A combination of events in the past week has brought into focus some home truths about the officially projected image of Sri Lanka as a country where Buddhism is protected and nurtured — as the ‘state religion,’ no less. These events should surely make people ponder on what exactly it is, that is being protected and nurtured by the government in the name of ‘Buddhist values.’
A British tourist was arrested and deported for the ‘offence’ of having the image of the Buddha tattooed on her arm. According to reports, she was harassed by the police who solicited bribes, then brought before a magistrate who ordered her deportation without explaining the charges or giving her the opportunity to defend herself. The frightened woman described her experience to the media as ‘hellish,’ and said she was held in detention with criminals. Those who arrested her and ordered her deportation seem to have been unmoved by her disclosure that she was a practising Buddhist who meditates, and has previously visited not only Sri Lanka but also Thailand, India, Nepal and Cambodia to attend meditation retreats. She said she had never been subjected to such treatment before.
Police Spokesman Ajith Rohana has told the BBC that the tourist was convicted under a law which forbids “deliberately and maliciously outraging the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”
Photos of the tattoo, hardly an offensive image, have been widely published in the media. It is ironic that the arrest and deportation of the tourist, who has stated she had no intention to offend, happened during the same week that other individuals have in fact been behaving in ways that far better fit the description of ‘deliberately and maliciously outraging the religious feelings’ of a certain class by ‘insulting its religion.’ These persons have escaped censure.
De facto law enforcers
When the saffron-robed members of the Bodu Bala Sena disrupted a news conference held by a monk whom they accuse of being partial towards Muslims, and whom they abused and intimidated in a gross display of thuggery, the police stood by doing nothing. The organisation’s members later went on to storm a government ministry building alleging, with much drama, that the monk was hiding there. The histrionics that are part of BBS’s hate campaign against Muslims are typically accompanied by foul-mouthed expletives and insulting gestures. Yet none of this is deemed to qualify as “deliberately and maliciously outraging the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”
The BBS projects itself as a self-appointed guardian of “country, race and religion” (rata, jaathiya, aagama). It further arrogates to itself the role of a de-facto law-enforcement agency relating to matters on which the country’s courts of law are there to adjudicate. This tendency is seen in BBS’s current crusade over allegedly illegal Muslim settlements in or on the borders of Wilpattu, and the role of the monk they seek to vilify in this connection.
Behind the police inaction during the BBS’s escapades lies political influence, as people well know. It’s common knowledge that this particular aberrant political formation enjoys a certain ‘protection’ in high places.
State of lawlessness
Motifs drawn from religion are often used in ornamental or decorative ways in western popular culture, without an intention to offend. While such cultural expressions may seem irreverend to some, it turns out the reaction of Sri Lankan authorities in the case of the British tourist had more to do with connivance between a taxi driver and the police for the purpose of harassing her in order to extract a bribe, than anything to do with moral outrage over her Buddha tattoo. “It is this state of lawlessness that should alarm everyone,” said the Asian Human Rights Commission. The rights group’s statement also deplored the conduct of the magistrate, whom it described as a pawn of the police.
Media reports of the tourist’s harassment over a tattoo have now been circulated around the world. Could the image of a land of rampaging monks and religious intolerance verging on xenophobia, persuade anyone that the Government is serious about promoting tourism?
Commissions and kickbacks
Further contradictions emerged last week in the Government’s determination to approve the controversial gazette regulations relating to the setting up of casinos. Despite the denials it is widely believed the proposed legislation, that uses the code of ‘integrated resort projects,’ is intended to facilitate foreign investment in big time gambling enterprises. The Government pushed the regulations through using its parliamentary majority, amidst protests from religious leaders, the Opposition and its own coalition and SLFP party members, many of whom absented themselves during the vote.
The Mahanayaka Theras of the three Chapters have written to the president appealing for amendments in the envisaged legislation they say will lead to an erosion of religious, cultural and social values. They join critics who warn that besides gambling, this venture will open the doors to other social ills such as alcohol and prostitution.
One would expect a regime that is anxious to preserve its credentials as ‘guardian of Buddhism’ to at least pretend that it abhors such vices. On the contrary, it chooses to justify its agenda on the basis of (surprise, surprise) tourism promotion! Lavish tax and duty concessions have been granted to the investors. And as in the case of other similar projects approved without following tender procedures, suspicions over massive commissions and kickbacks to politicians linger in the air.
What do the incidents of the past week reveal? Do they demonstrate that the Government is committed to developing the tourist industry? Do they show that the state is ‘protecting Buddhism?’ Or is this strange combination of events — within the space of a week — the by-product of a situation where a section of the political class systematically whips up and uses pseudo-religious, pseudo-nationalistic fervor as a smokescreen to consolidate its grip on power?