Four years after the killing of between eight and ten thousand Tamils by the Sri Lankan army, which brought to an end a civil war that had lasted for 26 years, there is trouble on the island again. This time the army isn’t directly responsible: instead it’s the Buddhist monks from Bodu Bala Sena, the most active of the fundamentalist groups that have sprouted in Sinhalese strongholds. Three-quarters of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese; most of them are Buddhists. The monks’ target this time is the small Muslim minority. Muslim abattoirs have been raided, halal butchers attacked, homes targeted. The police merely stand and watch, and Sri Lankan TV crews calmly film the violence. A few weeks ago, Buddhist monks got some hoodlums to attack a Muslim-owned car showroom. One of its employees was going out with a young Sinhalese woman and her father complained to a local monk. The Sunday Leader reported that ‘an eyewitness saw a monk leaving one of the temples … followed by a group of youths, mostly under 25 years of age. The group carried stones and, people were later to discover, kerosene.’
A BBS blogger recently explained the ‘reasoning’ behind the targeting of Muslims:
Muslims have been living in this country since seventh century and now only they want to have Halal food in Sri Lanka. Population wise they are only 5 per cent. If we allow Halal, next time they will try to introduce circumcision on us. We have to nip these in the bud before it becomes a custom. We should never allow the Muslims and Christians to control anything in Sri Lanka … Hijab, burqa, niqab and purdah should be banned in Sri Lanka. The law and the legislature should always be under the control of the Sinhala-Buddhists and our Nationalist Patriotic president. After all, Sri Lanka is a gift from Buddha to the Sinhalese.
Difficult to imagine how circumcision could be ‘nipped in the bud’ even by a Buddhist, or how the percentage of the Muslim population could have fallen from 9.7 per cent in the 2011 census to 5 per cent today. It has undoubtedly dropped, however, as a direct result of decades of unchecked harassment and persecution, by Tamils as well as Sinhalese Buddhists.
It isn’t just members of the BBS who spout this nonsense. Many in the Sinhalese political-military mainstream share these views. In the town of Pottuvil, where the Muslims are the majority, soldiers have been helping local monks erect Buddhist statues and allowing loudspeakers to blare out Buddhist hymns morning and night. Local women who own land are being driven off it: the monasteries then steal the land, with the army providing protection.
Buddhist hardliners hate the suggestion that the island was not a gift from Buddha to them alone, but the earliest architectural finds reveal Tamil as well as Buddhist objects, which is hardly surprising given the proximity of South India to northern Sri Lanka. Who came first was a burning issue throughout the colonial period. Ever since independence in 1948, Buddhist fundamentalism has been the driving force behind Sinhalese intransigence on the Tamil question. A Buddhist monk assassinated S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the country’s fourth prime minister, in 1959. He was said to have made too many (in fact too few) concessions to the Tamils. After this, politicians began to pander to the monks’ prejudices and anti-Tamil discrimination was institutionalised. Young Tamils began to believe armed struggle was the only way to free themselves. If Bengali Muslims could split from their brethren in West Pakistan and create Bangladesh, why not the Tamils?
Having denied the Tamils autonomy, the Sinhalese were now faced with civil war. In 1976, the militants formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and demanded an independent homeland to be known as ‘Eelam’. Teenagers raided banks to fund the struggle, making their getaways by bike through narrow lanes lined with ancient palmyra trees. They targeted police stations and government officials. When state repression intensified, Tamil leaders shielded the rebels. They were proud of them.
The decline of the Tamil Tigers echoed that of similar movements elsewhere. The Tigers were led, as armies are, by commanders who brooked no dissent. Sensational acts of terror became a substitute for political strategy, alienating possible allies. Factions fought one another, while Sinhalese politicians in Colombo looked on delightedly, bided their time and then embarked on large-scale repression, killing huge numbers of Tamil men, women and children, many without any links to the Tigers. Much of the blame for all this lies with Sinhalese chauvinism and its grip on the island’s politics, but the Tigers can’t be forgiven their crimes against their own people. Suicide bombings, which they pioneered in Asia, were a cynical tactic to underline the Supreme Leader’s hold on his membership. Cyanide pills – every guerrilla carried them – were an inducement to self-destruction.
The current government continues to use the Prevention of Terrorism Act to repress Tamil civil rights; the army is still a constant presence in Tamil regions; press freedom continues to be threatened. In January, President Rajapaksa sacked the chief justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, supposedly on grounds of corruption, but actually because she dared to make rulings against the president’s wishes. Her replacement has declared that the civil rights of the population are not being violated. Rajapaksa is also the minister in charge of defence, urban development, finance and ports and highways. One can only imagine the kickbacks. His brother Basil is minister for economic development; another brother, Chamal, is the speaker of the Parliament; his nephew Shashindra is chief minister of Uva, a key province; his cousin Jaliya Wickramasuriya is ambassador in Washington; another cousin, Udayanga Weeratunga, is ambassador in Moscow; and his 25-year-old son Namal is the MP for Hambantota, a strategically crucial port, the development of which has been funded by Beijing. Like the planned free trade port of Gwadar in Pakistan, it will form part of China’s strategic ‘string of pearls’. Chinese state security bigwigs have recently been photographed with the army in Jaffna, enjoying the sights and inspecting the places where Chinese projects will soon be dotting the coastline.
The octogenarian Tamil novelist A. Sivanandan, who lives in London, fears not just for the Tamils but also the Sinhalese people:
Defeated, the Tamils are now rethinking everything, at least in the diaspora which so heavily and uncritically supported the Tigers. They are no longer talking of independence, but of political rights and democracy. Is it too late? I honestly don’t know. The Buddhist monks will soon turn on their own, denouncing Sinhalese who are not orthodox Buddhists and if Rajapaksa, family and friends back them, they might be in for a surprise. Mass uprisings are in the air.