Cultural Genocide during a Carnival of  Buffoons: Thoughts of a dry brain

Our temporal and spiritual leaders, through their crazy doings and inane utterances, are proving themselves to be a set of perfect buffoons.

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A Buddhist monk walks on the road on July 18, 2023, in Ratnapura, Sri Lanka. (Photo by Thilina Kaluthotage/NurPhoto)

It would be obvious to the correctly informed impartial observer that Sri Lanka’s age-old Buddhist religious cultural establishment is under unprovoked attack both within the country and outside of it. The current controversy about Channel 4’s latest film on Sri Lanka concerning the Easter Sunday suicide bombings carried out by Islamic Jihadist terrorists four years ago is merely a smokescreen created to conceal a hoped-for critical final phase of that anti-Buddhist operation. This reference to the cacophonous Channel 4 prattle should not be regarded as something out of context.

According to Lanka C News (September 12, 2023), the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) leader MP R. Sampanthan (90) has called for the immediate arrest of all those mentioned in that documentary. He may be trying to push home the potential propaganda advantage gained through the obviously fake Easter Sunday attack film incriminating Gotabaya Rajapaksa (about whose guilt or innocence I am not concerned here) in the long drawn anti-Sinhala Buddhist campaign. Sampanthan may not be aware of the fact that the Channel 4 documentary’s main “whistleblower” Azad Maulana has already been locally exposed as a former close associate of the Islamist suicide bombers, though later he was allegedly employed by the UNHRC as a Shelter Cluster Coordinator by its letter to him dated January 19, 2023 (I borrow this last piece of information from the exclusive feature published in Sri Lanka Guardian/September 12, 2023: Is Azad Maulana, Linked to Easter Sunday Suicide Bombers Employed by the UN?). The UNHRC personnel could have been victims of misinformation in this case.

According to the Sri Lanka Guardian feature, Azad Maulana and a health professional by the name of Mohamed Safraz Mohamed Zufian had played a significant role in obtaining medical treatment for Rilvan Hashim, brother of Zaharan Hashim, at the Colombo General Hospital without revealing his true identity and the real circumstances in which he sustained his injuries, when he (Rilvan) got injured while experimenting with explosives in Kattankudy a few months before the Easter Sunday bombings that were carried out on April 21, 2019. 

The relentless onslaught on the Sinhala Buddhist cultural heritage of the country is seemingly justified by linking the latter, without rhyme or reason, to the chronic political instability and the still raging post-pandemic economic crisis. These baseless attacks are unprecedented in their subtleness and severity. Buddhism is exclusively targeted for assault as an ideological obstacle to the implementation of secular  principles of democratic governance. No one in their right mind, if equipped with even a smattering knowledge of Buddhism, would adopt such a negative view of the probably most secular as well as the most nonpolitical religion in the world. 

In this context, the term secularism means ‘the principle of separation of state from religious institutions’. But this is not the sense in which it is used by Sinhala-speaking critics of the Buddhist cultural establishment either through sheer ignorance or deliberate mischief. The Sinhala word they use for the neutral English adjective ‘secular’ is the negative ‘niragamika’, which means ‘without religion’ or even ‘against religion’. Those who are supposed to hold secular views (secularists) are misleadingly termed ‘niragamikayo in Sinhala’ or ‘people who have no religion’.

Most unsophisticated common people seem to think that niragamikayas are immoral people who have no religion. They have no knowledge of secularism in governance (the concept of governance that is free from constraints due to religious interference in policy making). This is made worse by the fact that, ironically, the so-called secularists seem to identify Buddhism as the only religion that challenges secularism (whereas the truth is the exact opposite).

The identity of the indigenous  ethnic majority (the Sinhalese) is culturally and spiritually rooted in the Buddhist civilisational foundation laid by Mahinda Thera who arrived from India/Bharata (or Jambudweepa as it is called in the Mahavamsa) in the 3rd century BCE. Sinhalese Buddhist culture is, at the same time, an exceptionally tolerant and perfectly inclusive one, that has accommodated within its friendly embrace non-Buddhist minorities and cultures for many centuries.

Traditionally, over the millennia, the Buddhists monks have acted and have been recognized as the guardians of the dominant/majority Buddhist culture, the country and the people. Today’s aggrieved monks and the lay Buddhists that they minister to have no missionary, political or economic motives. What they expect and demand the government, whatever party or alliance is in power, to do is to help, through legal means, to protect the particularly vulnerable poverty-stricken Buddhists from unethical conversion by numerous  extremist Abrahamic religious groups lavishly funded by foreign donors; these subversive sects are usually disowned by  leaders of the corresponding mainstream religions.

I don’t think state involvement in the matter is legally possible or feasible, although the current republican constitution hints at such a possibility by virtue of Article 9; but that is a different aspect of the problem. Buddhists have no quarrel with voluntary conversion through personal conviction and Buddhism (which is virtually a secular spiritual doctrine that emphasises enlightenment through self-realisation as the supreme goal) has naturally no apostasy laws.

This makes the Buddhist establishment vulnerable to displacement by faith based proselytising religions which have inbuilt safeguards against apostasy (something alien to Buddhism)  in a world where economic concerns take precedence over spiritual considerations. In better off secular democratic societies (e.g., Australia), however, people have now begun to treat coercive unsolicited conversion attempts directed at individuals or communities as violating their fundamental rights and freedoms as civilised humans. 

Another cogent demand of Buddhists is that government authorities stop the encroachment, vandalization, or destruction of the Buddhist archaeological heritage sites of the north and east provinces of the  country through the strict implementation of archaeological preservation acts already operative including the supposedly powerful Antiquity Ordinance No. 9 of 1940 (introduced in British times). This is something that can be done with the consent and cooperation of the minority Tamils and Muslims who form the majorities, respectively, of the northern and eastern parts. In fact, they can be easily convinced about the importance of these archaeological treasures which are the proud inheritance of inestimable value shared equally by all the communities inhabiting the island today. 

Latest discovered archeological evidence proves that, as we knew all along, the ancestors of the Sinhalese did not come to inhabit Sri Lanka from its big northern neighbour India/Bharata or elsewhere, but had evolved as the indigenous ruling tribe, the Yakkha people. The Sinhalese are descendants of these Yakkhas.  In September 2009, a research team including foreign experts led by archaeologist the late Dr Shiran Deraniyagala  unearthed significant evidence of a pre-Vijayan civilization in Anuradhapura in the form of potsherds with Brahmi inscriptions, fragments of gold jewellery, teeth of horses, remains of underground drains and brick walls and a muragala (guard stone), which, according to carbon-dating, were assigned to a period at least 300 years before the alleged arrival of the legendary prince Vijaya. This civilization belonged to the Yakkhas. 

I stated above that the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community are being subjected to cultural genocide. What is cultural genocide?

Article 2 of the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” (from the Legal Information Institute quoted in the Wikipedia) 

According to the Wikipedia again “The legal definition of genocide is unspecific about the exact way in which genocide is committed, only stating that it is destruction with the intent to destroy a racial, religious, ethnic or national group.

Among many other potential reasons, cultural genocide may be committed for religious motives (e.g., iconoclasm); as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing in order to remove the evidence of a people from a specific locale or history; as part of an effort to implement a Year Zero, in which the past and its associated culture is deleted and history is “reset”.”

About cultural genocide, we have this in the Wikipedia: “Cultural genocide or cultural cleansing is a concept which was proposed by lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944 as a component of genocide.[1] Though the precise definition of cultural genocide remains contested, the Armenian Genocide Museum defines it as “acts and measures undertaken to destroy nations’ or ethnic groups’ culture through spiritual, national, and cultural destruction”.

The Google dictionary defines the word nation as “a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory”. The Sinhalese are a fully fledged nation according to this definition. They are a large body of people united by a common descent,  with a hallowed history (longer than that recorded in the Mahavamsa and other chronicles),  a unique culture whose firm civilizational base came to be Theravada Buddhism, a locally evolved language that had a developed orthography that enabled the up to  then orally transmitted Pali language scriptures of Theravada Buddhism to be committed to writing at Matale in the middle part of the island in the first century BCE, and most of all, with a country of their own, their island home (The Sinhalese originated in their island, just as the Sinhala language did, which goes without saying). 

Isn’t ‘cultural genocide’ the right term to describe what the Sinhalese Buddhists, the majority community, have been constantly subjected to for the whole of the post-independence period in the form of religious subversion and ethnically divisive politics? 

To mention just a few instances suggestive of cultural genocide targeting Sinhalese Buddhists in the course of roughly the past five decades where they found cause for alarm:  ethically unacceptable conversion of poverty stricken Buddhists by many diverse foreign funded fundamentalist Abrahamic religious groups (avowedly unrelated to the mainstream Catholic/Christian and Muslim communities) mostly through persuasive verbal as well as more enticing economic blandishments. Of course, poor Tamil Hindus are subjected to the same aggressive religious conversion attempts.

Instances of encroachment or vandalizing of ancient Buddhist archaeological sites in violation of the celebrated antiquities and archaeological ordinances established long ago in British times, deliberate state connivance at the growth of virulent fundamentalist groups (the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks of 2019 come to mind), alleged sterilization (highlighted in the social media) of Sinhalese mothers by a particular doctor without their consent during child delivery (which allegation, fortunately, was later declared, hopefully after due scrutiny, to be a mischievous fabrication by some troublemakers), persecuting well meaning whistleblowers such as Gnanasara Thera and young lay activist Amith Weerasinghe through the apparent manipulation or misleading of the law enforcement authorities, exploiting the the monk’s and the young lay activist’s ingenuousness and lack of sophistication (Had their various timely warnings been taken seriously and due investigations conducted, the Easter Sunday attacks that claimed about 270 (274 according to some} innocent lives and grievously injured over 500 could have been avoided).

Can’t this planned discrimination and ill-treatment of one of the world’s oldest civilized races without the flimsiest justification in political, economic, social or religious terms be best described as a form of genocide (I call it cultural genocide)? I stop short of citing certain recent events which are too obvious to mention in this text. 

Meanwhile, our temporal and spiritual leaders, through their crazy doings and inane utterances, are proving themselves to be a set of perfect buffoons. They are facilitating the cultural genocide I am talking about.

Rohana R. Wasala

Rohana R. Wasala is a freelance journalist and regular columnist for Sri Lanka Guardian, with a background in academia.

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