Responding to his mother’s more realistic observation — “I don’t expect I will see peace in my lifetime” — Shivan, the main character of Shyam Selvadurai’s recent novel — The Hungry Ghosts — anticipated: “I hope one side wins and ends all this, for the sake of the poor people caught in between”. Shivan’s surrealistic image, in fact, materialised at the dawn of May 18, 2009, at a narrow sea belt in Mullivaikkal. It seems that both the mother and the son were partly correct since they appeared to have two different things in mind. For Shivan it was the end of armed conflict and for the mother it was peace writ large. The recent events unfolded in Aluthgama, Dharga Town and Beruwala have time and again showed that peace has not yet arrived in Sri Lanka, not definitely to the poor and the marginalised. Muslims inhabiting these south-western towns were subjected to vicious and inhumane attacks by ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ mobs instigated by Bodu Bala Sena (army of Buddhist power) that receives open and tacit blessings of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. Can the events in these three towns be explicated as isolated and exceptional incidents as the government had been trying to paint them? Are both parties (Sinhala Buddhists and Muslims) to be blamed equally as some government ministers had openly claimed and the country’s defence establishment had indicated?
Any careful observer would conclude that the events in Aluthgama, Dharga Town and Beruwala were just a single point on the upward curve delineating the process that had been unleashed since the end of the armed conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). I must confess my simplified dialectics in developing a possible post-war scenario were wrong. I projected that the comprehensive defeat of Tamil extremism in 2009 would lead to weaken its ‘other’, the Sinhala extreme nationalism. I thought President Mahinda Rajapaksa would follow Winston Churchill’s dictum: the party victorious should be magnanimous. While Tamil extremism was taken over by the Tamil diaspora, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) have projected that the UPFA can stay in power through electoral victories by continually igniting Sinhala Buddhist nationalist feelings and making Sinhala Buddhist nationalism the unwritten state ideology. Parallel to this trend, the executive presidential system was further strengthened by enacting the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. The Constitutional authoritarianism and over-securitisation of the State have been given legitimacy by referring to two goals, namely, economic development and peace and security — both defined in their own discursive terms. In order to keep the flames alive and prove that the State has been under constant threat, any protests and resistance by Tamils had been painted as an attempt by the LTTE to re-emerge as a military force. In this context, we witness the emergence of several types of extreme Buddhist groups even competing with the Sinhala Buddhist political parties in the ruling UPFA. Hence, President Mahinda Rajapaksa can use these groups whenever necessary to restrict and contain the demands and influence Hela Urumaya and National Freedom Front, the two coalition partners, in making important governmental decisions.
Subterranean activities of Buddhist extreme organisations began first on a small scale and in the periphery. A small mosque in Dambulla where extremely poor Muslims used to worship was attacked claiming that it was built on a land owned by Dambulla temple. Christian and Muslim religious places and shops and department stores owned by Muslims were attacked. The map shows the attacks had been widespread and all over the island. The GoSL and its police refused to take preventive actions and also legal actions against the perpetrators. Perpetrator organisations were given the impression that the rule of law would not be applied against them. It was in this context that the BBS began its nation-wide anti-halal campaign that instigated mobs to attack property owned by Muslims. Religious Muslims pleaded that halal was a purely religion-specific cultural marker and it had no relevance to Buddhist consumers. Having felt that it would lose its monopoly over Sinhala Buddhism, Hela Urumaya also came forward in support of anti-halal campaign. Once again the government was virtually dumb when Muslims' property and religious places were under mob attack. In a way the situation has been essentially similar to the situation prior to the 1983 pogrom against Tamils. The difference is that this time it is a campaign against Muslims and Christians. The argument that both Sinhala Buddhists and Muslims were equally responsible for what had happened in Aluthgama, Dharga town and Beruwala has no validity. Take the balance sheet: four people were killed; 150 houses and 90 shops were destroyed; 15 mosques were attacked and 2,000 families were made refugees. About three-fourths of the affected were Muslims. It is interesting to note that many incidents happened during the curfew time. What was GoSL's post-event response? Police arrested a monk who was well known for his courageous stand against the Bodu Bala Sena, defending the Muslims. The UNP Muslim PC member was questioned for four hours. All the vehicles to the residence of another Mulsim PC member were subjected to check. The high ranking Tamil police officer who tried his best to maintain law and order in the troubled area was transferred. More Muslim properties were attacked even when the police knew that those places were vulnerable. The government project is clear. It wants to paint the victims as the perpetrators and the perpetrators as victims.
The attacks and the government response show that this is an inseparable element of a political project. Armed conflict came to a conclusion in 2009; but the politics of war remains unchanged. In 2005 and 2009, Mahinda Rajapaksa won two presidential elections on Sinhala hegemonic agenda so he and his family and the party must be thinking that this would be the political project that would work in the next presidential election that may be held early next year. If Gujarat could not stop BJP victory in India, how would Aluthgama and Beruwala make a difference in Sri Lanka? Will Sri Lankan demographic statistics produce different results?
The author taught at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka