By Pradeep Seneviratne for Khabar South Asia in Colombo
February 15, 2013
Now, he fears activities by an organisation dubbing itself Bodu Bala Sena, or “Buddhist Force,” will drive a wedge between the primarily Buddhist Sinhalese, who make up 74% of Sri Lanka’s population, and Muslims, who account for only 10%.
“This group is trying to pit Sinhalese people against Muslims. That is not helpful. We want to live with each other as brothers and sisters of the same family,” Ifthikar, a food company marketing manager, told Khabar South Asia.
“In fact, when my family went out of Colombo on picnics, it was my Sinhalese friends who looked after my house. They always share sweetmeats with my family during their annual festival in April,” he said.
During recent months, people identifying themselves as members of Bodu Bala Sena have campaigned against halal food items, and asked Sinhalese not to patronise Muslim-owned shops.
Leaders of the group, however, have moved to distance it from such activities. They insist their organisation does not endorse hateful behaviour towards other religions.
Vitharandeniye Nanda, a Buddhist monk working as the national organiser of Bodu Bala Sena, denied any involvement. “We never resort to violence. We think some other groups with vested interests use our name to harass Muslims,” Nanda told Khabar.
All citizens are equal
With tensions mounting, the government has decided to appoint a parliamentary select committee (PSC) to study whether locally- or internationally-funded religious extremism had infiltrated Sri Lankan society.
Nimal Siripala de Silva, leader of the House of Parliament, said that the government would not approve any act that ignites violence between different ethnic communities, especially at a time when the country is emerging from the devastation of its three-decades-long war.
“Our country bled at the hands of terrorism. It was the climax of communal violence. Fortunately, it ended on May 19, 2009. Now, we want peace and harmony. We should not let our hard-earned freedom be lost,” de Silva told Khabar.
“Once this select committee is appointed with the representatives of all the parties, we will deeply study what led to the present situation. Then, there will be recommendations on steps to be taken to correct it,” he said.
In addition, President Mahinda Rajapaksa on January 27th asked members of Bodu Bala Sena not to incite religious tension, saying he would not tolerate any acts of extremism.
According to a report of the meeting in The Island newspaper, Rajapaksa stressed that members of all communities have a right to live as equal citizens in the country. The meeting was attended by Muslim parliamentarians representing the government.
Muslims, Buddhists reject extremism
The president’s intervention has been hailed by moderate leaders of the two communities, who see it as timely.
“There are elements trying to disturb communal harmony. They are groups with different agendas. They should not be encouraged,” said Ven. Kapugama Gnanasiha, a Buddhist monk, who works as a teacher at a Colombo school.
“We, the Buddhist monks, have an important role to play in reconciling the communities. I always preach to my people that co-existence is all-important. It is better if the government can intervene at this moment to stop religious hatred being spread,” Gnanasiha told Khabar.
Endorsing those views, Fazrul Rahman, president of the Kandy City Jamyyathul Ulama, said certain groups are apparently trying to sabotage the country’s hard-earned peace.
“As a Muslim priest, I keep close contacts with Buddhist monks. They have always been helpful to me. I respect them,” he told Khabar.
Rahman told how a Buddhist monk once gave him a Rs. 1,000 note ($7.91) to cover travel expenses to a function in Colombo. He never spent the note, but kept it as a token of friendship.
“That is the kind of relationship we have,” he said.
“I am sad to see some persons trying to stoke religious tension. Buddhists are a peaceful community. Only a handful are involved in extremist activities,” Rahman told Khabar.
Sachith Maduranga, 38, a Sinhalese vendor in Colombo, said extremism would never resolve problems.
“Nowhere in the world has extremism solved any problem. The moderate path is the way out. We do business with people of different ethnic groups. Normalcy should prevail,” Maduranga told Khabar.