An email I received under the title “Should our heritage be used to buy minority votes” implied that minorities in Sri Lanka can not have full rights as citizens. The email referred to the news item on Colombo, 04 July on Asiantribune.com about Sri Lanka Government donating land from Colombo 12, for “All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama” the Council of Muslim Theologians and the apex Islamic religious body in Sri Lanka.
I wrote the following in response. The title was added later.
Citizens and their rights: minorities in Colombo v. sinhala buddhist expats in Australia
Open letter To those of you who are alarmed by the gift of a land to a Muslim religious organization:
I find the email sounding the alarm and two responses to that email more alarming than the original story. I am a Sinhala Buddhist who wants live in this country in peace. It is sad to read the sentiments expressed in those email because knee-jerk reaction such as those expressed by seemingly educated people will do great harm to the cause of Sinhala Buddhist culture in the long run.
According to the initiating email and the discussion that follows, the crown land in Colombo 12 is seen as a Sinhala Buddhist heritage. How can a country’s crown land belong to only one race? Does that mean that other religious groups or races have no rights as citizens, say, to have crown land given to them for a legitimate public purpose? Look at Israel and the perpetual chaos in that part of the world. The only way to live in a world with diverse races, religions and cultures is to live together. There is absolutely no other way out.
In the Colombo municipal area, the Sinhalese Buddhists are a minority. It is a fact. Hindus and Muslims have congregated into clusters where they feel safe. In many cities you would notice this trend. The presence of the well-to-do minorities gives a wrong picture of Muslim and Hindu population in Colombo. Many of the minorities are poor people who live in tenement gardens under very difficult conditions. They are not foreigners. These are people whose parents and their parents have lived in this country for generations. They are Sri Lankan. They are us.
The sensible response is to further develop these enclaves and treat them as assets not threats. The commercial vibrancy of these place is good for our economy. If the minorities are sending money outside of the country illegally that is a legal matter, not an ethnic issue. Wellawatte or Colombo 12 can be places we all visit to enjoy the diversity offered by another culture. If the Muslim religious practices are a disturbance let us deal with that and bring about new municipal ordinances. I live in the heart of Colombo. In fact, I find the chanting of Pirith at busy intersections at inopportune times as a disgrace to Buddhism and more of a disruption. The call to prayer by Muslims has so far not been a disturbance but a chance to take a few minutes to close my own eyes, meditate and re-energize. The reaction of Buddhists has been to compete with others to put up their own religious structures and try to make louder noise than them. This has hurt Buddhism not helped.
I am sure many of you live in other countries or have kith and kin living there. How would you feel if the majority in those countries were to treat you or your descendents the same way? Even if they did treat you badly, your humiliation should not be a reason to humiliate minorities here who have lived among us forever. If you truly subscribe to this notion that a country’s heritage should belong to the majority, apply that to yourself. Don’t make overly demonstrations of your religion or express your culture if you are a minority. Better still bring yourselves, your grand children and great grand children back here. Why try to live a life that you want to deny for minorities in Sri Lanka. Some of you may even have to move the whole brood back all the way to Kerala or Andra Pradesh or wherever because there apparently has been a lot of migration from those parts in our near history.
Open your eyes and look among yourselves. Do the features of Sri Lankans suggest any racial purity. In some regions in India you can see distinct physical features among people living there. Not so in Sri Lanka. The recent population in Sri Lanka must be a mix of Vedda and other aborigines who lived here and many others who landed on this island in more recent times. The population in the Anuradhapura period may not have looked anything like the mix we have today. If there was North Indian blood in us Sri Lankans it must always have been minuscule. We need to do a lot more scientific research about our heritage, not base ourselves solely on a book written by monks for their own purposes. For a start look among yourselves and then go to North India see how you compare with the locals there.
Your previous email was about somebody’s call to end multiculturalism based policies in Britain. The more pertinent matter, I believe, is the separation of the state from religion. Mixing religion with government is a disaster for both government and religion. For a start, in Britain they may remove the special privileges given to the Anglican church by the state before they take away recognition given Islamic schools. Let religion be where it belongs–in our hearts or in communities of practice
Finally, please don’t use Buddhism to divide people. This call is especially those of you who live outside of the country. Buddhist fundamentalism is as bad as any other religious fundamentalism. I am a Sinhala Buddhist who wants live in this country in peace with others. We don’t want to further push our minorities into fundamentalist positions. The first step is to stay away from fundamentalism ourselves.