Hundreds of Sri Lankan protesters marched towards the Iranian embassy in Colombo calling for the ban on Buddha statues in that country to be rolled back and for the Iranian government to respect religious rights. It is the first demonstration from a predominantly Buddhist state since Iran announced the ban last week. Sri Lanka was ranked the 3rd most religious country in the world by a 2008 Gallup poll, with 99 percent of Sri Lankans saying religion is an important part of their daily life. 70 percent of them subscribe to Buddhist faith.
Protests in Sri Lanka over Iranian ban on Buddha statues
Several monks who headed the organisation Sihala Rawaya joined in the protest. This morning we staged a peaceful march to the Iran embassy. Ours is not a racist organisation but one that has been formed to protect the right of the Sinhalese community. It is to be reminded that during second and third century BC Iran was a prominent Buddhist country so it is very important to our history. But now it has destroyed Buddhist ruins and banned Buddha statues, said Sihala Rawaya chairman Akmeemana Dayaratne Thero.
The organisation also called for the Iranian government to respect the religious rights of thousands of Sri Lankan migrant workers, most of whom are Buddhist residing in Iran. We ask that the Iran government gives Buddhist Sri Lankans the chance to practice their religion and allow people to keep Buddhist statues. If they cannot do so then send those statues to Sri Lanka, he claimed.
Sri Lanka made a similar call in 2001, asking the Talibans to transfer the statues instead of destroying it. The request was rejected. Upset by the destruction, the country proceed to carve out a sculpture of the Buddha in a mountain, designed to closely resemble one of the Buddhas of Bamiyan which the Talibans dynamited.
Last week, the Iranian authorities placed a ban on Buddha statues, prohibiting their sales, display and import in Iran. Authorities confiscated statues and other images of the Buddha from shops “to stop the promotion of Buddhism in the country”. Saeed Jaberi Ansari, an official for the protection of Iran’s cultural heritage, called the Buddha images and symbols a “cultural invasion.”
Iranian embassy officials were seen filming the protest. In Iran, Saeed had rejected media reports alleging that he has called for a ban on the imports and sales of Buddha statues in Iran, saying that his remarks have been “misquoted”. He said his exact speech was that the illegal import of items related non-Iranian cultures, including but not limited to Buddha statutes, should be banned.
Sri Lanka ended its 25-year civil war in 2009 that had caused significant hardships for the population, environment and the economy of the country. Since then, it has been on rapid growth, with GDP expanded by 7.2 percent in 2012 - the best performing economy in South Asia. Last year, the country advanced into middle income status with a GDP per capita of $3,200 - nearly 2 times that of neighboring India.
Iran’s banning of Buddha statues sparked outrage across Buddhist nations
Poverty reduction in Sri Lanka is remarkable. In 2004, 25 percent of the population live under poverty, the rate has fallen to 4.3 percent in 2012. Human Development Index (HDI) and literacy rate are among the highest in the South Asian region. In 2010, the country’s stock market was the best performing in the world - up 96 percent for the year. The country is slowly returning to peace and prosperity, with roads and other infrastructure rebuilt and social development programs are in place to heal and reconcile the people after the war.
Sometimes known as the ‘Singapore of South Asia’, Sri Lanka is situated at the center of the global shipping routes and plays a vital role in international trade linking East and West. The country traditionally rely on agriculture, but has successfully diversified such that agricultural activities now contribute less than 20 percent to the gross domestic product. Analysts however, warned that the country faces inflationary and revenues risks due to limited resources and all essential commodities like oil have to be imported.
Sri Lanka, also known as Ceylon, has a highly successful diaspora population abroad, this was acknowledged by Singapore’s former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who said: “In terms of numbers, the Ceylonese, like the Eurasians, are among the smallest of our various communities. Yet in terms of achievements and contributions to the growth and development of the modern Singapore and Malaysia they have done more than warranted by their numbers.”
Sri Lankan radicals call for abolition of Halal label in the country
Even today, the Sri Lankan diaspora group in Malaysia and Singapore is an upwardly mobile community playing an important role in the economy. One of them is Malaysia’s billionaire Ananda Krishnan, who regularly makes it to Forbes magazine’s billionaire list.
It is however, not all rosy in Sri Lanka. Relationship between the Buddhists and Muslims have been tense. In 2011, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress demanded Islamization of the country. Last year, Buddhist extremists launched attacks against a mosque. At the same time, the Sri Lankan government ordered a mosque relocated after Buddhist monks said the 50-year-old structure had been built illegally in an area sacred to Buddhists.
Few days ago, hardline Sinhalese Buddhist group in Sri Lanka called for Halal boycott and the abolition of the Muslim halal system of certifying foods and other goods. “Any moment, the ethnic riot will start between Sinhalese and Muslims,” said Mujeebur Rahuman of the opposition United National Party.