A reappraisal of evidence and claims

Emerging Buddhist-Muslim Rivalry in Sri Lanka?

Aluthgama in the aftermath of riots

by G. H. Peiris

This article consists of two parts the first of which is intended to contextualise, in the broader setting of recent political transformations witnessed in Sri Lanka, the proliferation of information on violence targeted allegedly by Sinhalese-Buddhists on the Muslims, which those responsible for disseminating such information often portray as a trend of intensifying rivalry between the two ethnic groups.

The second part contains a critique of the thematic submissions in a similar portrayal presented by John Holt, Professor of Comparative Religion at a prestigious liberal arts college in the United States, as the 'Keynote Address' of a research conference on the subject of Ethnic Conflict in Buddhist Societies in South and Southeast Asia: The Politics behind Religious Rivalries' conducted three years ago by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy.

The special attention I devote to Professor Holt is due entirely to the fact that the 'Rashomon Effect' ΜΆ the same event or phenomenon being interpreted in diverse ways by different persons, impelled by their subjective interests and motivations ΜΆ is far less evident in his keynote address than in other scholarly works I have come across on this subject.

Part 1

At the time of the conference referred to above the prevailing political ethos in Sri Lanka was such that there was reason to believe in the government, guided as it was by the strength of its convictions and commitments to our foremost national interests, having the capacity to withstand the internal and external destabilising pressures being exerted against the country's steady (but not entirely unblemished) 'post-war' recovery. Hence it was possible to regard even the blatant distortions of ground realities of ethnic relations in our country, including those that took the form of academic research, as no more than irritations of tolerable impact which small countries such as ours need to bear with fortitude while safeguarding rights as sovereign nation-states. It is now becoming increasingly evident that the 'regime change' of early 2015 has brought about a dire necessity to abandon that earlier attitude of laissez-faire indifference towards the spread of disinformation, subversion (including clandestine incitement to violence) and intimidatory threats based presumably on the pernicious doctrine of 'Responsibility to Protect', because the newly installed puppet regime, in its wayward responses to the resulting pressures, has been leading the nation relentlessly towards the same state of anarchy and chaos as those targeted in the recent decades by the so-called democratisation efforts and humanitarian interventions of the global superpowers.

Even in the course of the 30-year 'Eelam War' there were attempts made by the LTTE and the leaders of the 'Sri Lanka Tamil' community in mainstream politics to attract at least a segment of the Muslim community into their secessionist campaign. When that proved to be futile, the Muslims living in the 'North-East' of the island became targets of diverse forms of terrorist brutality that included mass murder (remember Eravur and Kattankudi?) and forced displacement of entire communities (in Mannar, more excruciatingly than elsewhere). Since the Eastern Province was liberated from the clutches of the LTTE in late 2006, the government was able to embark on rehabilitation and reconstruction in that part of the 'war zone' well ahead of the end of its Vanni military operations in May 2009, using aid funds specifically earmarked by the donors for that purpose. This resulted in a spectacular re-development of socioeconomic infrastructure in the densely populated coastal periphery of the east where the largest Muslim settlements are located. In addition, the Muslim political alignments in the immediate aftermath of the war could also have been influenced at least marginally by the cordial relations which the Rajapaksa regime had maintained with several Islamic countries – especially Pakistan, Iran, and the Palestinian government of the Gaza Strip.

These probably constituted a significant set of reasons for Mahinda Rajapaksa obtaining 57.9% of the popular vote at the euphoric presidential election of January 2010 in his contest against the other formidable ‘war hero’ of that time, General Sarath Fonseka (the candidate backed by the UNP, JVP and the disgruntled loyalists of ex-president Chandrika doing her "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" act). In fact, Rajapaksa surpassed even the support garnered by J R Jayewardene at peak popularity in 1982 (52.9%) – the only previous nationwide poll free of serious insurrectionary disruption since the inception of the ‘executive presidential system’ in 1978. Based on the fact that Muslims in all parts of the island were sharing the economic benefits of the 'peace dividend' – especially in trade and commerce – it could be surmised that the Rajapaksa camp continued to retain the support of the Muslim community at the parliamentary elections conducted a few months later at which the UPFA secured 60% of the overall total of votes, while the UNP share had dwindled to 29%.

Allegiance of Muslims

It is necessary to stress, however, that in the entire electoral history of independent Sri Lanka, the allegiance of the Muslims – almost 10% of the all-island vote – for one or the other of the parties commanding the bulk of the Sinhalese support has all along been ephemeral. This, in my understanding, has been a fact of vital salience to the 'regime change' project referred to above, given the overall electoral morphology in which: (a) the Buddhist support (70%) gets divided (both directly as well as indirectly through the JVP, the JHU and the ‘Old Left’) among the two main parties; (b) support for the Rajapaksa regime from the ‘Sri Lanka Tamil’ community remains minute; and (c) the Hindu vote in plantation areas (about 4% of the national total) with its comparatively more distinct community cohesion, being vulnerable to en bloc external manipulation (including RAW intervention as rumoured in the local press but substantiated by Dersil Patel, in the journal Defence New issue of 29 July 2015) in favour of what Delhi preferred.

It is not possible in a dispassionate attempt to contextualise the ‘regime change’ project referred to above to discount the significance of the foregoing sketch of electoral arithmetic. Indeed, it would be downright stupid to ignore the fact that promoting estrangement of Buddhist-Muslim relations, especially through clandestine support to the rabble-rousing lunatic fringe of the Buddhist segment of the electorate, on the one hand (the well-known columnist Izeth Hussain, writing for The Island on 5 May 2017, was certain that "the Islamophobic hate campaign is obviously foreign-funded and foreign backed") paralleled by a propaganda campaign designed to magnify the violent exemplifications of the alleged hostility of the Buddhists such as homicide and causing physical injury, desecration of mosques, arson, property damage, looting etc., which, in addition, contained the damning charge that the government remained inactive or even supportive of the violence because of its subservience to Buddhist interests. (Did Hussain himself contribute unwittingly to the propaganda campaign, as several others might have done? – that has remained enigmatic.

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