After the deadly attacks by ISIS-inspired suicide bombers that killed and injured over 250 people in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, there has been retaliation against ordinary Muslims. A friend of mine in Sri Lanka says that people are not patronizing Muslim-owned business, not taking the tuk-tuks (the ubiquitous small three-wheel scooter taxis) driven by them, Muslim students being asked to leave their lodgings, private buses refusing to accept Muslim passengers, etc. One wonders what people think they will accomplish by discriminating like this against ordinary people who had nothing to do with the attacks. Do they think they are striking a great blow for justice when all it is is a petty act of vengeance? Surely they should realize that people become even more resentful when they are punished for the actions of others and that it simply compounds the problem? That is such an obvious lesson from history that I find it incredible that people don’t realize it.
To make things much worse, a leading Sri Lankan Buddhist monk, roughly equivalent in religious stature to an archbishop in the Catholic church, went on a public tirade against Muslims. But in an unusual turn of events, his remarks were quickly challenged by a government minister.
Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera yesterday hit back at controversial and racially charged comments made by one of the top Buddhist monks in the country against the Muslim community, calling on ‘true Buddhists’ to unite against the Talibanisation of the philosophy.
Minister Samaraweera, who has spoken out fearlessly against religious extremism targeting minority religious and ethnic groups, even after the devastating Easter Sunday terror attacks and subsequent harassment and persecution targeting the island’s Muslims, tweeted the criticism from his official Twitter handle.
“True Buddhists must unite NOW against the Talibanisation of our great philosophy of peace and love of all beings. No Buddhist can condone a statement to stone another human being to death, even if it emanates from the robed orders. #lka,” the Minister’s tweet said. The criticism follows widespread shock across social media after remarks by the Chief Prelate of the Asgiriya Chapter, Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thero, who launched a tirade against Muslims at a temple near the sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy last weekend.
The Asgiriya chief monk, who is one of two of the most senior Buddhist monks in the island, urged devotees not to patronise Muslim-owned restaurants, saying they were systematically working to reduce the population of Sinhala Buddhists by making them sterile.
“Don’t eat from those (Muslim) shops,” he said. “Those who ate from those shops will not have children in the future. In another 10 to 15 years, we will know the consequence.”
The remarks were made in the presence of UNP MP Mayantha Dissanayake, whose own speech had urged Buddhists to be tolerant and not isolate the country’s Muslim community.
The Asgiriya chief monk made it clear that he disagreed with Dissanayake’s remarks before launching into his own speech against Muslims.
State Minister Dr. Harsha De Silva also made an attempt to criticise the monk’s remarks. “Ven. Asgiriya Maha Nayaka Thero should retract the statement condoning stoning the controversial Muslim doctor to death; also the Thero should advice other priests of the responsibility of wearing the yellow robe,” the state minister said.
No politician from the SLPP or SLFP factions have so far disavowed the monk’s shocking remarks calling for the stoning of a minority community, or as not representing their own views about the Muslim community.
Note the allegation made by the monk that Muslim-owned restaurants were putting ingredients in the food served to non-Muslims in order to make them sterile, all part of a supposed secret plan to make Muslims, currently about 10% of the population, into the majority.
Although the monk’s comments are shocking, a hopeful sign is the immediate pushback that he got from at least some major politicians and others against this kind of racist rhetoric and incitement to violence. Normally, Sri Lankan politicians pander shamelessly to these prominent monks and try to get their support. This minister is also one of the few (maybe only) openly gay politicians who has pushed back against anti-gay rhetoric in parliament and thus is perhaps used to going against the grain.
Returning to the above-mentioned parliamentary debate, Samaraweera marked himself out in an exemplary manner when the word ‘ponnaya’ [an anti-gay slur-MS] was thrown at him. He immediately responded that he is happier to be a ‘ponnaya’ than a thug, thief or a murderer. The parliament of Sri Lanka, with a highly disproportionate number of cis-hetero-normative men, is an extremely homophobic and transphobic, and indeed heavily [cis and trans] misogynist place. In a context of that nature, making a statement that ‘assumes’ one’s non-hetero-normativity from the frontbench is a brave and laudable feet indeed.
On this occasion, Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI community has an obligation to commend and stand unconditionally with Samaraweera, and call upon him to continue this bold approach. The obliteration of non-hetero-normativity and non-cis-normativity from politics, international affairs, local government, public administration, diplomacy and indeed many other vital fields, is something that should no longer be tolerated [and should never have been tolerated in the first place]. No Sri Lankan citizen should have to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity to survive in active politics or, for that matter, in another profession. Being non-cisgender and/or non-heterosexual in no way deprives one of their full rights as a citizen.