Is there the problem of Co-Existence in the Sri Lankan society?

Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images via The Guardian

The sweeping rate of post war changes in Sri Lanka in its sociopolitical and economic domains are so severe that the normalcy that prevailed during the war is being disturbed. Before and during the war the majority community defined the Sri Lankan conflict not as an ethnic conflict but as a conflict born of structural misalignment in the politics and society that marginalized the minority, especially the Tamil community. With the end of the war, the ensuing changes indicate that the prevalent structural misalignments are being strengthened and inscribed on stone to perpetuity marginalizing all minorities to the advantage of the majority. This is evident from the callous disregard shown to the implementation of the LLRC recommendations that attempt to remedy this socio-political and economic anomaly that damages the aspirations of the minority communities and the larger interests of the country. Compounding this is the emergence of the Buddhist extremist groups like Bodu Bala Sena(BBS) and Ravana Balaya(RB) that adds new dimensions to this equation, thus reinforcing the status quo. This challenges the existence of the minority communities especially the Muslims and threatens co-existence. They are of the view that the Muslims must adjust their values, aspirations and ethos to suit the parameters set by them in order to be accepted as a peacefully co-existing community. In other words, they want the Muslims to mutate to fit into their specifications to be accepted or else they would be named, shamed and ostracized as terrorists, separatist and marginalized as a pariah community. This is a new phenomenon in the body politics of Sri Lanka where miniscule groups allied to the power structure playing duplicitously to impose an agenda that damages Buddhist/Muslim cohabitation thereby damaging the long term interests of the country.

The majority Buddhist community do not consider BBS or RB as threats to the long term interests of Buddhism and the country since anti Muslim or anti Tamil agenda driven by Buddhist extremism seemingly do not affect the short term interest of the majority community. Therefore in the immediate and short term they are not concerned and do not feel the emerging conflict damaging Buddhist /Muslim bond. Their majoritarian mindset makes them oblivious of this impending danger. On the other side, Muslims view this as a premeditated plan to put a wedge between Buddhists and Muslims in order to destabilize the whole country so that instability would help perpetuate corrupt power politics, cronyism and despotism in the country.

Compounding this, the Muslim view of the current situation is skewed, as majority of the Muslims believe that this problem is to do with the issues of Co-Existence and all of a sudden the talk of the town is centered on nurturing co-existence. Muslims in this country have lived more than 1200 years and they are the progeny of Arab fathers and Sinhales/ Tamil mothers long before the advent of western colonizers. Muslims are identified as a minority because of their religious and linguistic identity. This identity does not make them alien and they are part and parcel of the Sri Lankan social fabric in all sense. Therefore, judging the present orchestrated threat from a co-existence perspective is a false premise. How did the Muslims and Buddhist live together for more than 12 centuries if there is no co-existence, respect, reciprocation? Pinning current challenges on co-existence makes a mockery of our intellect. The nomenclature of ‘co-existence’ is a western construct and we need to understand its etymology to better use it where relevant.

Etymological Dictionaries define ‘Coexistence’ as “joint existence”. As “peaceful relations between states of different ideologies.” More relevantly as a Cold War term since 1954. The origin of this word Co + existence dates back to the years 1640-50.

The construct, emergence and relevance of this word should be contextually understood etymologically prior to freely using inappropriately leading to confusion giving altogether a different meaning inappropriately.

The western societies were mono ethnic, mono racial and mono religious and prior to the 15th century CE, the Europeans as a society had little contact with the rest of the world as most of the cradles of civilizations were in the east starting from the rivers of Nile, Indus, Euphrates & Tigris, Hwang Ho in China and the Islamic civilization. These civilizations were melting pots of mankind where a variety of people communicated and integrated together building pluralistic societies. Emergence of western civilization was prompted by crusades and piracy that culminated in the industrial revolution and colonialism. Crusades, piracy and colonialism armed by the benefits of the industrial revolution made the Europeans a global power that colonized parts of the non European world from 14th to 19th centuries. This created a situation of the white man dominating the rest of mankind.  It is during this period that the prevailing factors brought people of diverse ideologies subjugated by the west to live together in the same place during the same time but with different ideologies and values coerced by colonialism.  Emergence of the word ‘co-existence’ is synchronous to western colonialism.

In the tail end of western colonialism, the powers that colonized non Europeans became the cradle of civilization and that led the people from colonies to migrate to European capitals for education, employment and cultural assimilation. This especially helped post war Europe to rebuild their nations and to run their factories and farms with labour from the colonies. Non Europeans were used to menial jobs done at cheap wages and poor working conditions and living in ghettoes. Over time these non European labourers got assimilated to the European societies and were considered a threat to the indigenous population due to their diversities of colour, religion, culture and language etc. This became untenable by the western governments since the non European labour force were considered a main contributor to their economic growth at cheap costs. Therefore considering the advantages of cheap labour, the western governments advocated co-existence, pluralism and multi culturalism amongst their citizenry as a strategy to keep their economies stable at cheap cost.

The threat to co-existence in western societies was at grass root level and the European society considered the non Europeans as aliens and marginalized them at every opportunity that they had. Therefore the state in order to maintain peace, harmony and economic stability were forced to make robust laws to enforce co-existence as a strategy.

As opposed to the European experience, Sri Lankan situation is totally different. Sri Lanka does not have issues of co-existence. There is no visible or deliberate grass root level animosity or discrimination by the majority community or majority of the people and as opposed to this, animosity and discrimination is spawned by people in power and their allies like BBs & RB to create issues of co-existence in time to come. So that it will give the political elite a pretext to use racist and communal politics to perpetuate their power at the expense of people.

Taking note of this, the Muslim community must be vigilant not to miss the wood for the trees. They should strengthen the already available bond with the Buddhists and fight false propaganda against Buddhist/Muslim interests and forestall poisoning the minds of the Buddhist and Muslim children to prevent the problem of co-existence being force upon us as Muslims and Buddhists.