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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 110


By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“The puzzle remains: Why do we succumb so readily to appeals based on the irrational forms of identity—ethnic, racial, religious—rather than to appeals based on the rational forms— economic above all? Or, to put it in dramatic terms: Why do identity politics so often rest on hatreds that do as much damage to the aggressors as to their victims?” Alan Ryan (Cosmopolitans – The New York Review of Books - 22. 6.2006)

The Third Peace Process was premised on a delusional expectation – the willingness of the Tigers to change from a terrorist-fascist organisation to a democratic, law-biding entity. This Maya was a major factor behind the ceaseless willingness displayed by the Wickremesinghe administration and the Norwegians to indulge the Tigers. Given the unbridgeable chasm between this mirage and the reality, appeasement encouraged rather than discouraged the Tigers to kill, abduct, conscript, extort and torture. The LTTE too was labouring under a delusional expectation – that they could break all the rules in the book with impunity, indefinitely. This too was a Maya; the LTTE had to pay a heavy price for its crimes, in the form of decreased Tamil support and lost international legitimacy. That many a Western country which warmly welcomed the LTTE as the representative of a de facto state is now hounding its operatives as members of a proscribed terrorist outfit symbolises the Tiger’s fall from grace.

We mistakenly thought/think that this international isolation of the Tigers was caused by and reflect uncritical and unconditional support for us in world’s capitals. We too believe/d that the world will back us in whatever we do, so long as it can be depicted as part of the global war against Terrorism. That belief too was a Maya. Today we are facing unprecedented international isolation, because, like Ranil Wickremesinghe and the LTTE, we too act/ed on the basis of unrealistic assumptions and delusional expectations.

That fatal error we made in our dealings with the outside world must not be repeated in our dealings with the non-Sinhala people of the East. Sadly and worryingly, the signs are that such an error is already in the making.

The JHU and the Muslims

In a recent statement to the Asian Tribune, the Bishop of Batticaloa-Trincomalee Dr. Kingsley Swamipillai highlighted the importance of resettling the internally displaced people and providing them with the essentials before embarking on mega development projects. It was a timely warning, not least because the money needed for such mega projects is unlikely to be forthcoming from international donors, so long as a section of the Eastern people languishes in refugee camps. Such a situation would be ideal for the Tigers as well; if liberation has brought no tangible benefits to the Tamils, if instead they have lost their homes and lands, Tiger propaganda will fall on fertile soil.

There is another, and in the longer term more explosive, danger in the offing – the mishandling of Eastern Muslims. Mishandling the Muslims was one of the most self-destructive mistakes of the LTTE, a mistake that was both inevitable and irredeemable because it sprung from the very being of the Tiger. For the LTTE, given its ethno-fascism, any Muslim is an enemy, simply by being a Muslim (jut as for the Nazis, any Jew was an enemy, simply by being a Jew). Evidence becomes unnecessary as guilt is axiomatic. For example, the LTTE and its apologists still claim that Jaffna Muslims had to be expelled because – as Muslims - they were potential security threats (like the lodge-dwelling Tamils in Colombo). Ironically if the Tigers did not subscribe to such an exclusivist ideology, the East may have easily become theirs, for keeps. Apart from the Karuna factor, their inability to win over Eastern Muslims was one of the main reasons why the Tigers lost the East.

There are ominous signs that in our own dealings with Eastern Muslims we are about to repeat the LTTE’s mistake. The Sinhala supremacist tone and tenor of some official government activities have already caused a sense of misgiving and insecurity amongst Eastern Muslims. The wise policy would be to take immediate steps to reassure this vitally important community that the regime is not trying to implement a hidden agenda to bring the East under majoritarian dominance. The opposite is happening. According to media reports JHU Minister Champika Ranawaka is planning to forcibly evict a group of Muslims from Digavapiya temple lands in October: “We are going to take firm action against these Muslims who have forcefully acquired land and have begun to cultivate in these areas…. Legal action will be filed against them and we will not be giving them alternative land or a place to live because they already have a place of their own….” (The Bottom Line – 24.8.2007).

If there is a problem of encroachment on either the Digavapi temple or Forest Department land, it can be handled in a non-hostile manner. Encroachment is a common problem in Sri Lanka and there is no need to give this particular incident an ethno-religious hue or to depict it as a threat to Buddhism. The JHU is now a member of the administration as are all the major Muslims parties. Surely it is possible to settle this matter amicably, in consultation and cooperation with each other, without creating bad blood between the Sinhala and Muslim communities in the East? Given the tenuous security situation in the East, such circumspection and caution are incumbent upon any responsible minister. Unfortunately the JHU minister does not seem to have made any effort at damage-containment. On the contrary, it looks as if he wants to present himself as the saviour of Eastern Buddhists, willing and able to put the Eastern Muslims in place by taking a tough line with them.

This is not the first time the JHU acted in a manner deleterious to ethno-religious harmony in the East. It was widely believed that JHU inspired/supported groups were behind the Buddha statue issue as well as the churlish decision to organise a hartal just in time for Thaipongal in January 2006. In the South too, encouraging ethno-religious turbulence seems the JHU’s favoured method of winning support. Perhaps this is because its remarkable performance at the last parliamentary election resulted from its ability to harness the wave of anti-Christian hysteria that swept the South, in the aftermath of the demise of Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thero. The JHU tried a repeat performance on the Thero’s first death anniversary by organising a protest campaign against a musical show by some Indian artistes – evidence of its preference for greater disorder under heavens.

The JHU’s desperation is understandable. At the next election its performance – fortunately – is bound to be abysmal. The party is crisis ridden and dogged by scandal. It needs an issue which will make some Sinhala Buddhists loose their heads and vote irrationally. How else can the JHU save itself from electoral oblivion? Given this survival need, the JHU is unlikely to be concerned about the damage it is doing to the well being and international image of Sri Lanka, with its irrational extremism. However, as the JHU is a member of the Rajapakse administration, its intemperate conduct cannot but rebound on the regime and the country. It should be obvious even to the intelligent Sinhala supremacists that this is not the time to saddle Sri Lanka with an anti-Muslim label.

The Extremist Bane

Martha Nussbaum in her book ‘The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future’ focuses on the religious extremism of the BJP, its commitment to a culturally homogenous Hindu nation-state and its willingness to use violence in furtherance of this aim. There are two political entities in Sri Lanka which aim to become the sole representative of their ‘chosen people’ – chosen on the basis of a primordial identity, either ethnicity or religion. And like all political movements based on an ideology of hatred towards the ethno/religious ‘other,’ their ideal is a land which is pure, a land which is the exclusive preserve of their own ethnic or religious community. Despite their very real differences, the LTTE and the JHU are alike in their retrogressive nature, in their irrational worldview which amounts to a denial of the values and ideas of Enlightenment which most liberation movements of the post-1789 period adopted. They both subscribe to an ideology based on the notion of ‘Volk’, which in a pluralist country cannot but exclude a segment of the populace and lead to violent upheavals.

In 1956 the SLFP put itself forward not as the champion of the poor but as the champion of the Sinhalese. Its appeal was not class-based but was premised on language/ethnicity – and to a lesser extent religion. The Pancha Maha Balavegaya was clearly a Sinhala/Sinhala-Buddhist bloc. Poverty was a factor only if it could be interpreted as a result of anti-Sinhala exploitative activities of the rich and greedy minorities (according to this worldview all Sinhalese were poor and all minorities were rich). The SLFP’s populism was of the backward looking, reactionary variety, part majoritarian supremacist, part feudal socialist, anti-modern and anti-pluralist. Consequently the 1956 Revolution did not succeed in bringing hitherto marginalised segments of society into the democratic mainstream. In 1956 voter turnout was 5% lower than in 1952 (1952-74%; 1956-69%); it was also the lowest turnout in a national election held under conditions of normalcy. What it did was to radically transform the character of democratic mainstream – from a pluralistic one to a mono-ethnic one. This is best evidenced by the fact that within ten years of that ‘revolution’ all Southern parties – including the old left – had become strident backers of Sinhala Only and opposed to any concessions to minority Tamils. It took three decades, thousands of deaths and foreign intervention for Tamil to gain equal status with Sinhala as a national language.

Today we are being ruled by the ‘Children of 1956’. While Mahinda Rajapakse and the JVP are competing to dominate this space, the JHU is striving to alter it further and make religion an equal partner with ethnicity in deciding the nature of the nation-state. As the nation-state becomes Sinhala-Buddhist, the threat to it must, by definition, come not only from the ethnic but also the religious ‘other/s’. The enemy can no longer be just separatism or the Tigers or federalism or even Tamils; it must also be Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, conversion and cosmopolitanism. What the Fathers of 1956 did to inter-ethnic relations, the JHU is trying to do to inter-religious relations.

The manner in which it is approaching the question of Muslims settlements/encroachments of Digavapi land is but a logical part of this agenda. Electoral considerations apart, perhaps the JHU really think this is the way to save Sri Lanka. And to believe that the unchangeably pluralist Sri Lanka can be saved from division and dissolution via a policy of majoritarian supremacism is the biggest – and the most implosive - Maya of all.

Post Script

Irresponsibility and senselessness seem hallmarks of this administration. Take the Iqbal Athas case. After Mr. Athas exposed the MIG deal, not only did the government remove his security; it also engineered a demonstration outside his house -led by a SLFP provincial minister - demanding that he ceases revealing ‘sensitive military information’! This incident is being justly condemned, nationally and internationally, as an attempt by an intolerant regime to intimidate critics and whistle-blowers into silence. It is inconceivable that the government cannot comprehend the damage it is doing to its own image and prospects by such puerile acts – and at a time it badly needs to improve its reputation internationally. Can any administration, any leader be so purblind?

Perhaps - how else can one explain the decision to increase the price of cooking gas by Rs. 213/- in one go?

- Asian Tribune -

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