the Muslims. It is a canard and can easily be nullified because Sri Lanka was having links to all corners of the world encompassing trade, diplomatic deals and spread of Buddhism far before the Prophet was even born and the writings of Prof. Sirima Kiribamuna, Prof. Tikiri Abeysinghe, Prof. Wimala Wijesuriya will prove so. Moreover, the architectural, man-made irrigational marvels of Anuradhapura that no other civilization has matched were built long before Islam even originated.

First Arabs in Sri Lanka not Muslims

History must be corrected to clarify that the Arabs that arrived in Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean were initially not Muslims nor did they follow Islam. Arabs and even Persians converted to Islam only after the Islamic conquests though there are millions of Christian Arabs too.

Similarly that Sri Lanka’s Muslims do not speak Arabic will show that most of them actually came from the Islamized Arabs who went to South India married South Indian women and thereafter travelled to Sri Lanka. That is why a large number are dark-skinned and their original dress reflected South Indian rather than Sinhala influence. All Muslims in Sri Lanka do not speak Arabic – they speak in Tamil and even the Koran is written in Tamil. There is no Sinhala blood or lineage of an appreciable number  – those that disagree should prove so.

The Yonas that Mr. Karim refered to during the time of King Pandukabaya were not Islam. King Pandukabaya did offer Yonaka sabhagawattu (areas set aside for Yonaka people). But, these Yonakas were NOT MUSLIMS because Islam had not come into existence in this period. Islam came about 350 years after Christ. Christianity appeared as a religion only 200 years after the birth of Christ and during Constantine’s reign in the 4th century.

Muslims could own land only after 1832

The Muslims never owned land (thus called hulanbadda) during the times of the Buddhist kings nor during the times of the colonials until 1832 when the British legally allowed them to own land. The writings of Robert Knox and Queiroz gives these details to precision. “Besides the Dutch who possess, as I judg, about one fourth of the Island, there are Malabars, that are free Denizons and pay duty to the King for the Land they enjoy, as the Kings natural Subjects do; there are also Moors, who are like Strangers, and hold no Land, but live by carrying goods to the Sea-Ports, which now are in the Hollanders hands.” (Robert Knox)

Its difficult to see evidence of Muslim tolerance when in the West demands have forced towns to not have Christmas decorations, banks do not give “piggy banks”, “Sharia Zones” and in Switzerland there are demands to change its national anthem because it does not include other faiths!

No animal slaughter during ancient times

In Sri Lanka, it is noteworthy to remember that during the time of the Sinhala Buddhist Kings slaughter of animals were forbidden because the Royalty and the public followed the doctrine of no harm to all living beings and encapsulated in the Buddhist First Precept and several other Buddhist injunctions. Prior to the arrival of colonials even Muslims were prohibited from slaughtering animals or indulging in animal sacrifice. The Muslims of this time adjusted themselves to prevailing Buddhist ethos and the  Governing law.

Kirti Sri Nissankamalla, promulgated a remarkable decree, which he publicized in six of his famous inscriptions, forbidding the killing of all living beings in the irrigation lakes of the entire country. Mahavansa also records how King Elara (200BC) had punished his own son for running over a calf!

John Doyly’s Book – Sketch of the Constitution of the Kandyan Kingdom confirms that under Sinhala Law hunting and killing of animals was declared unlawful.

Animal killing first started with the arrival of the Portuguese. They were the first to introduce liquor too. It was the British that legalized slaughter of cattle and now Muslims as stated by Mr. Zubair says that animal sacrifice will continue whatever others say – no Muslim would have disagreed in times of the Sinhala Buddhist Kings!

In spite of the place given to man, flora and fauna by successive Sinhala Kings, Sri Lanka’s Parliament has failed to implement the Animal Welfare Bill! Clearly the place of Buddhism has waned since colonial times to present ceremonial only status.

In spite of the high place given to man, flora and fauna by successive Sinhala Kings, Sri Lanka’s Parliament has failed to enact the Animal Welfare Bill and still allows a 1907 British colonial statute i.e. Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance to be the governing legislation with a ridiculous low amount of Rs. 100 as the maximum penalty for the most heinous crime committed against an animal. If the World were to judge our commitment to rule of law on the basis of effectiveness of our animal welfare laws we will be taken to the cleaners. In this respect we are very close to many Muslim countries which do not provide legislative protection to animals.

This is another good example of the waning of the place of Buddhism since colonial times to present ceremonial only status.

However, we realize things are today far different. We are not living in times of history but that does not mean we need to turn our back on the good that prevailed in our country’s past. Currently the world is in turmoil because of incursions taking place and since those that govern the nations have failed to clearly demarcate boundaries and define what is right and wrong where the older culture and its traditions do not get compromised or pushed into the background.

What we see happening in the world and the subtle incursions take in place in Sri Lanka makes us compare, analyze and evaluate nations and we see frightening comparisons – non-Muslims in Muslim nations are fast declining (look at the Christian statistics in the Middle East, Iraq, Syria, Bangladesh and in Maldives all the Buddhists were converted to Islam around 1153AD, their places of worship are falling to ruin because Muslim laws dictate no new construction and non-Muslim statues are destroyed because it runs against Muslim belief to worship any God other than Allah. Mr. Karim and Mr. Zubair if they continue to insist there is equality can in their next reply give names of Churches, Synagogues, Kovils and Buddhist temples built in Muslim majority nations in the lasts 100 years! The kovil Mr. Karim mentioned no longer exists as it was razed to the ground in 2005.

Buddhism does not define non-Buddhists, nor define how to treat non-Buddhists yet we are defined as Infidels and further divided as Zimmis (Christians and Jews) and Kafirs (Buddhists, Hindus, Jains) and Kafirs are the worst of the two.

We have arrived at a critical juncture in our history. To be able to live in peace it is important to realize that there is and has been an older culture in existence over the past 2600 years. It is not healthy for newer cultures to be demanding how the older culture should function or dictate or define how the older culture must conduct itself.

The new incursions of halal certificates/labels, usage of loudspeakers inspite of Azan being relayed over the radio, animal sacrifice which many regard as brutal, alarming increase of mosques which even Muslims do not agree to and the encroachment of sacred lands and areas need to be reviewed and those that want to live in peaceful co-existence must realize that it is these incursions that have upset the older culture and has awoken the Buddhists into realizing that the other nations who have faced these obstacles have at extreme levels ended up becoming totally Islamized – Maldives is an example that continues to keep the Buddhists awake.

I am not going to be unsettled by accusations of racism. I am engaging in this debate because countries are beholden to protect the older culture – Sri Lanka should be no different. It is countries that do not have such a rich culture to protect that always push liberal theories through multiculturalism.

The gradual diminution of the place held by Buddhism is what has finally awoken the Buddhists of Sri Lanka. The politicians have chosen to side with the vociferous demands made by minorities because it comes with various tags that lure politicians towards appeasing their wishes ignoring the silent majority and taking them for granted as well as ignoring their own duty towards preserving the Buddhist history of Sri Lanka. We now need the injustices to be addressed and rectified because since colonial times and for 508years now a 2600 year Buddhist civilization has been put into the background and it is time to restore the status quo of Buddhism and Buddhist culture as it existed in the pre-colonial era.

Buddhist ethos stress the need to establish a compassionate society where both man and animal exist side by side in peaceful co – existence. In such a society violence is eschewed and non – violence and Ahimsa is promoted towards all living beings. Ideally this should be the moral aim of Sri Lanka.  It is a perfect way for all the people in Sri Lanka to move forward. The Buddhist moral community embraces all living beings. This is the message of the Buddha. Our forefathers embraced it. We are morally bound to follow this noble tradition.  All that we now ask is for people to reflect and conclude that this path is the best path to follow which ensures lasting peace and peaceful co-existence.