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Sri Lanka: Multiculturalism May Hinder Reconciliation


By Shenali Waduge

Since the fall of the Mahinda Rajapakse 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) and to introduce reconciliation measures according to what the West believes is best for the island republic.

The new government led by President Maitripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe have been currying flavour with its new allies in the West and has been uncritically entertaining demands of the West for accountability, even to the extent of possibly allowing foreign (ie. Western) judges to sit in judgment 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 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-ethic reconciliation and 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 (Christian)“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 fulfill 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 renegaded 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 EU 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 Merkel too has said multiculturalism has failed as did former President Sarkozy in France and former PM 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 been 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 caliber has gone to such low depths to insult an important pillar of the Sri Lankan nation,” Ven 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 from 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 which 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 interesting to ask if by pushing a multiculturalism identity for the country, if that alienates the majority community, is it an intelligent path to take?    

Even Colombo’s Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, warned that the right 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 here to have told the Sri Lankan government that it is ill advised for Sri Lanka to give priority to reconciliation before development and that government leaders need to ensure reconciliation mechanisms suggested by the UN Human Rights Council do not themselves create new conflicts. He has added that it is only all-round equitable development that will prevent social, political and economic conflicts

Many Buddhist leaders believe that the mutlticultural 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 who their ancient heroes are 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 failure,s” 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.

Source: IDN-INPS

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