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24 Jun, 2013

Muslim, Buddhist Joint Statement: Ex-PATA CEO Lakshman Ratnapala Responds


Dear Imtiaz,

Re your story today, it is well and good for Buddhist and Muslim leaders to pledge shared action. However, going by what you report, they are missing two vital areas that call loudly for action. These being the economic disparities that sow the seeds of conflict and the prejudiced media that fan the flames of conflict.

As we both know, ordinary citizens are not saints and they see the encroachment of their lifelong economic space by others not of their own kind, as an existential threat — much as fascist Hitler saw the Jews in the Germany of his day. Thus, merely preaching by religious leaders will not solve the problem. It needs political vision and political action to address economic issues facing the people on both sides of the conflict. Unfortunately, in your list of signatories to the pledge, I did not see anyone who has the stature or the leadership qualities to understand or remedy the underlying causes of the conflict, except from a spiritual standpoint.

This recalls to my mind that when the first of the Colonial powers, the Portuguese, arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505, one of the first deliberate actions of theirs was not against the local Sinhalese, but against the coastal Muslims who were engaged in the shipping trade with the Gulf nations, thus posing a threat to Portuguese domination of the sea lanes. The Portuguese engaged in what can only be called ethnic cleansing of the Muslims who turned to the Buddhist Sinhalese Kings of Kandy for protection. The King, unable himself to battle the much superior armed Colonialists, thereupon, gave the Muslims sanctuary in the Kandyan Kingdom with land grants by Royal proclamation and enabled them to carry on their traditional occupation of trade with the locals. As a result of this political action, not only were the Muslims saved from annihilation, but there are even today, entirely Muslim populated villages within the Kandyan territories in the Buddhist cultural heartland of Sri Lanka, free to practice their religion, educate their children in their own schools, live, work and play in harmony with the majority community.

Why I relate this story is to drive home the point I made earlier, that it was not preaching that saved the Muslims, but the recognition of economic realities and decisive political action by the King.

The second point that I made is about the role of the media in fanning the flames of hate and conflict. I recognize that the media has to report events. However, ignored by the media is its duty to promote national harmony. Dear Imtiaz, this is something you can do yourself, as a senior media-man, rather than merely report what is wrong, you can also lead the way in doing something to correct the situation. You tend to boast of your visits to places of different religious significance. What is more important is for you to ACT in promoting the goodness you experienced at these holy places. That way, you will liberate yourself from the petty-minded of introverted journalism. As the Buddha said “the greatest of all conquests is the conquest of self”.

All the best and three cheers,

Lakshman Ratnapala