ANTI-MUSLIM EXTREMISM & DILEMMAS OF DIVERSITY IN SRI LANKA
Opening presentation at 2nd in Discussion series on Constitutional Reform organized by The Liberal Party)
Having come out of the war, a war which I for one am glad the Sri Lankan State won, Sri Lanka as a State and a society had one of several directions in which it could go. Whilst being happy that the war ended with a certain outcome, we could have asked ourselves why we had the war in the first place. Why thirty years of conflict? What needs to be done to prevent such conflict? To the extent that that question had been asked, it seems to me that the answer –and I do not mean only within the Government but outside in civil society as well– has been that the way to prevent another cycle of conflict is to tighten up, to pre-empt, and to securitize. I am Realist enough to admit that, that in certain areas it is necessary to be more vigilant in security and strategic terms– but the fundamental lesson has not been learned, and that lesson is that we have not been able to formulate, forge, construct, call it what you will, a social contract among the constituent components of our citizenry.
The topic of discussion this evening is “The dilemmas of diversity, reconciliation and post-war nation building”. The term dilemma implies that the matter is not simple. Why is the matter not simple? Because there are certain specificities, certain exceptionalities, that have to be taken into account. One such specificity is that the island of Sri Lanka is indeed the only place in which there are Sinhalese, those who speak the Sinhalese language in any significantly large number. We do talk about better ordered and fairer societies such as Singapore where there are 75% of Chinese but then there are a billion Chinese in China. As far as the Sinhalese are concerned, this island is home and this is the only place they can call home. This is a reality.
What does this mean? Does this mean that the island belongs solely to the Sinhalese? Does it mean that it belongs primarily to the Sinhalese and that everybody else has to put up with being second class citizens, whether it is legally, constitutionally or in actual fact? Is that the nature of the only social contract that can issue from the specificity that I spoke of? I do not think so, not only because it is wrong but also because it won’t work and because it is not desirable.
Much depends on how one views diversity. This is almost a commonplace: the idea that diversity is a resource. The more variegated we are, the richer we are. But this is not an idea that has been propagated successfully among the masses of our people. It is an idea that is been limited to an urban hothouse as it were. But this is an idea that has to be disseminated because the flip side of that, which is the attitude and practice of considering only one’s own ethnic, ethno-lingual or ethno-religious community as the nation, has the same result as inbreeding has in any family. What has been going on is cultural inbreeding and an advocacy or upholding of cultural inbreeding as some form of authenticity or purity. The consequence of this has been cycle upon cycle of conflict issuing from a sense of mutual alienation.
If one is able to recognize that diversity means richness and richness is a resource, then one would look very differently at the matrix or the mosaic that is Sri Lankan society. This is yet to become the preponderant view.
So the war having ended in a victory over separatism, the spirit of separatism still lives –and I do not mean in the form of what Government spokesmen inelegantly call “the LTTE rump”. What I mean is that the spirit of separating ones connectivity from The Other continues. When I came upon the propaganda against the Muslim community in recent years and months, I was reminded about that old joke “it’s déjà vu all over again” because it is exactly the same stuff that was out there before July ‘83. So the comparison is not today with July ‘83, it is with what led to July ’83, it is the run up to July ‘83. I refer to the years from ‘77 to ‘83, a period covered by the Sansoni Commission, the violence of ‘77, ‘79, ‘81 and finally the massive explosion of 1983. The road to July ‘83 was paved, prepared, though perhaps not intended in that form, by anti-Tamil propaganda. At the time, it came from within the Government. You had anti-Tamil propaganda with illustrations being sent out in envelopes with a stamp of the then Minister of Industry, Mr. Cyril Mathew. It is the same kind of toxic waste material that is being put out today against the Muslim community, though not officially, not from within the government. I am not saying that it would have the same result, but it could.
I am particularly worried, anxious, that the current wave of the anti-Muslim propaganda is on population growth rates. Why this makes me worry is that violence in such a context would not be preeminently anti-property but anti-persons, because if the name of the game is numbers, and rates of population growth, and the number of children that the Other has, then any violence is bound to seek to address that particular problem. In other words, the solution would be seen as one of an ethnic cleansing or ethno-religious cleansing.
I am happy just as Rajiva is, that President Rajapaksa did what he did and said what he did on the subject. Then again I also remember that in 1981, not ‘83 but ‘81, President Jayewardene condemned the violence that had taken place in the Hill country. I remember his speech in which he talked of a “crisis of civilization”. This was in ‘81 not in ‘83 but it could not and did not stop the slide to violence. So as John F. Kennedy use to say “Never mind what he says, watch his hands”. It can be said that there are no majority and minorities, but then watch their hands. Is that the way policy is formulated and implemented? Is it really the case that there are no majority and minorities? I am quite unconvinced of this.
I am not going to continue in the vein of a normative sermon of what is wrong or right because I am not the person to tell you that. Why would one listen to my view of what one should do? I will content myself by talking about what is strategically and diplomatically prudent and what is strategically and diplomatically suicidal. There are certain things that should not be done, not only because it is the wrong thing to do, not only because it is morally and ethically abhorrent but because it is also stupidly counter-productive to do. Similarly there are certain things that should be done not only because it is the right thing to do but because it is a strategic imperative.
Deriving from the specificity of the Sinhalese and their situation on the island of Sri Lanka, you can go either way: either an exclusionary solution that imposes itself on others or comprehension that the strategic imperative is to avoid isolation. If you start off by saying that we Sinhalese are just 15 million people and that there is nowhere else where there are such concentrations of Sinhalese, no other country but this, then certain other things have to follow. It has to be recognized that there are 70 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu and another 10 million elsewhere, there are one billion adherents of Islamic faith in the world, and there are two billion Christians around the world. Of course it is not the case that one billion Muslims or 70 million Tamils are going to invade Sri Lanka, but a shift in stance of even 0.1% of those very large numbers out there in the world would make Sri Lanka’s situation and that of the Sinhalese, strategically untenable. This is my contention as a Realist, but this reality is sadly not understood.
Domestically, those who conduct the anti-Islamic propaganda are also those who are opposed to devolution, but they do not seem to understand that if Muslim sentiments were to shift away from the Sinhalese, there would automatically be a shift to a Tamil speaking majority in the Eastern Province. The anti-Muslim elements do not seem to understand that in the diplomatic arena Sri Lanka has always counted on the support of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and that those States constitute a very important factor in many UN and multilateral fora.
Look at the neighborhood. We already have a problematic relationship with India to the extent that it voted against Sri Lanka at the UN HRC in Geneva last year. A drive against the Muslims, perhaps not on the part of the State, but on the part of Sinhala extremists, would hardly contribute positively to our relations with Pakistan, which stood by us consistently during decades of war. I am not sure how intelligent it is to have troubled relations with two of our neighbors. Of course there is also the factor of the revenue that comes in from the Middle East job market.
Even if for pragmatic, strategic reasons, it has to be understood by the State and by society that the anti-Muslim surge is profoundly counterproductive and almost suicidal. It will only lead to further isolation of the country and of the majority Sinhalese. The minorities who are seen by Sinhala extremists as Trojan horses are in fact the bridges between the Sinhalese and the outside world, given that there is no other collectivity or concentration of Sinhalese elsewhere (except in the Diaspora in relatively insignificant numbers). The Muslims, the Tamils, the Hindus, the Catholics, all of these are the points of intersection between the Sinhala Buddhist majority of Sri Lanka and the world outside. They are the bridges and if those bridges are burned the Sinhala heartland will find itself isolated– which ironically, is exactly the situation in which those hostile to Sri Lanka want to place the State and the Sinhalese!
In conclusion, I would like to pose a question: which way can we go? It is not very helpful to see this as a struggle between the bad State and good civil society because the political history of Sri Lanka –certainly post independence – has been one in which elements of civil society have played a far more retrogressive and reactionary role than the State itself, and when the State has taken those positions it has been due to the pronounced and prolonged pressure from the most chauvinist elements within civil society. Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike did not advocate Sinhala only when he founded his party in 1951, nor did he do so when his party contested elections for the first time in 1952. He did so only in 1955 when the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress set up the Buddhist Commission to coincide with the Buddha Jayanthi, and put out a report ostensibly on the rights of the Buddhists but actually made pronouncements on the status of the Sinhalese Buddhists and the Sinhala language.
It is from within civil society that these ideas have sprung and it is also within civil society that the battle will have to be waged– and not only, not simply, against the State, or against a political leadership. This is a battle of ideas, of consciousness, that has to be waged within the State and within civil society. Both State and civil society have to be viewed not as antipodes but as terrains of contestation.
I return once again to the reality of Sri Lanka being the only place on the planet where the Sinhala language is spoken by a large collectivity and where those who consider themselves of Sinhalese ethnicity constitute a majority. That is axiomatic. If so what are the solutions?
One is that of equal rights in every sense, constitutionally and legally. Certainly I am for it because I find it abhorrent that there should be any form of discrimination. What we have today in our constitution, which is something that was introduced in ‘72 and retained by Mr. Jayewardene in the ‘78 Constitution, is structural discrimination, where one language and one religion, in a multilingual and multi-religious social formation, are given a privileged place. Would the populace be ready to level that playing field, to return – or go forward– to what I call Soulbury Plus, that is the Soulbury Constitution with a stronger safeguard against discrimination? I would like to think that it would be the case, but I doubt that it would be so.
If that is not a viable option, then we have the solution of the autonomy at the peripheries. There again, there is the fear of a centrifugal motion where by an autonomous province would or could secede over time.
I was one who was very skeptical about this domino theory, or this theory of an escalation ladder, until recently when the issues of Scotland and Catalan independence in Spain came up, where even within a non-federal system, devolution has over time not stopped separatism but actually fed into demands for a separate independent State. I am not saying that devolution automatically does so, but we have to recognize that there are problems, dangers, legitimate threat perceptions.
If so, then I think what we need is a hybrid or mixed solution where if we cannot guarantee absolute equality of citizenship in the Constitution, we should build in very strong anti-discriminatory legislation. I think it is easier to do that than to say that we are going to remove the privileged place of Buddhism. It is easier to set up institutions which have teeth and which would be a watchdog (hopefully a pit-bull or bulldog) against discrimination. We can also defend notions of provincial autonomy which are centripetal and not centrifugal. One really must have a policy mix. To me, it is the only ethically appropriate and strategically prudent way to go.