Extremism could return Sri Lanka to its dark past

The need of the hour for all the good men of Sri Lanka is to realise fanning of Islamophobia will only play into the hands of international terror groups looking to get a foothood on the island.
The need of the hour for all the good men of Sri Lanka is to realise fanning of Islamophobia will only play into the hands of international terror groups looking to get a foothood on the island.

Clashes between different groups in Kandy expose the religious divide in the country

By Suresh Pattali

Published: Sat 17 Mar 2018, 6:00 PM

Last updated: Sat 17 Mar 2018, 8:26 PM

What next if a human being is diagnosed with spondylosis, a painful condition of the spine resulting from the degeneration of the intervertebral discs? No medication has been proven to reverse the degenerative process, but the condition is treated with various methods like lifestyle modification, therapy, muscle relaxants, braces, spinal injections etc. In chronic conditions, when it affects the nervous system, a surgery is advised.
What afflicts Sri Lanka is best explained in such medical jargon. The first symptom of an impending condition to the nation's backbone - a fusion of various ethnic groups - appeared in 1915 when prolonged racial violence rocked the island nation. Known later as the Buddhist-Mohammedan riots, the incident took place in Kandy over a religious procession. The colonial British rulers then implemented martial law and summary executions, but not before 136 Muslims were killed, 85 mosques damaged and over 4,075 Muslim-owned shops looted by the Sinhala rioters.
In 1939, the island experienced another episode of back pain. The first ever Sinhala-Tamil riots happened in Nawalapitiya, Kandy, following Tamil leader GG Ponnambalam's rejection of the Sinhalese historical chronicle known as the Mahavamsa, and their "Ceylonese identity" campaign during the freedom struggle. The fault lines of intolerance between different ethnic groups had surfaced much before Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, became independent from British rule in 1948. Freedom and subsequent responsibilities only worsened the back pain.
Every leader who was at the helm thereafter performed surgical procedures on the body polity of the nation. Sri Lanka's first prime minister DS Senanayake was the first to wield the scalpel, disenfranchising 800,000 Indian Tamil plantation workers in 1949 with the Ceylon Citizenship Act.
Next surgeon was Solomon Bandaranaike who came to power on a nationalist platform. His government passed the Sinhala Only Act in 1956, making Sinhala the sole official language of the country, denying educational and work opportunities for many Tamil youth. When the bill was introduced, Tamil leaders were attacked in a four-day violence that left more than 100 dead.
In 1972, Sirimavo Bandaranaike embarked on a major operation, declaring the country a republic and changing its name from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. She also made Buddhism the nation's primary religion. In 1971, Sirimavo introduced the Universities Act to rectify disparities created in student enrollment during the colonial rule.
Sri Lanka's ethnic saga was thus an offshoot of the British legacy, which had created irreparable class divisions in a volatile society. In British Ceylon, around 60 per cent of civil service jobs were held by minority Tamils, who comprised approximately 15 per cent of the population. This was because while modern education was provided to Tamil-dominant Jaffna peninsula by Christian missionaries, majority of the Sinhalese populace living outside urban areas did not have access to English-medium education. Accordingly, the majority of students enrolled in universities, especially for medicine and engineering, were English-speaking Tamils. This over-representation of Tamils in administrative and educational services was used by Sinhalese politicians to come to power on the promise of elevating the Sinhalese people.
The chief factor that set Sri Lanka on a long path of death and destruction was the absence of a big-hearted visionary to right all the colonial wrongs in a disciplinary and progressive manner. Short-sighted Sinhalese leaders, rushing to please their vote banks, opted for quick-fix surgical procedures while all the back pain could have been treated with a muscle relaxant. One of the major sources of hatred against minorities was the Sinhala-Buddhists' jealousy, insecurity and inferiority complex arising out of the advantages the minorities enjoyed. Politicians saw this mindset of Buddhists people and exploited it by fanning xenophobia.
What played out recently in Kandy, where arson attacks targeting the Muslim community hit several areas of the central hill district, was the same sense of jealousy, insecurity and inferiority complex. Added to this deadly cocktail was Islamophobia, a new invention by the Buddhist extremists, whose allegations against the community include: Muslims are trying to convert Buddhists to Islam. Money flowing from the Middle East is creating huge economic disparity. Muslim eateries are mixing drugs in the food to make their Sinhalese patrons impotent. The growing influence of Wahabism, proliferation of mosques and public flaunting of Islamic symbols are threatening the cultural fabric of the nation. Muslims do not practise birth control and their increasing population would make Sri Lanka a Muslim majority country by 2050.
Such nonsensical charges are part of a wider Buddhist-extremist agenda to make Muslims the new-Tamils. It's a strategy to eliminate minorities one after another and make "Sri Lanka ours and ours only". Sri Lanka's economy is not run by Muslims, so they cannot be held accountable for the economic imbalance created by inept regimes of the past. Moreover, a large portion of Sri Lanka Muslims also live in poverty. If a section of the community has emerged elite, it's the direct result of the cohabitation politics both communities enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s, when Muslims were gifted with governmental positions to keep them away from the Tamils.
Muslim leaders argue that in a democracy, the way people dress or behave is dictated by their cultural and religious norms. They also don't see any radicalisation of the community, except in cultural and lifestyle domains that warrant violent intervention by Buddhist-extremists. But neutral observers believe restraint is expected of the Muslims who have clinched enormous concessions from various Sinhala Biddhist-dominated governments since 1949.
Sri Lanka was given a second lifeline after the extermination of Tamil Tigers in the 2009 civil war and the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential elections. Presently, there is sense of betrayal in the air. The collective failure of the unity government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to deliver on key pledges to the Tamils and lower-class Sinhalese has strengthened the chances of a Rajapaksa comeback. Widespread charges of state-sponsored land grab in the north have disillusioned the Tamils and are pushing them into the shadows of the past.
The central bank's efforts to consolidate the economy by providing a boost to private sector investments has suffered a huge setback with the mindless attacks on Muslims in Kandy. If the so-called good-governance coalition fails to nip Buddhist-extremism in the bud, the fear of the nation slipping back into the dark days won't just go way. The need of the hour for all the good men of Sri Lanka is to realise fanning of Islamophobia will only play into the hands of international terror groups looking to get a foothood on the island. In such a scenario, no amount of surgery will be able to revive the patient. Once gangrene sets in, amputation is the only option. It's a painful one.

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