Purely for the sake of amusement, I encourage you to follow the Twitter account of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Claiming to be the revival of ‘real Buddhism’, the BBS will ask you to ‘rise up’ against the issuing of Halal Certificates, and inform you that they are enlightening Buddhists of the threats from the ‘dark forces’ of the minority. And just when you think you have them pegged as insufferably extremist, they will retweet a quote from the Dalai Lama espousing the need to have tolerance and love for all beings. It’s a masterclass in farce, and one wishes they were so easily dismissible. It is when their rhetoric becomes racist that you will perhaps need to block the BBS. Case in point- just a couple of days ago they responded to a Tweeter by calling him a ‘thambiya’- a terribly crude way of referring to a Muslim person. Whether Muslim or not, it was difficult not to be appalled.
Such twittering from the Bodu Bala Sena, and their own campaigns in Sri Lanka to combat the issuing of Halal Certificates, or to ‘drive out’ Muslim and Christian interlopers from the country is unfortunately not isolated to this particular group. A strange tide of racism sweeps over the country, still recovering from 30 years of civil war, and it seems to be pushing us onward to another confrontation between the Sinhalese and another minority group: Sri Lankan Muslims. It’s not uncommon nowadays to receive emails warning you of the dangers of purchasing goods made by Muslim manufacturers or for a Facebook status to be attacked simply because you took a stand that didn’t reflect a Sinhalese viewpoint. Here is the first query that arises: When did a Sinhalese viewpoint come to mean one that was completely against the idea of anything non-Sinhala and non-Buddhist? One answer I’ve received is this, “I have no problem with anyone, I just hate terrorism. Colombo is a safe place to live in now, and that’s a fact.”
Colombo, indeed Sri Lanka, is a safe place to live in if you are Sinhalese, Buddhist and you keep your mouth shut; not simply modifying your dissent, but suppressing it entirely and giving in to the hegemony of the Rajapaksa government and the Buddhist fundamentalism that keeps it afloat. If you are Sinhalese and you disagree with the Government you probably fall into one of four groups: A) Joiners: not being able to beat the metaphorical dogs, have joined them, B) Leavers: Terrified and angry, have fled the country to begin new lives or join an irate and polemicised Sinhala diaspora, C) The Mute: Stay, because they have no other option, but keep their voices silent or D) The Few: Angry and still resisting the regime, but lacking cohesion and plebeian pull. Dissent against the Government by Sinhalese needs to be more vocal, far reaching and more effective in its organisation.
Let us inspect this charge that by presenting a view that is anti-Muslim, one is not being intolerant but protecting one’s country against a ‘terrorist’ scourge. The idea is as absurd suggesting that every Muslim person is a jihadi, and this in turn is also a misrepresentation of jihad itself. If we think of the LTTE, from the standpoint that post-independence Sri Lankan Tamils faced years of discrimination and abuse at the hands of the Sinhala majority, the LTTE stop being terrorists, and become activists resisting an oppressive establishment. The label of ‘terrorist’ comes later, (as I’ve argued here on Groundviews) as part of the narratives inscribed by the modern. There too, I argued that the narratives created post-conflict are dangerous and must be interrupted. The racism inherent in the anti-Muslim rhetoric is not an interruption of this, but a rather sinister continuation of the same. Furthermore, it is an inflation of the concept of terrorism. That the LTTE used violent means to make their point is not one I am purporting we ‘get behind’, but can we really play the terrorism card against the LTTE or Muslim people because of this?
The Rajapaksa administration wiped out tens of thousands of civilians in their military offensive against the LTTE; they kidnap and torture journalists and activists on a frighteningly regular basis; they license violence against, and detainment of, students engaged in peaceful protest; they allow for random raids; censorship and surveillance are ubiquitous; A Chief Justice was impeached for making a stand and the government and its forces function with absolute impunity. The recent passing of the Convention on the Suppression of Terrorist Financing (Amendment) is alarming in its open ended definition of what counts as terrorism. It gives the Government carte blanche to detain, harass and abuse citizens at will. Benjamin’s Critique of Violence reminds us of a self-contradictory understanding of violence; that it is neither good nor bad, but ultimately law-making or law-preserving. What we must be aware of are the paralyses in the dominant trends of the narrative. Violence itself justifies violent ends, or what is allowed to be legal/illegal, and as both sides (government and dissenter) share the same axiomatic desires, the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) is as much of a terrorist as the LTTE were, or the Muslims are now being portrayed as. What makes it sinister is that, under the guise of working for the good of the people and the betterment of Sri Lanka, the GOSL operates as legalised terrorism.
Why have we not seen any serious dismissal of the Bodu Bala Sena by the Rajapaksa administration? Why do they allow this spate of anti –Muslim feeling, easily spurred on by the view of Islam that is mainstream globally, to go unchecked? Aside from a rather wry slap-on-the–wrist that involved the President meeting with the BBS to discuss religious tolerance, there is no concentrated effort to quell this racist feeling. The answer is encapsulated in the missive I received that ‘hated terrorism’. With the war having ended in 2009, Sri Lanka should be working not only towards reconciliation and rebuilding but should have recognition of what happened during the civil war, and what led up to it. Instead, in this spate of anti-Muslimness, one sees deliberate antagonistic strategy that, prima facie, intends to embroil the Sinhalese and the Muslims in another 30 years of civil war. The government’s indifference to stop this progress, however, may have little to do with its own feelings toward minority populations or a reflection on the complexity of multiculturalism.
The sad thing is that the GoSL may simply not care what the eventual fallout from such racism is. Why is the Rajapaksa administration allowed by the Sinhalese to function in the way that it does? Because they ‘hate terrorism’, and yes, Sinhala fears are, to them, real ones. By allowing simplistic narratives of the terrorist, the hateful ‘other’ and the interloper to now be cast against the Muslim community, the GOSL is able to keep riding upon the wave of popularity that has allowed them overwhelming support in elections: this is buoyed by the simple face that the Rajapaksas ‘ended’ the LTTE. In order for them to stay in power, and for the violence they wield through the state to remain unchecked, they must constantly allow for the monster to be re-imagined, for the fallacy of the narrative to remain alive. Even sadder is that the Bodu Bala Sena with its ridiculous extremism is playing, so very willingly, the part of patsy.
(Anupama Ranawana is a wishful academic and a practicing activist. This article appears in “The Platform”under the heading “Pilgrim’s Regress: On the ‘Usefulness’ of Racism in Sri Lanka”)