It is almost a universal given passed down from our parents, purveyors of social protocols or some long forgotten osmosis from our peers and betters that politics, religion and sex are subjects you should never discuss openly with people you do not know. Indeed an old friend of mine goes one step further by advocating that these potentially incendiary subjects should never be discussed with anyone you haven’t seen naked first. So I know I may be stepping onto a potential minefields by discussing a curious story of double standards I heard only yesterday.
Last Monday Sri Lankan immigration authorities ordered the deportation of a British tourist because she has a Buddha tattoo on her arm. Naomi Michelle Coleman was arrested after she arrived on a flight from India and showed the tattoo of the Buddha and a lotus flower on her right arm. Unwilling to upset those religious types who thrive on seeking even the most circuitous route to find offence or slight against their beliefs, I will not reproduce the image of this woman bearing her tattoo for the cameras. But I can attest to the fact that the tattoo seemed a faithful replication of a classical Buddha image. Whether this was a tasteful use of your upper arm is something for others to decide.
The Sri Lankan authorities are getting tougher on perceived insults to Buddhism, the religion of the island’s majority ethnic Sinhalese, particularly as the islands popularist Sinhalese President, Mihindra Rajapaksa believes the issue is a sure fire vote winner and a domestic distraction at a time when he and his entourage are about to be investigated by the UN over war crimes tantamount to a genocide of Tamil civilians in the dying days of the islands long running civil war. An atrocity some have argued, which was partly funded by International aid and other reconstruction donations made to the country in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami, some issues of which I discussed earlier this year.
A couple of years ago I visited Sri Lanka for 2 months and totally enjoyed my stay. I spotted no evidence to suggest that explosive religious tensions were in the air. Indeed, the one outstanding memory of the island was just how religiously tolerant most people seemed to be especially in some of the smaller towns and villages, where the temptation to migrate into ethnic ghettoes had been resisted.
In the bigger towns the only visible divide between ethnic groups was only noticeable in some of the shop signs and of course, the location of places of worship such as mosques, temples and churches. Like in the southern city of Galle (pronounced Goll ), where the smart historical fort area, which was once named Surrendip, meaning Serendipity (a happy accident), has been ethnically separated for centuries, with the smartest area, belonging to the Muslim population, centred around a beautiful white mosque.
Towards the end of my stay I explored the high tea plantations and some of the historic archaeological and religious sites centered around and north of Kandy, which was the old highland capital, before the British acquired the Island for their bloating empire. Many of these places are indeed magnificent, not least the incredible fortress of Sigiriya, perched high on a massive chunk of rock. However, one place which stood out as a disappointment, was Dambulla on the road to Sigiriya. Few can deny that the set of caves, which house about 100 different depictions of Buddha with a few Kandian Kings are impressive but I was very surprised just how commercialised the surrounding area was; I hesitate to use the word tacky but even our young Sinhalese driver and guide said “welcome to Buddha-land” as we drove through streets thronged with souvenir stalls to a car park set bellow a gigantic Golden Buddha. We bought expensive entry tickets, from an office next to a radio station building, which had banners suggesting we tune into Buddhist Radio and all around were the ubiquitous posters carrying the Cheshire cat smile of President Rajapaksa. There was also a line of what appeared to be life-size plaster or fibreglass monks strung out to the right of the Giant Buddha, which you oddly, half expected to move in some mechanical way.
Our guide warned us that the path to the caves themselves was quite steep and hot, but what I remember most about the climb was the hawkers selling anything related to Buddha from statues, in many different sizes, made of stone, plastic, onyx or something that felt like soap, next to his framed writings, with some texts emblazoned on T’Shirts. His image even appeared on what looked like tea towels sold next to Key rings, which again advertised Buddhist Radio.
I can’t deny that this blatant commercialism and souvenir tat cheapened my experience of the caves. So I find it astonishing that such exception could be taken towards a relatively tame tattoo on a tourist. Perhaps this woman could have simply been told that her tattoo may cause offence and they could then have deported her only in the unlikely event that she refused to cover it up. If the issue was as they claim, really about cheapening the depiction of a religious image, then by my reckoning every other souvenir seller and hawker around Dambulla, could have equally been arrested.
There is no denying that something else is going on, something is shifting in Sri Lanka. But just like most causes raised by politicians the world over under the banner of religion, it actually has very little to do with religion and everything to do with money and power of course. Personally I am usually sceptical about most politicians declared motives and I must further confess that I have always been quite suspicious of most organised religions, mainly because of the violence and wars often spawned in their names, which have directly or indirectly led to the deaths or suffering of billons of people over the centuries. However, until quite recently I had believed that Buddhism offered its followers a much more relaxed and peaceful way of living, that abhorred violence of any kind, with a monks Self-immolation in protest being about as bad as it could get. And yet history tells a very different story of wars waged in the name or Buddhism right up to today, where ethnic violence is perpetrated by monks on a seemingly daily basis in places like Myanmar or as in Sri Lanka, where for decades Buddhist leaders declared the Governments war against the Tamil Tigers a ‘just war.’
Over the past year monks belonging to certain hard-line Buddhist groups like Bodu Bala Sena (BBS who regularly express concerns about the growth of the Muslim economy in Sri Lanka) have led violent attacks against Muslims, Christians and other minorities, a trend seemingly unopposed by the government, which has given rise to considerable concern. It is no secret that Rajapaksa and his entourage have been buying up or appropriating vast tracts of valuable coastline, following new legislation, which they wrote themselves in the wake of the Tsunami. But less obvious are the prime spots being snatched up inland, from tea estates, to those lucrative properties close to historical and religious sites.
Returning to Dambulla to use an example – there is seemingly a battle now being waged against the minority Muslim and Hindu populations, who are trying to avoid being evicted from their homes and businesses, but also to stop the demolition of some Hindu shrines and the town’s only mosque. This is supposedly to make way for Buddhist families and businesses to move in. However, knowing how Rajapaksa operates it is highly unlikely that these militant monks or any local Buddhist will ultimately benefit from this government backed aggression because as we have seen time and time again, the only families and businesses who will ever benefit from such wanton racism in Sri Lanka, will be those related to the President family or his entourage.