SRI LANKA’S ferocious civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam came to an end in 2009, resulting in a death toll of more than 80,000 people and many citizens who remain disappeared.
While the end of the war -despite its means and methods fought- was received with relief not only in Sri Lanka but also by the international community, many hoped that the island would enter an era of sustainable peace, reconciliation and development.
But these hopes and expectations were scattered with the newly inflamed violence against another enemy of the Sinhala-Buddhist state: the Sri Lankan Muslim.
The sparking point of this untamed violence was a road-rage incident in Kandy. A lorry driver, a Sinhala, ended up dead, while a group of Muslims was identified as being responsible. Angry Sinhala mobs, incited by Buddhist monks, began attacking mosques and businesses which were owned by Muslims.
They threw rocks, set fires, caused severe damages to Muslim-owned shops and, more worryingly, killed at least two human beings. Dark memories from the anti-Tamil pogroms from Black July 1983 emerged and are omnipresent in Sri Lankan consciousness: hundreds of Tamils were hunted and brutally killed by Sinhala thugs in the public, incited by Buddhist monks and without any governmental intervention. This time, however, President Maithripala Sirisena declared an island-wide state of emergency.
The violence against Muslims, in any case, is not a novelty – it is an assault that already took place with the first Sri Lankan inter-religious riots in 1916, led by the later Prime Minister of the country, D.S. Senanayake. More recently, Sinhala-Muslim clashes at Aluthgama in 2014 left several dead. The violence, however, is not only and solely directed at the Sri Lankan Muslim.
The United Nations Refugee Agency set up a temporary stay for the Rohingya Muslims fleeing the genodicial attacks by state forces Myanmar (Burma). They had been staying in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka with the government’s approval and United Nations was providing assistance until a long-term solution was found. However, Sri Lankan monks and nationalists stoned the shelter, prompting its 31 Rohingya occupants – mainly women and children – to flee for their own safety. Monks stormed also the shelter chanting, “Rohingyas are terrorists” and accusing them of having killed Buddhist monks in Burma.
Violence in post-colonial Sri Lanka
The post-colonial state was always subjected to violence – two chapters are noteworthy: first, the inter-ethnic violence against the Tamils in 1956, 1958 and then 1983 – 2009 and then, second, the intra-ethnic violence against the Sinhala Marxist uprising in the 1970s and 1980s. Sri Lanka is prone to violence, it is conducive to hatred. The question remains: why? The post-colonial state of Sri Lanka nourishes its existence from the ancient myth Mahavamsa.
The myth permits the majority community, the Sinhala, to exist and justify their ownership over the country. Meanwhile, this myth issues a carte blanche to the sovereign to expel, persecute and kill anyone who contradicts the majoritarian narrative rooted in Sinhala Buddhism. Sri Lanka, as we know it today, is run by a fanatic Sinhala Buddhist ideology. This ideology has not only hijacked the governmental raison d’être, it is the very essence of statehood. Anyone who stands against this ideology or differs will be at least an intruder who is granted a status of second class citizen.
The eternal desire for an enemy: once the Tamil, now the Muslim
The famous Italian academic Giorgio Agamben had correctly noted that biopower is a thesis instead of a hypothesis and sees it as the very structure of power, directly related to life. The logic of sovereignty, he explains, is a logic of capturing life, isolating ‘bare life’ as an exception. This very life is not only subject to the sovereign’s violence and power over death, but also to quality of the life’s value. This means that the sovereign’s power establishes and perpetuates itself by producing a ‘biopolitical body’ upon which it exercises power.
The Sinhala governmentality is determined by their ethnicity and this ethnicity legitimises their power: Sri Lanka is not a democracy, but an ethnocracy that leaves no room for non-Sinhala Buddhists. Meanwhile, the renewed declaration of the state of emergency is not a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka: with exception of short periods during post-colonial governance, the island has been always under a state of emergency for the sake of state survival.
The state of emergency migrated into a state of normalcy, where human rights were eroded, the enemy dehumanised and the rule of law was made a mockery.
State of emergency not enough
The government seems to believe that the state of emergency will calm the situation and disperse tensions. It will not. Instead, the government must still address the systemic grievances and causes of these interethnic riots and attacks.
Sri Lanka must address issues like accountability for alleged war crimes, enforced disappearances, expedite land returns, and bring justice and redress to victims on all sides, including the often-forgotten Muslim minority. The government should also order an independent investigation into the violence and hold those responsible – even those belonging to influential Buddhist sects or with loyalties to powerful political leaders – to account.
This country must absolve itself from its post-colonial, Sinhala Buddhist emperor’s clothing. Unless this does not happen, the country will be destined for another tragedy.
By Dr Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan, PhD (NUI Galway), LL.M. (Maastricht University), Lecturer in International Law at Griffith College Dublin, Ireland.