A recent spate of attacks and confrontations on non-Buddhist shrines and religious sites shows a worrying increase in the numbers of Sinhala Buddhist hardliners intent on suppressing the diverse religious and cultural practices that have long been a part of the island’s history.
On September 15 a group of Buddhist monks led a crowd, including around 100 monks, and demolished a Muslim shrine in Anuradhapura in scenes reminiscent of the infamous “Babri Masjid” incident in India in 1992. Reports state that the mob waved Buddhist flags and burnt a green Muslim flag, a potent action that could threaten to flare up sectarian tensions, in a place where Muslims and Buddhists have managed to live mostly in harmony.
Although Anuradhapura, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is sacred to Buddhists and contains many monasteries and revered sites, Muslims claim that their shrine has been there for around 300 years. The monk who admitted to masterminding the demolition, Amatha Dhamma Thero, said the attack was committed because the shrine was on land that had been given to Sinhalese Buddhists 2,000 years ago. He also alleged that local Muslims were trying to convert the shrine into a mosque – something which Muslims have denied.
The monk states that local government officials had agreed to remove the shrine within three days, but the crowd had become impatient and proceeded to tear down the structure. The BBC reports that witnesses said police were present during the incident but did not do anything to stop the destruction of the shrine, while the police denied that they were present at all.
At the time, police spokesman Prishanta Jayakody told BBC Sinhala: “This is a fabricated story. No media in Sri Lanka has reported this and we don’t have any police report. If this happened there would have been a complaint. We have not received any complaint.”
If what witnesses claim to have seen is true, it highlights the lack of protection that minority ethnic and religious groups (Hindus make up 15 per cent of the population, while Christians and Muslims make up 8 per cent respectively) receive when trying to practise their religion, from a police force and government that is mainly Buddhist, and in a country where monks have an elevated role in politics.
After the incident, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa clarified the reports, condemning the monks’ actions. However, he said that the shrine would not be rebuilt. He said that no-one had consented to the act, although the monks leading the demolition said that that they had persuaded the religious affairs ministry to agree to knock down the shrine.
Hindu shrines have also come under attack by Buddhist hardliners. On September 18, the annual animal sacrifice ritual Sri Bhadra Kali Amman Kovil in Munneswaram was halted by a Court ruling, despite the practice of animal sacrifices currently being legal in the country. According to newspaper reports, Public Affairs Minister Mervyn Silva, the man famous for tying civil servants to trees, arrived at the temple, located in the north-west village of Puttalam, seized the animals and took them away.
Although the temple, which is dedicated to the god Lord Shiva, had been the subject of public protests regarding animal rights in the past, the protests of Buddhist monks and the direct intervention of the public affairs minister is unprecedented, suggesting that the operation was an attempt to disrupt the worship of devotees, at one of the oldest and holiest Hindu shrines in the country.
When describing his actions, Mervyn Silva talked about the Buddha who had intervened to stop the killing of animals on an occasion. By representing his actions as a kind of Buddhist response to Hindu practices, the government seems to be exacerbating the tension between different religious groups and stoking Buddhist fundamentalism.
During the incident at the Tamil Hindu temple, Silva threatened to “cut off the hands” of anyone sacrificing animals in future. The government’s determination to clamp on animal rights abuses seems ironic when they still have not addressed the human rights abuses and war crimes committed during the civil war in 2009, which led to the death of up to 40,000 people.
Many Muslims now fear that when the major Hajj festival takes place in early November, which is celebrated with animal sacrifices, they may face similar clampdowns.