Colombo, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation, Religion and faith

A Tale of Two Countries


Image from Niti Central

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way….”

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Over the past year, one can be forgiven if one thought that in fact that there were two countries called Sri Lanka or at least two visions for a country called Sri Lanka.  Both have seemingly emerged out of the shadows of the end of the bloody 26 year old conflict when Sri Lanka faced a cross roads in terms of moving forward cleansed of the past and with a chance to develop a common vision shared by all towards collective nation building and prosperity.  One version of that vision for the country has emerged of a nation struggling to rebuild, reconstruct and reconcile.  It is one where economic and infrastructure development whilst not being matched by good governance or the creation of a secure environment of equity and social justice, still provides some hope for what might come.  The second version of the vision for the country is one of extreme nationalism and ethnic and religious hatred; being pushed forward by a small minority speaking on behalf of the majority Sinhala Buddhist who are intent on propagating the spirit of separatism, oblivious to the disastrous consequences from the past and for the future. With the lens of the latter vision,  Sri Lanka is seen through a singular lens of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ attitude which perpetuates deeply delusive and divisive assumptions of single exclusive identities by these sectarian activists, who want people to ignore all affiliation and loyalties in support of one specific ‘religious’ identity. Such exclusive identities stress difference rather than belonging and ‘opposition to’ rather than ‘support for’ a Sri Lanka that follows the first vision. The result is that these conflicts manifest themselves into rumour, hearsay and generalization which are the first steps towards the stereotyping of people (their faith, their culture and identity) and the denial of a diverse, lived reality, the opposite of respect, understanding and acceptance. It thus describes a vision where hope begins to fade for the country to move forward.  As a result, the gap between these two visions for Sri Lanka seems as stark and vivid as Dicken’s account of two capitals in his Tale of Two Cities.

The rising anti Muslim rhetoric over the last 4 years, led by Buddhist monks, is symptomatic of the second vision and have involved public meetings, the distribution of pamphlets and articles in mainstream Sinhala and English papers which have ‘borrowed’ rhetoric being used globally to demonise and stereotype Muslims (especially by Islamophobes in the west).  It is an irony that the same anti Muslim movement are as dismissive of the west as they are of the Muslim community but use rhetoric available from the west to justify their stances,  oblivious to the lived experience of Sri Lankan Muslim society and the context in which the rhetoric is being used in the west.  The Dambulla Mosque incident of April 2012 and the recent proclamation of the halal boycott are aimed at hitting the Muslim community in areas that aim to ‘decrease’ their visibility and thereby the ‘threat’ to Sinhala identity and ultimately Sri Lanka (in the eyes of the protagonists).  This is in line with many of the right wing racist and conservative movements in the US, UK and Europe such as Geert Wilders (from the Netherlands) or Pamela Geller (from the US) who are intent on limiting the presence of migrants and especially Muslim migrants.

These types of views in Sri Lanka would be laughable in this day and age, given the fact that those targeting Muslims in the west use the issue of immigration to stop their communities becoming heterogeneous (in culture and colour) whilst in Sri Lanka, we are talking about people from the same country, if the potential consequences were not so tragic and dangerous.  The views are not only factually wrong but employ a level of ignorance, naivety and immaturity with respect not only to international relations but also actually to history.  By perpetuating these anti Muslim sentiments, there is also a sense of ingratitude to the fact that large parts of the Muslim world (and domestically the Muslim community) have been supportive of Sri Lanka in many international fora and during the times of the conflict and continue to do so despite the international pressure and scrutiny. However future support from such countries could be questionable given the sentiments being expressed in the country.

By 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 with Sinhala 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) but they are second-class serfs (untouchables) who should thank the benevolent majority for being given the chance to live there.  In so doing, these organisations have completely rewritten the rich history of a country whose mosaic is made up of different ethnicities, faith and culture. 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 doesn’t 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, tranquillity and tolerance of others.  Declaring Sri Lanka Buddhist doesn’t preclude it from having minorities of other faiths and ethnicities coexisting with equal rights.

As a country under scrutiny for its treatment of minorities, these actions provide ample fodder for those anxious to paint the incident as one more infraction of an increasingly intolerant country.  The forces that have been anti Sri Lanka have wasted no time in rejoicing in the public relations victory that had been handed to them by this stupid and mindless ignorant group, made even worse by the muddled responses emanating from the Government.

However for me what has been even more disappointing has been not only the deafening silence of many prominent  Sinhalese activists, a large number of them friends, but the actual support for some of these  statements and actions by a lot of educated people worldwide. I have been especially disappointed that those who vociferously campaign in the interests of the country’s unity have been so far quiet as this rhetoric threatens to set off events that could lead to another July ’83, and even more inter ethnic conflicts.  It is the tragedy as Martin Luther King said, ‘that it is not the bad people are very loud but the good people are very quiet’.  For too long, incidents across history in Sri Lanka have happened because a lot of good people were very quiet and this has condemned the country to the state that it is in today.  If we want a semblance of the first vision for the country, as outlined above, this can no longer be the case.

I say this as a Muslim and a person with a shared Sri Lankan heritage – if we want to cohesively move forward, we must be prepared to condemn those unjust acts perpetrated by our co-religionists or from the same ethnic background supposedly in our name.  As a Muslim, I am continuously challenged on this for incidents my co-religionists have done globally.  I choose to do that not because I am solely a Muslim, but because it is about speaking out against injustice and oppression and being a voice for the voiceless no matter who they are.  Hence we do not and should not respond because we are Sinhalese or because someone has said something in favour of Tamils or we are Muslim.  We respond because we are Sri Lankan and we believe in justice and equality even if it is against our own community and society.  This is the sign of a mature and intellectual community.  This is also the sign of a society that has learnt from past mistakes where silence has meant complicity for what the country has suffered in its entirety.

So where do we go from here?  What are the possible lessons we can derive from the past that can help us out of this abyss we as a nation are staring into?

Firstly, the rise of such rhetoric is a wakeup call to those who are engaging in reconciliation work in Sri Lanka that a lot more needs to be done at the grass roots level.  It is fine to talk about political solutions but if people at the grass roots still do not trust each other or even know each other, then political solutions will just be a band-aid to a deep burn.  The vitriolic rhetoric that has been bombarded around 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.  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 the civil society and in particular the religious leaders should be playing  in order to bring out about reconciliation that rebuilds trust though 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 community levels with community organisations, leaders and intellectuals.  It is not just the sole responsibility of the political establishment but of everyone interested in this endeavour. Rebuilding trust is about honouring unity and celebrating diversity, working towards 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.

Secondly solutions are needed for the restitution of a fractured polity which involves a healthy acceptance of the minorities. Dayan Jayatilleka goes further in saying that the minorities (like the Muslims, Tamils, Hindus, Christians) are the bridges between the Sinhalese and the outside world “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!”.  Hence there must be legal and constitutional structures that not only guarantee equal rights for citizens and freedom of religion but legislates against incitement for racial and religious hatred and discrimination.  No one argues about removing the privileged place of Buddhism in the country or doing away with rights of the majority, but it is expected that the spirit of Buddhism has to ensure a tolerance and respect for the other with legal safeguards in place to enforce this.

Sri Lanka is now staring into an abyss of uncertainty with bitter interethnic rivalries fanned by divisive politics. It is in the choices that are made and actions that are taken that will determine whether its inhabitants will be able to live in peace and harmony.  Transparency, accountability and social justice are the pillars of a mature democratic society.  Sri Lanka’s journey is still very early in trying to achieve this, but nevertheless it has started. The rise in anti Muslim hatred is not helpful in this journey as it sets the country back decades.

Constitutional amendments and projected development though are not enough to make hearts to forget or forgive. It needs a platform for genuine and objective discussion in the hope of moving forward towards achieving reconciliation and a new direction for the country.  This has to start at the grass roots and involve all aspects of society.  Reconciliation has to ultimately work through the hearts of individuals who harbour pains from the long years of their inability to meet basic human aspirations or from loss of loved ones and properties as they became innocent victims of calculated and indiscriminate violent attacks between fighting forces.

We are twenty years on from those horrible riots that sent the country down a treacherous path because it is exactly the same scenario where toxic Anti Tamil propaganda was pumped out in the years preceding the final riots of July ’83.  Lessons should be taken from history.   However it is obvious as Georg Wilhelm Hegh said “what experience and history teach is this – that people and governments never have learnt anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it.”  If we want to aspire to the first vision for the country (as articulated above), then the challenge for us 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 hated, intolerance and violence that can only destroy the country and not unite it.