On Buddhist Fundamentalism

Tariq Ali for London Review of Books, April 25th 2013

Four years after the killing of between eight and ten thousand Tamils by the Sri Lankan army, which brought to an end a civil war that had lasted for 26 years, there is trouble on the island again. This time the army isn’t directly responsible: instead it’s the Buddhist monks from Bodu Bala Sena, the most active of the fundamentalist groups that have sprouted in Sinhalese strongholds. Three-quarters of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese; most of them are Buddhists. The monks’ target this time is the small Muslim minority. Muslim abattoirs have been raided, halal butchers attacked, homes targeted. The police merely stand and watch, and Sri Lankan TV crews calmly film the violence. A few weeks ago, Buddhist monks got some hoodlums to attack a Muslim-owned car showroom. One of its employees was going out with a young Sinhalese woman and her father complained to a local monk. The Sunday Leader reported that ‘an eyewitness saw a monk leaving one of the temples … followed by a group of youths, mostly under 25 years of age. The group carried stones and, people were later to discover, kerosene.’

A BBS blogger recently explained the ‘reasoning’ behind the targeting of Muslims:

Muslims have been living in this country since seventh century and now only they want to have Halal food in Sri Lanka. Population wise they are only 5 per cent. If we allow Halal, next time they will try to introduce circumcision on us. We have to nip these in the bud before it becomes a custom. We should never allow the Muslims and Christians to control anything in Sri Lanka … Hijab, burqa, niqab and purdah should be banned in Sri Lanka. The law and the legislature should always be under the control of the Sinhala-Buddhists and our Nationalist Patriotic president. After all, Sri Lanka is a gift from Buddha to the Sinhalese.

Difficult to imagine how circumcision could be ‘nipped in the bud’ even by a Buddhist, or how the percentage of the Muslim population could have fallen from 9.7 per cent in the 2011 census to 5 per cent today. It has undoubtedly dropped, however, as a direct result of decades of unchecked harassment and persecution, by Tamils as well as Sinhalese Buddhists.

It isn’t just members of the BBS who spout this nonsense. Many in the Sinhalese political-military mainstream share these views. In the town of Pottuvil, where the Muslims are the majority, soldiers have been helping local monks erect Buddhist statues and allowing loudspeakers to blare out Buddhist hymns morning and night. Local women who own land are being driven off it: the monasteries then steal the land, with the army providing protection.

Buddhist hardliners hate the suggestion that the island was not a gift from Buddha to them alone, but the earliest architectural finds reveal Tamil as well as Buddhist objects, which is hardly surprising given the proximity of South India to northern Sri Lanka. Who came first was a burning issue throughout the colonial period. Ever since independence in 1948, Buddhist fundamentalism has been the driving force behind Sinhalese intransigence on the Tamil question. A Buddhist monk assassinated S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the country’s fourth prime minister, in 1959. He was said to have made too many (in fact too few) concessions to the Tamils. After this, politicians began to pander to the monks’ prejudices and anti-Tamil discrimination was institutionalised. Young Tamils began to believe armed struggle was the only way to free themselves. If Bengali Muslims could split from their brethren in West Pakistan and create Bangladesh, why not the Tamils?

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