Angry reactions from Buddhist hardliners to the President’s proposed new constitution signal that the path toward national unity for religious minorities could be a rocky road.
President Maithripala Sirisena’s new constitution, proposed on January 9, would decentralize power in a bid to diffuse ethnic tensions in the country, but Buddhist hardliners claim its provisions regulate the power of the Buddhist clergy. The Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister denied these accusations, saying they are intended only to enable the government to discipline monks who break the law.
Others who oppose the change say that the government is attempting to appear more “likeable” in the eyes of Western nations. Buddhism currently enjoys “the foremost place” in the Sri Lankan constitution. Hardliners reacted strongly to this proposed decentralization of power, blasting the President’s proposal and calling on Buddhist monks to boycott the courts of the country, according to a statement by Gnanasara Thera, spokesperson for extremist Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), in the Tamil Guardian. “The government [will have] to convert every coconut tree into a gallows and every school into a prison to suppress the Sinhala [the dominant Sri Lankan ethnic group] Buddhist people.”
Sheila Singh, a researcher for Open Doors, questioned whether this constitutional change will be “good or bad news” for religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims.
“It’s good news because it’s another milestone in the reformation that the Sirisena administration has been doing,” she told World Watch Monitor. “Last year, the Parliament successfully adopted the 19th amendment of the constitution, which devolved the many powers of Executive Presidency. The religious police unit established by the former President, which was used to further create tension between the Buddhists and the religious minorities, was also abolished last year.”
Singh noted that though the situation for religious minorities has improved somewhat, “Nationalist parliamentarians and groups, such as the Sinhale National Movement, continue to guard the claimed identity of Sri Lanka at the expense of religious and ethnic minorities. The constitutional change may push through, but we are yet to see how this will really protect and integrate the religious minorities.”
Thomas Muller, a persecution analyst for Open Doors, added, “While it is encouraging to see that President Sirisena is sticking to his election promise and weakening the very strong constitutional role of the President, it will be much harder to overcome the ethnic and religious tensions in the country. It is true that hardline Buddhist groups like BBS are no longer visible and speaking out. But on the other hand, the Colombo Telegraph has reported that attacks against the Muslim minority and Protestant Christians still continue, though not as prominently as under the former President, who used Buddhist supremacism to strengthen his power base.”
Muslims are particularly concerned because the nationalist slogan “Sinha le” was spray-painted onto the gates of Muslim homes in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. During the colonial period, foreigners in Sri Lanka were labeled “asinhala” (un-Sinhala), and both Christians and Muslims suffered attacks. This ultra-nationalism has endured today through groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena, which wants a Sinhala-only nation.
“Reports of new campaigns that may seek to show hatred and incite discrimination, hostility or even violence against minorities in Sri Lanka are deeply concerning,” Olof Blomqvist, Press Officer at Amnesty International, told The Sunday Leader. “The past years in Sri Lanka have seen a disturbing trend where some political leaders have sought to manufacture religious tensions. This has resulted in a jump in attacks on religious minorities like Christians and Muslims. Sri Lanka’s political leaders must do more to stop this trend, not try to add fuel to the fire.”
Source: World Watch Monitor
Father God, we lift up the nation of Sri Lanka as they face constitutional changes and the angry backlash before them. We do pray that the changes will bring greater freedom for believers there, and we pray Your protection over them from the angry backlash that is currently aimed, in part, at Christians and other minority religions. Empower and embolden lawmakers to quell the anger and bring about greater peace. Grant Christians much wisdom and courage as they consider their response to the violence, that they might honor You in all they do and say. We pray for a powerful work of Your Holy Spirit to wash over this nation that a mighty throng might be raised up to sing Your praises. In the Name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, Amen.