The Sri Lankan government’s approval of what it calls ‘integrated super-luxury tourist resorts’ has opened up embarrassing contradictions in its stance on religious matters. There has been strong opposition to the project which, it is believed, will mark the entry of big-time gaming enterprises into the country. The planned resorts have already attracted $1.3 billion from foreign investors, including Australian casino tycoon James Packer.
Parliament recently passed regulations relating to lavish tax concessions for these ventures. Many members of the ruling coalition, including some cabinet ministers, absented themselves during the vote; the issue is seen to have signalled the first revolt of any significance within government ranks.
The respected chief monks of the country’s three Buddhist chapters wrote to President Mahinda Rajapaksa asking for amendments to the regulations, expressing concerns about the erosion of religious and cultural values. They joined other critics warning that besides gambling, this venture will open the doors to other social ills, such as prostitution, which is illegal in Sri Lanka. Smaller casinos currently operate in the country, but their legal status is ambiguous.
In the face of strong protests, the government now says casinos will not be allowed in the newly approved resorts, although the website of Packer’s local company Crown Sri Lanka still advertises ‘world-class gaming facilities’. Sri Lanka’s tourism authorities use the country’s Buddhist heritage as part of its appeal to international visitors; Buddhism even has a special place in the constitution. But recent events have exposed hypocrisy in the government’s stance, both on religion and on tourism.
Last week, a British tourist was arrested and deported for the ‘offence’ of having the image of the Buddha tattooed on her arm. According to reports, she was harassed by the police, who solicited bribes, then brought before a magistrate who ordered her deportation without explaining the charges against her. Naomi Coleman described her experience to the media as ‘hellish’. Those who arrested her and ordered her deportation seem to have been unmoved by her statement that she was a practising Buddhist; she had visited Sri Lanka before, as well as Thailand and Cambodia, to attend meditation retreats.
Police spokesperson Ajith Rohana told the BBC that Coleman was convicted under a law which forbids ‘deliberately and maliciously outraging the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’. Yet Naomi Coleman’s arrest and deportation took place at a time when other people were behaving in ways that far better fit the description of ‘deliberately and maliciously outraging the religious feelings’ of a certain class by ‘insulting its religion’.
Members of an extremist Buddhist nationalist group called the Bodu Bala Sena (‘Buddhist army’, BBS) publicly abused and intimidated a monk whom they accused of being pro-Muslim, disrupting a press conference held by him at a hotel. The police did not intervene to restore order. The organization’s saffron-robed members also stormed a government ministry building, alleging that the monk was hiding there. The insulting language and gestures used by the BBS – directed mostly at Muslim and Christian minorities – have been recorded on camera and broadcast on public television. Yet it would appear that none of this qualifies as ‘deliberately and maliciously outraging religious feelings’ of others.
While it is true that the use of religious motifs for decorative purposes could offend some locals, the reaction of Sri Lankan authorities in the case of Naomi Coleman had more to do with a bid to extract a bribe than anything to do with moral outrage over her Buddha tattoo. ‘It is this state of lawlessness that should alarm everyone,’ said the Asian Human Rights Commission in a statement. Realizing the potential fallout of the episode, tourism authorities sought to make amends by buying her a business-class air ticket home and offering her a free holiday if she wished to return. The magistrate’s deportation order, however, remained in effect.