13 April 2013

The ‘Vigil’ that I saw

‘Buddhist Questioning Bodu Bala Sena’
Those who participated or wanted to participate in the candle-light vigil organized by a set of people calling themselves ‘Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena’, those who witnessed what happened or part of what happened, those who saw images and footage, and others who generally comment on issues such as religious tolerance, democracy, human rights etc, will no doubt articulate their respective versions.  This is mine, but to illustrate the point of multiple narrative/interpretation, I will weave into my narrative some narrative comments of a friend.

This person, a Muslim, I have never met.  I have communicated with him for several years though and I would not hesitate to claim that a more patriotic Sri Lankan is hard to find.  In his writings I’ve noticed a humanity that is congruent with the best sentiments on the subject in any religious doctrine.  He is strong in his faith but is respectful of other faiths and has the wisdom to note the commonalities and learn the differences if only to understand his fellow-creatures of different religious persuasion. 
He stated on Facebook, ‘On my way to the vigil’.  It was just after 7.00pm when I left my office.  I was disappointed that I would get late [I was planning to hold a lit candle, which is why I ‘shared’ more than once on Facebook the notice regarding the event].  Just as I left, the person who informed me about the event, a Muslim who knows as much or more about Buddhism as I do called me.  He informed me that the Police had moved in to stop the vigil.  I thought I would go home, but a minute later, another friend called to say, ‘they are arresting people’.  I was upset and a tad angry, and decided I would go there anyway.  Another colleague called and said he had called a mutual friend who was planning to attend the vigil and that she had quickly said ‘they are coming to arrest us’.  I called her and found that those who had turned up for the vigil were not outside the Sambuddhatva Jayanthi Mandiraya (the venue) but opposite the Police Park. I parked my car on Keppetipola Mawatha and ran all the way to where two clearly identifiable groups (event attendees and members/supporters of the Bodu Bala Sena) with half a dozen or more police officers. 

Among those who were opposed to the vigil, I recognized two, a young man who was associated with the Sihala Urumaya way back in 2000 and another young man whom I’ve had on occasion associated with professionally.  I also found out that Dilantha Vithanage, spokesperson for the BBS was also present (he did a lot of talking –with the police, to the cameras and to his political opponents).  There were also several bikkhus who did a lot of talking. They were agitated, but not more and not less than their opposites were agitated. If I were to caricature, I would say the only difference was that the former spoke in Sinhala and the latter in English (I heard the F-word, several times). 
I was more surprised, I must admit, when I took in the ‘attendees’.  I had expected the crowd, even if it was small, to be made up of a majority of Buddhists from all walks of life.  I can’t be blamed for expecting this because this was supposed to be an event organized by ‘Buddhists’.  There must have been Buddhists. Some claimed they were and I have no reason to doubt them.  But there were non-Buddhists in proportions that were a fair distance away from national ratios. There is nothing wrong in non-Buddhists taking part in such a vigil. In fact, even if one counted out legitimate fears of and opposition to the BBS as reason to attend, it is certainly legitimate (and laudable) that non-Buddhists decided to stand with Buddhists on an issue like this. 

I was disappointed that there was little to tell me that the group was made up of people outside of the ‘facebooking’, English-speaking middle and upper-middle class.  I was less disappointed than perturbed when I noticed that in that group there were individuals who have been violently anti-Buddhist and anti-Sinhala, including those who have cheered the LTTE at times or white-washed that outfit as ‘logical’ necessity of being against the party/leadership they did not support in various elections since 2004. There were identifiable NGO activists and others who regularly put their names on political petitions and attend political rallies of a particular political persuasion.  Nothing wrong there, but this is not the picture I expected to see and it is not a picture I would have enjoyed being part of.   
All that mattered, from this point on, was to do what I could (precious little, I know) to stop things from getting worse.  I spoke to the two young men I knew, who were not ‘talkers’.  I said something to the following effect: ‘Look, I recognize that these people (pointing to the event-attendees) have their ideological and political agenda, that some of them are not as innocent as they claim to be. I do recognize that among them are people who knew that organizing this at the Sambuddhatva Jayanthi Mandiraya was provocative and bound to elicit a response (I had believed, when noting the venue, that all necessary sanctions had been obtained), but regardless of all this, they just came to light a candle.  It was not violence.  Tell the haamuduruwo to let it go.  This is not helping anyone.’ 

I was accosted at one point by a person who had come to hold a candle.  I recognized her as a former employee at the Peace Secretariate in the good old CFA days, an individual who has cosy relations with the notorious National Peace Council.  She wanted to know why the Police had stopped a peaceful vigil.  I told her that she should ask that from the Police, but told her also to look around the ‘crowd’. I told her that I believed that it was an event organized deliberately to provoke (even if some or even most of the participants were unaware of the fact or did not or did not want to believe it).  She said, ‘If the Bodu Bala Sena can attack Fashion Bug, what’s wrong with us protesting peacefully outside the Sambuddha Jayanthi Mandiraya?’  The BBS did not attack Fashion Bug, but the BBS did actively incite, true.  What is important here is that she certainly wasn’t there to be a ‘Better Buddhist’, but had a political agenda that had little to do with peace, reconciliation and tolerance.    
In that crowd of people I recognized individuals whom I have never associated with the pernicious politics of the NGO Mafia; decent, good-hearted, law-abiding individuals of different faiths, who were probably as dismayed and agitated by recent developments, individuals who probably shared by antipathies towards the BBS, with whom I would never feel ashamed to stand.  It was my error to assume that they were the people I was planning to stand with.  Just as I will not stand with the BBS, neither will I stand with some of the operators who, in hindsight, orchestrated the whole event.

Several persons had been arrested just before I got there and I later found out that they had been quickly released.  There was no reason to arrest anyone.  I believe that the Police acted in a highhanded manner and although there is relief that they were released, the act of arrest was wrong and is unreservedly condemned. 
My Muslim friend wrote, ‘What's the ugliest thing in uniform? - a biased cop. I saw one today declaring pompously that everyone gathered at the vigil was either Muslim, Catholic or Tamil. My foot ached to give him a well-directed kick in that sweet spot right in the groove!’ I heard that too.  The Police Officer can’t be faulted if he wondered how a ‘Buddhists against BBS’ event had so many non-Buddhists.  It was a sweeping generalization nevertheless and the ethno-religious composition is anyway not relevant to the matter of peaceful, democratic action, even if there was nothing innocent in intent and design.    

He also commented, ‘The BBS goons were screaming NGO kaarayo!’  I heard that too.  Correct description (in part at least), but that does not de-legitimize action.  He also observed, wryly, Police at the scene disallowing peaceful protest. A new one for our democracy.’   It could have got worse, though, not because of him and others like him, but because ‘making it worse’ would have suited a lot of people. On both sides.  A point I made to one of the Police Officers. 
He may have not heard this, but someone referred to the anti-BBS ‘Buddhists’ as ‘Nightclub Buddhists’. Strange juxtaposition and descriptive, yes, but it also raised questions of social status, class, lifestyle etc.  A Buddhist is a Buddhist, whether he/she wears white or black, a sil redda or jeans, but clothes mark and they mark well.  This was no Buddhist Cross-section, that much was apparent to me.

Then he said, ‘Never felt so much about a cause. Never participated in something like this. Outrage of decent people was vented against those who were trying to demonize and degrade their religion.’  I identify with the cause. I do not agree with the description of those he stood with, though.  
There were good people there. There were people who were angry.  There were people talking past each other. There were people who refused to see the make-up of who they stood with.  I came to stand with a certain group against the BBS.  Had I come earlier, I am pretty sure I would not have lit a candle, because people make the cause and that too is something I take into account.  I would have gone away. 

As it turned out, I got there late and stayed until the two groups went their separate ways. I didn’t see and hear everything, but I’ve reported what I did see and hear and have shared my observations.  That’s all. 
My Muslim friend concluded, ‘One unused candle: for another day and another time.’  That is the saddest and yet most empowering line I heard tonight. 


Unknown said...

If it is the right thing to do, does it make a difference who does it, and whether or not they have done the right thing in the past?

Unknown said...

If it is the right thing to do, does it matter who does it, and whether or not they have done the right thing in the past?

Ritigala Jayasena said...

Here is Malinda Seneviratne, speaking for the "Buddhists questioning, Buddhists questioning BBS"

මේ අධිෂ්ටාන පූජාව යට තිබුන "දේශපාලන ඇජෙන්ඩාව" මලින්ද හරි අපූරුවට මතු කරගෙන තියෙනවා. අර මලින්දගේ මුස්ලිම් යාලුවත් මේ විවරණයට හරිම අදාලයි.

මුස්ලිම් ව්‍යාපාර වලට ගල් ගැසීමේ පූජාවල් ඇතුලෙ තිබුන "සියුම්" දේශපාලන ඇජෙන්ඩාවත් මේ විදිහටම සියුම්ව විවරණය කරන්න ඇති කියල මම හිතනවා. මෙම මලින්ද ගේ ඒ ලිපි කියවලා නෑ තාම.

කොහොමද මලින්දගෙ ටිකිරි මොලේ.

It is time for Malinda and the co to start a facebook page "Buddhists questioning, Buddhists questioning BBS" or "Buddhists questioning squared, BBS"

Malinda Words said...

@Unknown: not wrong to protest. but when things have a POLITICAL color, the politically alert will make POLITICAL CHOICES. I would hold a candle if it was all about peace and dhamma etc., but this was not about that. THAT was just cover and a lot of people were suckered in.

@ Ritigala Jayasena: kiyavala naththam ithin mole tikiri kama hithaaganna puluwan. ;)

Anonymous said...

So did you see it or miss it? Am confused.

Anonymous said...

I've never heard so much backhanded cack being flung in one article in my life.

srinath said...

if we forget about 'who was representing the demonstration' (whether it was true buddhists or ngo or what not)... we can conclude from this event that - if it is a demonstration which is not in line with the government ... then forget about it. hmmm... this was something so innocent and was not even allowed to start.. and not even against BBS or anyone :S

Ritigala Jayasena said...

Oh, the unbiased reporter ha! Your report is already shared in facebook by the racists such as Dilanthe Withanage. Well, I think Malinda Seneviratne knows his *report* can be and will be used by racists like Dilanthe Withanage in the exact same manner it is used on his facebook wall bow. Here you are is bending over backwards to be "unbiased" knowing very well how your so called unbiased report will be used.

Unknown said...

Malinda,. i had a very high opinion of you as a journalist who give right perspective of a story.. I attended the vigil as a tamil who was victim of 83' riots, which had spiraling negative effects in my life.. i came there to voice out my opinion, as a citizen of SL and support my brothers.. there is no difference between you and dilantha who has his hidden agenda , of materialistic gains and power..you are no different to him.. such a shame..

Peter Solomon

Michael Mendis said...

Just to add to what "Unknown" said, does it matter who did what and why, if all they did was light a candle and CHANT BUDDHIST PRINCIPLES? The purported "slogans", as they were, were only direct translations of Buddhist teachings. So the vigil, consisting of whoever, with whatever ulterior motive, were only there questioning the BBS against the very faith/philosophy they were professing to protect. Even if, for the sake of the argument, a former LTTE-cadre were standing there in the vigil, participating, how does her presence detract from the purpose and the mode of the vigil? Did anyone call for a banning of the BBS? A resumption of the Halal certificate? An ICC inquiry into the alleged war crimes? Those would be political slogans, bearing criticism based on subjective opinion. But reminding Buddhist monks of the very precepts (not interpretations of those precepts, mind you, but the precepts themselves) that their Lord wished them to live by and conduct themselves under, is NOT a political slogan. That discourse was not allowed yesterday — with the BBS calling us 'nightclub Buddhists' and 'NGO kaarayo'. AND with you publishing this piece.

anon 2 said...

cack-handed. As in left-handed or clumsy. Yes.
cackle. As in shrill noise made by a hen. Yes. BUT...
'back-handed cack' NO.

Channa said...

...aah the nightclub buddhists!
They seek 'Access' to procure own agenda.. how sweet!

The policemen should have asked those 'Vigil Buddhists' to chant the first few lines "Sabba paapassa akararanam.." else is there any better way to ascertain knowledge from pretence?

"Dhammo Hawe Rakkhathi" on every policeman's badge ... does that make every policeman clever or buddhist?

Probably the police force is a nightclub too for those who seek a rear entrance to disturb the Bo-tree.

Thanks Malinda, the candle you lit gives more light than a token of protest.

Anonymous said...

'Right is right even is nobody is doing it and wrong is wrong even if everybody is doing it'
Who are we to judge?!
Why can't a person who has wronged in the past,engage in something he believes is right?

John Silva said...

Wow, finally landed on this blog, since a friend of mine always keep quoting the blog. Now I realize the root of rubbish rhetoric.

Micro Dreams said...

Malinda.. Dr. Dayan has replied to you.. did you see


Malinda Words said...

this space is for you to rant to your heart's content. ritigala jayasena...you are presumptuous. there was 'innocence' in that crowd. there were lack of innocence too. there were people who were hoodwinked into coming. there were people who were piggybacking on innocence. if you don't want to recognise this, that's your problem. but you do politics with ignorance and you are not going to reap much. sorry.

Insidious said...

i don't go to temple because seeing an ever increasing concrete hodgepodge of structures in a place of tranquility and the fancy vehicles belonging to the temple saddens me.

I don't blame the priests as they too are Human and thanha effects us all.

I am a night club Buddhist! I go to night clubs... i like to go to night clubs. listen to some music, have a drink or two and meet friends. but does that make me a bad person?

does make those who attacked a peaceful gathering better people than I am?

are those who lie, cheat, do the dirty work of others and pretend to be something they are not and create division better than me?

Do i Shepard a flock of uneducated sheep to slaughter for whatever my personal gain?

But then again I have a drink, I go to nightclubs I speak English. that is probably why I feel that harming others and persecution of those who don't have the polarity as myself is bad.

must be because I am a night club Buddhist.

Buy the rogues in Saffron a new prado but do not help the priest who goes on pindapatha.

Donate to the temple that wants to spend 200 million to build a 4 story grotesque set of minarets in the form of stupas. but never to the temple that is building houses for the poor.

for in this land it will make you a true follower of.....Buddhism?

To each his own. to walk a path of moderation and practice ones own beliefs without causing harm to others is what I learnt out of Buddhism.

the question is not whether you can parrot out "Sabba paapassa akararanam.." or draw a fish in the sand.... are you living within a doctrine of compassion and moderation? have you asked yourself that?

But think a minute, what if, maybe just maybe if we stop hating those who have different faiths, ideologies, colour, wealth and education we might all be Good buddhist.

maybe we could find unity against the hatred, the miss-education, corruption and lawlessness that is a bigger issue

may the light be with you all!