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Sri Lanka: Into the Inferno of Blood-and-Faith Politics?

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Sri Lanka : Into the Inferno of Blood-and-Faith Politics?   

Tisaranee Gunasekara

In Sri Lanka, hardly a month goes by without a church, a mosque or a kovil, being attacked by organised mobs, often led by hardline Buddhist monks [i] . The total impunity enjoyed by the attackers indicates that those who incite/perpetrate violence against religious minorities enjoy the protection and patronage of the country's real power-wielders - President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers. 

When one of the most virulent Sinhala-Buddhist extremist organisations, the Bodu Bala Sena [ii] (BBS), inaugurated its "BuddhistLeadershipAcademy' in March 2013, the Chief Guest was Sri Lanka's extremely powerful Defence Secretary and Presidential Sibling, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Mr. Rajapaksa used the occasion to deliver a ringing endorsement of the BBS, which was engaged in an extremely toxic anti-Islamic campaign even at that moment. "These Buddhist clergy who are engaged in a nationally important task should not be feared or doubted by anyone" [iii] , he enthused.

During his September 2013 with Al Jazeera, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, instead of condemning the attacks on religious minorities, sought to justify them. He admitted that attacks did happen but claimed that these were just retributions, provoked by crimes such as child rape: "There were attacks".. What was in the background? Why were they attacked? Now see a girl was raped. Seven years old girl was raped. Then naturally they will go and attack them whether they belong to any community or any religion. The people when they heard about it they were so upset, relations everybody. There were incidents like that. All incidents have some background to that" [iv] .

In Sri Lanka, child rape/abuse is a mounting problem. But up to now there has been no reported incident of a child belonging to the majority community being raped by a member of a minority community. The Presidential statement, made to an international news channel, is thus an outright lie. Even more worryingly, President Rajapaksa's stance indicates that in his worldview an entire community can be held responsible for the crime of one of its members. According to this logic, the alleged crime of a Tamil is a Tamil- crime, the alleged crime of a Muslim a Muslim-crime and the alleged crime of a Christian a Christian-crime. When a Tamil/Muslim/Christian allegedly violates the law, his/her community becomes guilty by extension. And the Sinhala-Buddhist extremist mobs, in the self-appointed role of Nemesis, have the right to administer instant punishment to these alien "transgressors'.

In 1983, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacked an army patrol and killed several soldiers. In response, Sinhala mobs unleashed an anti-Tamil pogrom. The Black July happened because all Tamils, including children, were held responsible for the LTTE's attack on the Lankan military. The President's endorsement of a similar worldview indicates that a religious conflict may be Sri Lanka's future.

Religious Politics in the Service of Familial Rule

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The collapse of really existing socialism (and the advent of the age of post-socialist capitalism) was accompanied by the rise of blood-and-faith politics. This brand of religious politics has redefined democracy as government of, by and for the "chosen people', chosen on the basis of a primordial identity - ethnicity and religion. The ideal of the adherents of this "politics of salvation' is a land which is pure -- i.e. a land which is the exclusive preserve of their own ethno-religious community.

In Post-war Sri Lanka, the Ruling Rajapaksa Family has embraced this violently intolerant religious-racism as the most effective method of advancing their dynastic project. Given the conspicuous absence of the much awaited socio-economic peace dividend, the Lankan rulers cannot maintain their hegemony over the country's Sinhala-Buddhist majority without diverting public attention away from rice-and-curry issues. The consequent fetid search for suitable enemies has empowered Virathu-type Sinhala-Buddhist extremist elements to an unprecedented degree. Their verbal and physical attacks on all religious minorities have created a fear psychosis in the country. Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims look at each other with suspicion and fear.

Sri Lanka , though politico-geographically united, is more divided than ever, ideologically and psychologically.

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Peace, if it is not to be a mere interregnum before the next calamity, must be just. Post-war, Sri Lanka is characterised and afflicted by a chronic absence of jus post bellum. To the injustices and excesses which are the norm in the war-torn North are added the injustices and excesses caused by the new brand of blood-and-faith politics. The whole is made even more combustible by the presence of a numerically intact largely Sinhala-Buddhist military.

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Sri Lanka 's power wielders are the dog and Sinhala-Buddhist extremists their tail -- still. But if the Rajapaksas continue to dabble in blood-and-faith politics, in furtherance of their familial and dynastic interests, this balance of power might change, creating a classic "wag the dog' situation. And as majority extremism gains ground, it will ignite a reactive and equally (or more) toxic minority extremism. In Sri Lanka, that old familiar story might become the future.



[i] Sinhalese form an absolute majority of the Lankan populace; most Sinhalese are Buddhists and almost all Buddhists are Sinhalese. Hardline Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists believe that they are the true owners of the island and that other ethnic and religious groups are mere "guests' in it, without inalienable rights.

[ii] Buddhist Power Force

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Political Commentator, Colombo, Sri Lanka

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