Sri Lanka:  Incubating, again

Given our history, we have reason to fear not just the violence of the state, but also the counter-violence of non-state actors

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Young girl in the window of her father's Tuk-tuk (traditional taxi) in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. [ Photo: Natalia Davidovich /World Bank]

“…the narrow exclusive, bigoted, simplistic attitude that reduces identity in all its many aspects to one single affiliation, and one that is proclaimed in anger… this is how murderers are made – it’s a recipe for massacre.”

Maalouf Amin (In the Name of Identity – Violence and the need to belong)

            Half a century ago, it was higher education, saving universities from Tamil encroachment. Today it is Buddhist heritage, saving archaeological sites in the North and the East from Tamil encroachment. Tomorrow, another bone of contention would be found, from some nook of the country’s distant past or cranny of its troubled present.

Kurundi could become a Lankan Ayodhya, the locus of a future where yesterday’s ruins will be consecrated by tomorrow’s blood. As the relatively unknown ruin became a bone of contention between visiting monks and area politicians in 2018, the Mullativu court issued an injunction against all new construction until a case filed by a group of local residents is concluded.

Once Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president, the rule of law became replaced again by the law of the rulers. And the construction of a new chaithya on the old ruin began, with the help of the military. Last year, the court issued another injunction against further construction. On July 4th 2023, Mullativu magistrate T Saravanaraja visited the site to determine whether the court order was being observed or not, just as a group of monks and politicians were preparing to carry out a religious ceremony. When the magistrate ordered the ceremony to be stopped, parliamentarian Sarath Weerasekara tried to intervene. The magistrate intervened him pointing out that as this was a judicial proceeding, only lawyers could speak, not parliamentarians or religious leaders or politicians.

A few days later, Mr. Weerasekara, hiding behind the rampart of parliamentary privilege, attacked the magistrate in racial terms – like Donald Trump’s 2016 attack on judge Gonzalo Curiel for his ‘Mexican heritage’. Reading from a prepared speech, parliamentarian Weerasekara said, “We cannot be at all satisfied about the orders and decisions of the magistrate in charge of that area… A few days ago, this Tamil magistrate came to Kurundi viharaya on an observational tour. I was also there… We must remind this magistrate that this is a Buddhist country… Not just separatist Tamil politicians but also magistrates with such attitudes are responsible for creating conflict between races and religions.”

When Donald Trump attacked Judge Curiel, even members of Republican Party protested. Going by the video, no parliamentarian on either side of the aisle objected to Mr. Weerasekara’s objectionable speech. Not a word; just approbatory or opportunistic silence.

To its great credit, the BASL condemned Mr. Weerasekara’s remarks as a “brazen attack on judiciary and the social fabric of this country,” and asked the government and the opposition to “respect and observe the independence of the judiciary,” warning that any interference in the judicial process would set a “dangerous precedent.” While bar associations of Northern and Eastern districts protested, most of their Southern colleagues didn’t.

Given Mr. Weerasekara’s antecedents both in and out of uniform, his incendiary remarks are hardly surprising. What is surprising and worrying is the inadequacy of political or societal reaction to his racist outpouring. That silence is telling. The seeds that birthed Black July continue to gestate in the womb of Lankan society forty years on.

In July 1983, the marauding mobs constituted a minute minority of the population. They wouldn’t have been able to carry on their deadly work day in day out for almost a fortnight without the tacit consent of the broader society in which they lived. Violent minorities can prevail only in the presence of an enabling environment. The enabling environment for Black July was gestated long before fires began in the nurseries of political parties, media, academia, the Sangha, and the larger society.

The rioters believed they were engaged in a just war to save the nation and the people. No one in political, social, or religious authority told them otherwise. Most Sinhalese, while not approving of murder, pillage, and arson (at least in public), still felt that the Tigers had to be taught a lesson one way or another. Though it is hard to believe now, JR Jayewardene government was seen as being soft on Tamils and therefore Tigers. The SLFP led opposition was to the right of the UNP led government on the Tamil issue. Even ‘progressives’ echoed the story that President Jayewardene’s clan name was Thambi Mudiyanselage and he was of Muslim heritage therefore incapable of caring about the poor Sinhalese.

Professor David Runciman commenting on Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience in his Podcast series Past, Present, and Future reiterates that “When the world is being stupid and wicked one has to do whatever possible to stop it. Not to do that is also stupid and wicked.” Black July happened because Sinhalese failed to “whatever possible” to stop it. That failure was both wicked and stupid. The question is, have we learnt nothing from that history?

A Sinhala-Buddhist State for a Sinhala-Buddhist Land

Pogroms don’t happen in a vacuum. Anti-Semitism, which formed the ideological justification of the Holocaust, was birthed and nursed by the Catholic Church and subsequently by various Protestant churches. After all, if The Jew was the Christ-killer would any punishment be too severe for an X Israel or a Y Sara?

It took decades of anti-Tamil hysteria to create the Black July, endless fear-mongering of how ‘they’ were taking ‘our’ land, ‘our’ universities, ‘our’ jobs and ‘our’ country. While racism played a role in the disenfranchisement of Tamil plantation workers, the re-formation of state in a Sinhala-Buddhist image commenced in earnest only in 1956. The debased state we rail against today is the outcome of a conscious process of politicisation in general and racial-religious politicisation in particular by successive governments. DBS Jeyaraj in a recent column relates how the subjugation of the public service by politicians began.

“Osmund de Silva had been serving as the IGP since 1955. There was a wave of strikes in 1959 that plagued the Bandaranaike-led Government. The situation was particularly acute in the Colombo Port sector where leftist-led Trade Unions dominated. An exasperated SWRD Bandaranaike summoned IGP Osmund de Silva and asked him to break up the strike, arrest the trouble-making trade unionists and lock them up. Osmund de Silva refused point blank saying there were no grounds to arrest them unless the Police “cooked up” something and that doing so would be unlawful. The Premier then said he expected extra loyalty from the IGP to which Osmund de Silva replied that his loyalty was first and foremost to the law of the land. An angered Bandaranaike sent Osmund de Silva on compulsory retirement on April 24, 1959. Osmund de Silva… departed proudly after re-iterating to his fellow police officers to always uphold the law and not adopt extra-legal measures at the behest of politicians…

“Osmund was the first Buddhist IGP in Sri Lanka… The next in line to be IGP in terms of seniority was Senior DIG C.C. “Jungle” Dissanayake, who was a Christian. Next to Dissanayake in seniority was DIG Sydney de Zoysa, who was also a Christian… So he (Bandaranaike) brought in an outsider — his friend and civil servant Walter Abeykoon” (Aftermath Of Bandaranaike’s Assassination: INVESTIGATION TO INDICTMENT – Opinion | Daily Mirror). 40 years later, his daughter would appoint a tainted attorney general as the chief justice partly because the senior-most member of the then supreme court was a non-Buddhist, thereby opening moral and institutional doors to a more sustained assault on judicial independence by the Rajapaksas. 

.Today, much handwringing is seen about brain-drain. In reality brain-drain is at least as old as ‘1956 Revolution’ when minority professionals began leaving in search of less discriminatory pastures. One of the major markers in this process of minority alienation was standardisation, the Sinhala-Buddhist solution to the supposed takeover of universities by Tamils. As historian KM de Silva pointed out, this discriminatory approach was applied even to Sinhala and Tamil students who sat for the exam in English i.e. the same medium.

 Qualifying marks in SinhalaQualifying marks in Tamil
Medicine and dentistry229250
Physical science183204
Bio-science175184
Engineering227250
Veterinary science181206
Architecture180194
Arts170187

As historian CR de Silva points out, “In 1974, “Polonnaurwa, Moneragala, and Vavuniya together had eight places in the Faculty of Medicine reserved for them but these areas failed to produce a single qualified candidate to take up these places. In 1975, one student from Polonnaruwa entered the Medical Faculty but the 5 places allotted to Amparai, the 4 given to Moneragala and the 2 kept for Vavuniya were all unfulfilled” (https://dl.nsf.gov.lk/handle/1/5104).

In the end, these measures aimed at enhancing the Sinhala-Buddhist nature of the state undermined Sri Lanka the country and hurt all her people, including the Sinhalese. This truth should be remembered at a time when newly-minted Cyril Mathews are advocating Sinhala-Buddhist justice and Sinhala-Buddhist only judges. So long as Mahawamsa myths (which contradict the Tripitaka) go unchallenged and Sinhala-Buddhists are seen as true owners of Lanka while minority Lankans are categorised as guests here on sufferance, the social soil will be ripe for new manifestations of old and unresolved conflicts.

The Leaders and the People

According to a survey by the CPA in 2022, 59.1% of Lankans and 56.6% of Sinhalese agreed that the crisis has shown the importance of addressing past injustices suffered by ethnic minorities.

Aragalaya presented a rare opportunity to marginalise ethno-religious politics by dislodging it from the centre to the margins. But to realise this potential, it would be necessary to face the wrath of the lunatic fringe, something no political leaders seems willing to do. President Wickremesinghe’s lofty promises of implementing the 13th Amendment in full seem to have fallen by the wayside; the opposition is bending over backwards to appease political monks. Their attitude towards the scourge of caste in Tamil society and institutionalised misogyny in Muslim society is equally timorous and self-serving. As moderates retreat, extremists of every stripe are advancing claiming new territory. The sudden demand for a harsh anti-blasphemy law is a case in point.

Given our history, we have reason to fear not just the violence of the state, but also the counter-violence of non-state actors. The tragic fate of Myanmar points to an even worse disaster that might be germinating.

Myanmar, not so long ago was an inspiration to democrats everywhere. Today it is back in the grip of a vicious military dictatorship. New democratic Myanmar failed to confront majoritatian supremacism. Bermen democracy fighters and the military united against the Rohingya people. The Lady who won a Nobel Prize for her fight for human rights found herself on the same side as monk Ashin Wirathu as she defended the military’s brutal campaign against unarmed civilians.

Extremism though is an unappeasable beast. Myanmar’s democratic leaders bent over backwards to accommodate uniformed and civilian extremists, in vain. In February 2021 the military took over. Now the military is doing to Buddhist Bermen villages what it once did to Muslim Rohingya ones. According to Myanmar Witness, the military has carried out airstrikes in 10 out of 14 of the country’s administrative divisions. The Buddhist Bermen now call the military planes Monsters from the Sky. Meanwhile Wirathu is being honoured by the military with a prestigious national award

Military and monks: the conflation is often seen in the Lankan North and East, claiming land for Sinhala-Buddhism by trying to set up temples in areas without a single Sinhala-Buddhist civilian. Three former military officers including General Jagath Dias, a retired army chief of staff, have gone to court against President Wickremesinghe’s order (sanctioned by the cabinet) to release land around the controversial Kurundi ruins to their previous cultivators.

Bertrand Russell in his essay ‘The Ancestry of Fascism’ highlights the correlation between changes of ‘intellectual temper’ and changes in the ‘tone of politics’: “It is important to remember that political events very frequently take their colour from the speculation of an earlier time” (In Praise of Idleness). Knowingly or not, the likes of Sarath Weerasekara are creating the intellectual temper for a harsher, more unjust future and violent. Their words need to be taken with utmost seriousness as we mark the 40th Anniversary of Black July, for in them are the seeds of another harvest of blood.

Tisaranee Gunasekara

The writer is a senior political commentator in Colombo.

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