Sri Lanka needs a platform for genuine and objective discussion in the hope of moving forward and achieving reconciliation.
In Sri Lanka, the start of February was about celebration for the past 70 years of independence, but its end was about reflective contemplation over an uncertain future. Following a wave of anti-Muslim violence in the central district of Kandy, a nationwide state of emergency was declared on March 6 — and lifted on March 18 — the first time in seven years in a country with a history of civil war.
Amidst a curfew enforced in the central province, mobs comprising disaffected youth from the majority Sinhala community — often led by Buddhist monks and individuals linked to ultra-nationalist Sinhalese groups — attacked and destroyed premises belonging to the minority Muslim community. Businesses, homes and mosques were torched and looted.
The attacks were in apparent retaliation for the death of a Sinhalese driver after an altercation with drunken Muslim youth. Yet this was not a simple rise in anger symbolizing grassroots tensions between two communities. It was organized mob violence with a plan and strategy to target Sri Lankan Muslims, united on social media and fed with local intelligence about where they lived.
To some extent, the violence was not entirely unexpected. For many of us who have been working on post-conflict reconciliation in Sri Lanka and kept an eye on community relations, for a number of years there has been a feeling that although relative “calm” had descended on the island at the end of the decades-long civil war in 2009, this was just surface-led. It was inevitable that some sort of communal violence would return. After all, the conflict indicators showed that Sri Lanka faced trouble every 10 years after independence.
Behind the Violence in Kandy
For those of us who were tracking the rise of extreme nationalism and ethnic and religious hatred — being pushed by a small minority speaking on behalf of the majority Sinhala Buddhist community — the latest round of violence is a worrying sign of a link and trend of globalizing hatred and fragility.
Over the last 100 years, there have been at least six incidents of large-scale violence between the Sinhalese and Muslims in Sri Lanka. Today, the time between recent incidents has dropped (the previous flare ups happened within the last four years), and the rhetoric around sectarian violence has mirrored what is coming out of Myanmar with hardline Buddhists and the minority Rohingya.
It is in this light that Sri Lanka is seen through a singular lens of good vs evil, us vs them. This perpetuates deeply delusive and divisive assumptions of exclusive identities by these sectarian actors, who want people to ignore all affiliation and loyalties in support of one “religious” identity.
The violence of February comes on the back of what has been a relentless and sustained campaign of anti-Muslim rhetoric. This has involved public meetings, the distribution of pamphlets and the publishing of articles in mainstream Sinhala and English papers, which have borrowed rhetoric used globally to demonize and stereotype Muslims. In the face of “fake news,” the propagation of myths is wide and wild. For instance, the week preceding the flare up of violence in Kandy, a tense situation erupted in the east where Sinhalese had accused Muslims of serving them food with infertile pills. Such was the seriousness of the claim that the United Nations Population Fund, the World Health Organization, and the Government Medical Officers Association had to issue statements to refute this.
It would be naive to blame the violence just on faith. There are other factors that combine to make this flare up and its causes deep and problematic. The majority misperception is that Sri Lankan Muslims are successful businessmen and, therefore, economic interests mean there is an attempt to squeeze Muslims out of the market. From the halal boycott — a move by a hardline Sinhalese Buddhist group — to the extensive damage and looting that has been inflicted on businesses, it is clear that there was an economic dimension to the violence aimed at hitting the Muslim community.
There is also an attempt to decrease the visibility of Muslims. For hardline Sinhalese, Muslims are seen as a threat to Sinhala identity and ultimately Sri Lanka, which manifests itself in the rhetoric around dress codes — in particular what is deemed as Arab clothes such as the thawb for men or the abaya and niqab for women — and the attacks on mosques.
What is ultimately surprising is not that these actions took place, but the silent complicity of the Sinhala majority. For a lot of us in Sri Lanka who grew up with people from other communities, what has been disconcerting (although there are exceptions to this) has been the silence of condemnation for violent actions by mainstream Sinhalese. This is by no means a generalization as there have been strong statements, including by Buddhist monks, condemning the violence.
However, the disappointment was the reaction of the government, who seemed to have been caught by surprise by the violence and struggled to contain it. Despite a curfew and social media censorship, in the initial phases of the violence the government appeared unable to mobilize law enforcement to act. Though a number of arrests were made and there have been strong statements issued, the Sri Lankan government struggled to ensure that the rule of law and justice had been followed. This perhaps remains the biggest disappointment for many who thought the government change in 2015 would bring about a shift in the narrative of racist, ethno-nationalist politics.
So, what needs to be done?
Clearly there is a lot to be done politically. The present government entered office on the agenda of good governance and equality, and it was largely supported by minority voters, including the Muslim community. There needs to be trust built once again with the government and between the government and Sri Lankan Muslims. In addition, however, there needs to be work done at the grassroots level. There is currently a lot to be done around improving social capital. Hence, a change of narrative and thinking has to be the order of the day on top of any structural alignments toward ensuring that such bouts of violence do not happen again. There also has to be a change of narrative about who Muslims are and where they belong in Sri Lanka.
Diversity in Sri Lanka
By hardline Sinhala Buddhists declaring Sri Lanka as a “Sinhala-only country,” those perpetrating this mindless rhetoric of Sinhala supremacism presuppose the acceptance of Sri Lanka as a land sacred to Buddhism and with Buddhists as its chosen people. According to this vision, minorities, including Sinhala Christians, are not co-owners or even guests (because guests have to be given certain privileges and rights). Rather, they are second-class serfs (untouchables) who should thank the benevolent majority for being given the chance to live there.
In so doing, this completely rewrites the rich history of a country whose mosaic is made up of different ethnicities, faiths and cultures. They have chosen to rewrite a history of the accumulation of unfinished business, the piling up of debts and the stacking up of fortunes and misfortunes. Whilst it is true that Sri Lanka is the only place in which there are Sinhalese and where the Sinhalese language is spoken, this does not equate to ownership of the island solely by one race or another, nor does it speak of the rich inter mingling of all races and faiths that influence much of Sri Lankan culture, food, art and music today. It also does a huge disservice to the Buddhist way of life, which is about peace, tranquility and tolerance of others. Declaring Sri Lanka as Buddhist does not preclude it from having minorities of other faiths and ethnicities coexisting with equal rights.
This change in narrative also has to start from the Muslim community itself. For years, we have claimed that Muslims arrived in Sri Lanka around 1,000 years ago. This simplifies a complex history of Islam coming through trade — mostly by Arabs — and of a rich history of engagement with local people. Islam came to Sri Lanka via traders who interacted with local communities. Thus, there is a mélange of identities, ethnicities and cultures that make up the Muslim community, not the homogeneous identities that both the Muslim community and those outside of it choose to define.
The recent events are also a wake-up call to those who have been engaging in reconciliation work in Sri Lanka. For too long, there was a binary notion from the international community about the decades-long civil war being between two parties: the Sinhalese and the Tamil. Yet the history of the conflict is much more than that. Though not direct parties to the war, Sri Lankan Muslims suffered during the conflict, and it is important to note that for full reconciliation to take place, it needs to be holistic and comprehensive. This means everyone should be considered from all parts of Sri Lanka. Reconciliation is not about north and south.
The violence in Kandy shows that a lot more needs to be done at the grassroots level. It is fine to talk about political solutions, but if people at the grassroots still do not trust or know each other, then political solutions will just be a band-aid to a deep burn. The vitriolic rhetoric that has been spread is testimony to the fact that we need to start once again from scratch in developing a discussion that is not only top-down, but bottom-up too. There needs to be parallel efforts to build trust between people and communities through multi-faith interactions and crossing ethnic divides.
This is the role that civil society and, in particular, religious leaders should be playing in order to bring out about reconciliation. The aim should be to rebuild trust through reducing suspicion and infusing human values, with an understanding of the need to move away from apportioning blame for deceit and destruction. Trust can only be rebuilt when a space is created for effective dialogue and understanding. This space is one that starts at local levels with community organizations, leaders and intellectuals. It is not the sole responsibility of the political establishment, but of everyone interested in this endeavor.
Rebuilding trust is about honoring unity and celebrating diversity, working toward equity and justice, and ensuring the eradication of social prejudices in building a collective identity. We cannot abrogate our individual responsibilities in this task. The simple question to ask ourselves is: How much do we know of and understand our friends/colleagues who come from a different faith and ethnicity? By knowing, understanding and respecting each other’s faith and community, we move from just tolerance to acceptance. These are the first signs of a mature, diverse society and democracy. It is the first part in accepting the social contract of citizenship of a nation.
Solutions are needed for the restitution of a fractured polity, which involves a healthy acceptance of minorities. Hence, there must be legal and constitutional structures that not only guarantee equal rights for citizens and freedom of religion, but also legislates against incitement for racial and religious hatred and discrimination. No one argues about removing the privileged place of Buddhism in Sri Lanka or doing away with rights of the majority. But it is expected that the spirit of Buddhism has to ensure tolerance and respect for others, and with legal safeguards in place to enforce this.
Sri Lanka is at a crossroads of uncertainty, with bitter interethnic rivalries fanned by divisive politics. Constitutional amendments and projected development, however, are not enough to make hearts forgive and forget. Sri Lanka needs a platform for genuine and objective discussion in the hope of moving forward and achieving reconciliation. This has to start at the grassroots and involve all aspects of society. Reconciliation has to ultimately work through the hearts of individuals who harbor pain from the long years of their inability to meet basic human aspirations or from the loss of loved ones and properties as they became innocent victims of calculated and indiscriminate violence between fighting forces.
We are nearly 35 years on from the horrible riots of July 1983 that sent the country down a treacherous path, because it is exactly the same scenario where anti-Tamil propaganda was pumped over in the years. We are also 103 years on from the first Sinhala-Muslim riots and violence that took place in exactly the same place: Kandy. Despite the multiple incidents of anti-Muslim violence that have occurred since 1915 without any such armed reaction from the community, lessons should be taken from history in terms of the ramifications of not addressing the causes of conflict.
If we want to aspire to tackle the root causes of the ethnic and racist rhetoric and violence, then the challenge is to actually learn from what has happened in order to have a county that respects its diversity and is united in its principles and values that are influenced by Buddhism. Otherwise, we condemn future generations to the vicious cycle of hatred, intolerance and violence that will destroy Sri Lanka, not unite it.