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Article
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Politics

The new ultranationalism of Sri Lanka

There is a problem of ethnic persecution in Sri Lanka. The civil war, which began in 1983, was forged by the persecution of Tamil communities, and when the civil war ended in 2010, it was terminated in violent acts that targeted the ethnic Tamil minority. Few people seem to have learnt anything from this war, and this is illustrated by the persecution of minorities that persists today. This persecution zeitgeist arises out of the extreme Sinhala nationalism that is ever present in Sinhala-Buddhist society. Previously, that Sinhala nationalism was preoccupied with the perceived Tamil ‘threat’. The nationalist narrative, however, has evolved such that the Tamil threat is now seen as having been destroyed by the Sinhala military victory. The Sinhala nationalist discourse now requires a new target, and Kaffir-Malay Muslims in Sri Lanka have since become the ultranationalist’s new piñata. Regrettably, modern social media technologies have helped inflame pre-existing Sinhala fanaticism.

This zeitgeist of minority persecution is pervasive in Sri Lanka. Sinhala nationalism is the norm and even moderate Sinhalese accept the general notion that Sinhala culture is the de facto culture of Sri Lanka and that minority cultures, be they Hindu-Tamil, Muslim, or Christian, must find a way to live alongside the Buddhist Sinhala people. There is little appreciation of the idea of mutual tolerance and understanding. More radical Sinhalese, those who typically ascribe to an extreme ultranationalist ideology, go one step further demanding that minority groups be expelled from the country altogether. This narrative of expulsion was prevalent during the Eelam Wars, and it is returning now with the new ‘threat’ of Islam.

Recent events in Sri Lanka have indicated that Muslims are being targeted by Sinhala nationalist groups and supporting institutions such as the government. In January, a large cohort of Islamic missionaries was deported on the basis that they were violating their visa conditions. It is likely that the spreading of Islam helped motivate authorities to get involved. A more insidious example of the targeting of Muslims is the disruption of the peaceful activities of a mosque in Dambulla in central Sri Lanka. The Dambulla mosque was effectively shut down by Sinhala nationalists, who were led by monks, due to loud demonstrations designed to interrupt prayers. Another protest last year similarly ended peaceful religious activities at a mosque in Anuradhapura.

These activities have since spread south to Colombo where, in April, a protest against the Fashion Bug warehouse led to violence. Like with the case of the Dambulla protests, these demonstrations were led by the clergy. As chronicled by Stanley Tambiah during the 80s and 90s, anti-Tamil riots were typically led by clergy, so there is a significant historical basis for monastic cooperation in these violent protest activities. The clergy are fundamental to the Sinhala nationalist agenda as their involvement lends credibility to the violence perpetrated against minorities. This same pseudo-religiosity helped fuel the civil war: if a religion like Buddhism, known for its peacefulness, can sanction violence against a particular group, then surely that act must be justified. Religion is not the chief motivator of violence in Sri Lanka, but it is a useful instrument for its justification.

The attack on the Fashion Bug warehouse could have been predicted by anyone following online social media. Facebook, for example, hosted a number of groups that were solely devoted to persecuting Islam in very unpalatable ways. Some of the Facebook groups that illustrate this include: ‘sinhalayath venuven’ or ‘Because of the Sinhala people’; ‘sathya gaweshana’ or ‘Exploration of Truth’; ‘sinhala handa’ or ‘The Sinhala Voice’; and, last, but by no means least, ‘thambi asipathata erhehi ‘sinha’ asipatha’ or ‘The Muslim Sword is against the ‘Sinhala’ Sword’. These groups maintain thousands of subscribers and they have been especially prolific in propagating Islamophobic sentiment. Many of the subscribers are young Lankans who enjoy Facebook for the same reason young people all over the world enjoy Facebook: it is viewed as being a good way to make connections with friends and promote one’s interests and concerns. Yet this also shows that Sinhala nationalism is not just the concern of middle age or elderly Lankans, but is also supported by a large youth following.

For months leading up to the warehouse attack groups like these persistently voiced their opposition to Fashion Bug. Their chief objection to the business? Simply that the business was run by a Muslim, and this complaint was buttressed by the prevailing idea that Islam is intrinsically immoral. Much of this opposition exploits the idea that Islam is opposed to Buddhism on the grounds that Muslims mistreat cows through the rituals that produce halal foods. Buddhism, on the other hand, is viewed as being kind towards animals. Consequently, many of these Facebook groups carried a number of unpleasant images of cows being slaughtered by Muslims. Yet this apparent well-meaning concern over the welfare of animals is obviously a thinly veiled mechanism to stir up Sinhala nationalist tendencies, tendencies that are grounded in the supposition that the Buddhist Sinhalese people are kind, compassionate, and treat all animals with great care and affection. As my own research has suggested, this supposition is almost certainly false since most Sinhalese eat meat – provided, of course, that they are not responsible for the animal being killed. No, Sinhala nationalists are not particularly concerned with protecting animals, but they are certainly preoccupied with the persecution of minorities. Facebook was used as a vehicle to organise and support the violence that ultimately resulted in the attack on the Fashion Bug warehouse.

There is a historical precedent for the harassment of Muslims in Sri Lanka. In 1915 Muslim traders who operated a small tea house in Colombo were targeted by unemployed Sinhala youths. This action ultimately spiralled into violence as Sinhalese took to the streets to protest against the mistreatment of cows by Muslim butchers. These protests were the basis for the cow protection movement in Sri Lanka, and it is the rhetoric of this movement that provides the crux of the modern anti-Muslim protests in Sri Lanka. It is chiefly this veneer of moral superiority, supported by the institution of Buddhism, that largely forms the justification for violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka. This moralistic attitude governed by Sinhala chauvinism is illustrated by one of my research informants: ‘Muslims don’t really think about animals, they don’t think about compassion or love, they don’t think about people. The people of our country [he means the Sinhalese] think about other people. They protect the first precept of non-violence.’ That this informant was a clergyman who operated a well-known and public animal welfare institution reinforces the fact that Islamophobia has basically infiltrated Buddhist monkdom.

This precedent for Islamophobia has historical weight. Since the end of the civil war, it would seem that there has been an increase in anti-Muslim activities by the Sinhalese and this, I believe, has something to do with the end of the civil war and the need for a new ethnic minority target. What is truly novel about this Sinhala nationalism is the fact that it is technologically enabled. This allows nationalists to disseminate their views more widely and organise themselves more efficiently. It is clear from the above, that there are numerous Facebook groups dedicated to targeting Muslims. The use of this technology also illustrates the extent that nationalist sentiment has influenced the Sinhala youth.

It was well publicised that the Arab Spring was spurred on by the use of Twitter and Facebook. In the West, the significance of social media as a vehicle of social liberation has been well publicised. Social media is considered by some as a freedom gifted by the West to struggling minorities in developing countries, a freedom that allows oppressed peoples to gather together safely and voice their outrage against their subjugation. Yet this celebration of social media also hides an ugly side that comes out from time to time: it can also be used to rally together the oppressors rather than the oppressed. This, unfortunately, is what is happening in Sri Lanka today.

The way in which Facebook has been used as a catalyst is troubling. More troubling is the fact that there are few mechanisms to prevent social media being misused. When anti-Aboriginal groups sprang up on Facebook over the last few years we could at least count on the issue being raised in the media, and for many Australians to take a stand against it. But such a possibility hardly exists in Sri Lanka since there are few Sinhalese willing to take a stand against racism and Islamophobia. This is in large part because there is almost no culture of critical appraisal in Sri Lanka. Lankans have been so indoctrinated into accepting propaganda that is now very difficult to challenge unpalatable norms. Moreover, because these Facebook groups are all in the Sinhala language, outsiders will struggle to monitor the ugliness of these groups.

What we can learn from these developments in Sri Lanka is the following: violence and ethnic persecution has not ended. Rather, it has transformed into a new beast entirely. This time, however, it is aided by new communication technologies. Optimists sometimes insist that antiquated ideas will die out with the old generation. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, there is little evidence this is the case. Indeed, there is every indication that xenophobia will persist.

 

James Stewart is a Research Associate at the University of Tasmania. He recently completed his PhD in Buddhist Studies and Philosophy. His main area of research is Sinhala Buddhism, especially animal ethics in Sri Lanka and the effect it has on food and dietary practices. He has previously lived in Sri Lanka and makes frequent visits there to conduct fieldwork. His website is http://srilankaobserver.org/.

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Comments

  1. It’s worth noting that Sinhala chauvinism has been used as a political tool – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) rode to power on the Sinhala Only Act of 1956, which alienated Tamils. The current government has strong ties to the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) – the group of Buddhist monks who have become figureheads of the anti-Islamic movement. This political manipulation, along with economic disparity post civil war are, in my opinion, the major contributing factors.

    As for the battles waged on social media, I’ve noticed a number of my Sinhala friends have begun ‘un-friending’ anyone making anti-Islamic comments on Facebook. Websites such as Groundviews (groundviews.org/)have been active in promoting racial harmony and recently there was a ‘rally for unity’ – a peaceful protest, which I hear was rather successful. Unfortunately, people from a lower socioeconomic background do not have access to this information and are easily duped by the powers that be.

  2. Hi Rajith,

    Thank you very much for your comment.

    I agree with your point that the government is complicit in Sinhala chauvinism. The newspapers in SL are hardly independent and the extent to which they are – or can be – critical of government actions is very limited. Political manipulation is therefore governed, to a large extent, by media manipulation. (Though arguably there is a similar situation in Australia, though in a reduced way).

    It’s great to hear that there is resistance to this sort of bigotry. I find that the Sinhala diaspora is generally much more critical of this sort of thing, partly, I think, because the diaspora enjoy greater access to more varied viewpoints.

  3. I will be interested in knowing whether any formal studies/research has been done on the actual influence of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism or Ultra nationalism in the electoral outcomes during elections in SL. The JHU the vanguard that was formed to represent the Sinhala Buddhist nationalists has consistently polled less than 6% of the vote whenever they stood alone to contest. While it may be true that their presence and influence may have resulted in the SLFP moving more to the right of the centre when it comes to sinhala nationalism, and theeby influencing voting tendencies, my own experience in talking to lower end economic class Sinhala Buddhists has been anything but Sinhala nationalism when it came to their vote. Local issues, the stature of a politician, their connections, their power (thugs who have got voted are a plenty, and they have been far from Sinhala nationalistic) and of course the charisma of the national leader seems to have been more important to them rather than their Sinhala Buddhist nationalistic credentials.

    I could be quite ignorant of the impact of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and its impact on electoral politics in SL, but I would like to see some research studies showing it has had a major impact before I can conclude that it is a major factor. A Sinhala Buddhist person voting for a Sinhala Buddhist person does not necessarily imply that the voter is supporting ultra nationalism.

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