Photo: The Colombo World Trade Center in Colombo. Presidential Secretariat, Bank of Ceylon and Galadhari Hotel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons. - Photo: 2016

Sri Lanka: Multiculturalism May Hinder Reconciliation

 Viewpoint by Shenali Waduge *

COLOMBO (IDN-INPS) – Since the fall of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government in January 2015, reconciliation has propelled to the top of the political agenda with Western governments pushing Sri Lanka to be accountable for alleged war crimes committed at the end of the 30-year war with terror group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The new government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been currying favour with its new allies in the West and has been uncritically entertaining their demands for accountability, even to the extent of possibly allowing foreign (i.e. Western) judges to sit in judgement of war crime cases that may be brought against Sri Lanka’s war heroes in the army and the former government.

What has been worrying Sri Lanka’s Buddhist majority are new slogans like reconciliation and multiculturalism, a push spearheaded by western-funded NGO activists (now serving as government officials or advisors) and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who is well known in the country to be hostile to the Buddhist nationalistic aspirations.

She has been appointed to head a government-mandated office for inter-ethnic reconciliation. She irked many Buddhists recently when she named and criticized leading Buddhist schools in the country for not taking in non-Buddhist children.

As Uditha Devapriya of Colombo Telegraph pointed out: “These schools have existed for over 100 years, they were founded at a time when non-Christians were rubbished, and they served a function which continues even today.” Put briefly, the argument is that this country has enough and more space for schools dedicated to “missionary activity”, but very few dedicated to the faith followed by the majority community.

Kumaratunga’s reconciliation crusade is creating alarm in the majority Buddhist community. They fear the new government is attempting to fulfil what the colonial occupiers failed to do. As an island nation very few countries can boast a written 2600-year history built up by the toil of its ancestors.

The British promised to protect Buddhism when they signed the 1815 Kandyan Convention. They reneged on this promise. This fear of usurping whatever is left to preserve of the Buddhist heritage is the sole reason for the majority of Buddhists to oppose any changes to the place of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

There is an attempt by anti-Buddhist elements, who unfortunately seem to be clustered around the current government, to delete Article 9 of the 1972 Republican Constitution. That clause says that Buddhism be given the foremost place and also guarantees that it is the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana.

Many Buddhist organisations in the country have warned the government not to tamper with that clause – “(while) language, both Sinhala and Tamil, is the main instrument to bring about understanding, cordiality, and reconciliation among the different communities”.

“Our ancient history is a national heritage that should bring satisfaction to all communities living in this country,” said leading Buddhist organisation Buddha Sasana Karya Sadhaka Mandalaya in a recent letter to President Sirisena.

Multiculturalism emerged in 1971 in Canada, in 1973 in Australia and was later accommodated by all European Union states. But today, growing nationalist movements are challenging multiculturalism in these countries, while their governments are pressuring Sri Lanka to adopt these very policies growing number of their own people are rejecting.

In fact, in 2007 the John Howard Government in Australia removed the word ‘multicultural’ from the Dept. of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and renamed it Dept. of Immigration & Citizenship. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel too has said multiculturalism has “utterly failed” as did former President Sarkozy in France and former Prime Minister David Cameron in the UK. Even under the multicultural concept the Christian features of these countries remain unchanged.  

It is ironic that 500 years of colonial crimes are not accounted for by the same countries calling for accountability from Sri Lanka.   

While the Buddhists are being criticized for opposing any reconciliation path that undermines the place of Buddhism in the country, the Tamil chief minister of the Northern Province, former Supreme Court Judge C.V. Vigneswaran, has been drumming up Tamil nationalist sentiments in the north, calling for the army to be withdrawn from the province and even going to the extent of asking Tamils not to marry Sinhalese. Ironically his two sons are married to Sinhalese.

Chief prelate of the Southern Province Venerable Omalpe Sobhitha accused the Chief Minister of showing disturbing signs of trying to sabotage the government’s reconciliation attempts. “He has shown a tendency to trying to provoke the extremist elements within the Sinhalese community to act against the Tamils by making provocative statements designed to denigrate the armed forces and Sinhala Buddhists,” said the prelate in a recent statement to the media.

“It is very sad that a person of Justice Vigneswaran’s calibre has gone to such low depths to insult an important pillar of the Sri Lankan nation,” Venerable Sobitha noted referring to the chief minister’s verbal attacks on the army. “He should appreciate the fact that if not for the Sri Lankan army’s bold campaign to eradicate LTTE terrorism, he will not be in the position he is now, and if he attempted such a political career, he would have been assassinated by the LTTE.”

Perhaps it is time that Asian countries ask the West whether it not a human right to protect one’s cultural identity and heritage?

The other factor is that while multiculturalists wish to bring the majority on par with the minority, they insist that the culture and identity of the minorities cannot be touched. This invariably entails the majority to disown their heritage culture and identity and embrace that of the minority.

Giving the SJV Chelvanaygam memorial lecture recently, the former President Kumaratunga declared “alienation of minority groups and the constant deprivation of economic, social and cultural rights are some of the common factors which ultimately lead to ethnic conflicts within multicultural societies”

However, in the Sri Lankan context it is important to ask: What if pushing for a multiculturalism identity for the country, alienates the majority community? is it an intelligent path to take?

Even Colombo’s Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, warned that the rights status and respect for Buddhism in the country should remain intact in the Constitution.

In June, in a rare foray into domestic politics for a Chinese envoy, China’s ambassador to Sri Lanka Yi Xianliang was reported in the media to have told the Sri Lankan government that it is ill advised to give priority to reconciliation before development. He reportedly asked the government leaders to ensure that reconciliation mechanisms suggested by the UN Human Rights Council do not create new conflicts. He added that it is only all-round equitable development that will prevent social, political and economic conflicts

Many Buddhist leaders believe that the multicultural agenda pushed from outside has a sinister agenda. They argue that the next phase of that is to remove the history from the minds of the people, by removing history from the syllabus so that people do not know any more their ancient idols and their brave deeds and achievements. Multicultural education syllabus is now being promoted in lieu of the history syllabus.

As Sri Lanka prepares to change its constitution, many in Sri Lanka question whether a new constitution is really the need of the hour. While preparing to resist any attempt by the government to dilute the Buddhist identity of the country, Buddhist leaders have been echoing the warning of the renowned Buddhist nationalist Anagarika Dharmapala made in1926, when he called for the Buddhists to rise up against attempts by the British colonial administrators to further undermine Buddhism in the country.

“Sinhala Buddhists – Wake Up! A majority race declines because of its own failures,” he said in a famous call for action. “When that happens the minorities take advantage, the minorities become stronger and begin to dictate terms to the majority. That is what has happened to the Sinhalese Buddhists.”

* The writer is a Sri Lankan social and political critic and columnist. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the IDN-INPS editorial team. [IDN-InDepthNews – 07 August 2016]

Related article: U.S. To Assist in Drafting New Sri Lankan Constitution – Wants to Partner Military >

Photo: The Colombo World Trade Center in Colombo. Presidential Secretariat, Bank of Ceylon and Galadhari Hotel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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