A decade after the end of the war, Sri Lanka is visibly, and far more than what’s acknowledged or reported openly, reeling from violent conflict. The anti-Muslim riots last week – of a scale, scope and speed of destruction that dwarfed Digana just over a year ago – coupled with the increase of everyday racism and attacks in Negombo, after the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, have kept the country on tenterhooks. The responses are revealing. A President and Prime Minister, who do not speak to or work with each other, call upon the public to be united and undivided. In Singapore, and by some accounts, shopping, at the time of the Easter Sunday attacks, the President took over a day to return to the country. At the time of the anti-Muslim riots last week, the President was attending a banal conference in China. Mob violence that featured horrific public lynching, the destruction of nearly 500 buildings including mosques, widespread looting, wanton vandalism and violence against Muslim women, children and men, didn’t, however, compel the President to issue a statement of any kind, to date. How can one comprehend, much less counter, this callousness?
On social media, hundreds of pages that have whipped up communal tension either by normalising majoritarianism or by directly attacking Muslims before and after Easter Sunday, suddenly pivoted to messages of calm, reflection and non-violence, appealing to the mobs to exercise their franchise instead of taking matters into their own hands. Coded and couched in some of the messaging was a clear call to change government, which is a dark signature across many hundreds of pages that while commendably calling for non-violence, featured no condemnation of the violence, those who took part in it, the violence against the Muslims or the odious Buddhist monks who were part of the mobs. The pivot to celebrating Vesak, at scale and across many hundreds of sites that are hugely popular, now shapes the conversation and influences engagement away from the aftermath of the unprecedented destruction, once again producing and promoting country, community, cities and context write large through an exclusive Sinhala-Buddhist lens, which is its own continuing violence.
Eerily and disturbingly reminiscent of the awful Channel Four video from a decade ago, the controversy of CCTV footage capturing a soldier ostensibly beckoning violent mobs was comprehensively debunked by the Army Commander. After investigations by the Army, we are told, the footage revealed that the soldier was adjusting the strap attached to his weapon, and not, as widely perceived, beckoning a violent mob. The Army Commander, who after Easter Sunday claimed that the reason for terrorism was ‘too much of peace’ and ‘too much of freedom’ is silent as to why, once the soldier moves away, the screen is flooded with hundreds of young men wielding sticks and stones, walking and destroying freely. The government has repeatedly said that maximum force will be used against anyone disobeying curfew. The visual evidence, from Negombo and again from last week, tells a different story on the ground and one which the government is silent on, and perhaps, helpless around. It’s frightening and speaks to one of two scenarios. Either the command and control structure of the defence forces has collapsed, with strict orders unheeded, and with impunity, by foot soldiers. More worryingly, the unwillingness and seeming inability of armed Police and Army to arrest or control violent mobs, literally in front of their eyes, suggests connivance, complicity and compliance with a set of instructions not in the public domain. Those who appear to be in control may not command allegiance, and those more in control, may not be in government.
After the riots, the BBC ran with stories that spoke to how several Sinhalese had helped Muslims in the worst affected areas by giving them safe refuge, even as their properties were burnt. Since Easter Sunday, a leitmotif of Muslims – beyond the theatrics of those in Parliament and old men hogging the headlines – is to state the many ways they too are, at heart, in spirit, body, mind and soul, truly Sri Lankan. It has been distressing and disturbing to watch, almost as if this public expression is necessary to remind a larger community of what they say. Worse, that those not saying it or enthusiastically agreeing, are somehow suspect. This is also the larger language of systemic, ingrained racism, which latches to acts, statements, media coverage and stories around acts of kindness by the Sinhalese or Buddhists, without adequate questioning that goes to the heart of why ethnic, religious, sexual and other minorities in Sri Lanka live in growing fear. Even as stories from the North of Sri Lanka speak to how the Army has escalated checks and surveillance of Tamils, who had nothing whatsoever to do with the Easter Sunday terrorism, social media and the South started to venerate and hero worship soldiers. Even presented with evidence over a fortnight around how they mingled with mobs, the veneration continues. For a decade, questions around accountability have endured, anchored to the end of the war. If in 2019 hundreds of men, repeatedly roaming free during curfews, are able to gather, travel, kill and leave a wake of destruction, it doesn’t leave much to the imagination as to what ground conditions would have been like a decade ago against the Tamils, in a context far removed from CCTV, independent media and social media’s critical gaze.
Every video and story which continues to celebrate the humanity, kindness and protection afforded by Sinhalese-Buddhist is an embrace of racism, not a rejection. The reason these stories are needed, made and so warmly, widely welcomed, is because they serve as a temporary palliative – making a larger community who are participants and architects of everyday racism feel good, that they are somehow removed from the natural end of what they believe in. The South wants othering, without violence, exclusive rights, without marginalisation, a country for itself, as well as minorities who know their place, their own shops, stickers and signs, without allowing minorities to do the same. The mainstream media’s racism is well-known, founded on the political affiliations and partisan aspirations of owners. The opposition, quick to vociferously decry Muslim MPs in and out of Parliament, is completely silent on the outright hate and misinformation spread by card-carrying party cadre on social media, as well as that curious incident of the SLFP MP bailing out and transporting mobsters. A President, entirely and enduringly silent around anti-Muslim violence, blames human rights activists and NGOs for the Easter Sunday terrorism. Impunity abounds, as does hypocrisy. And yet, we just go on as if everything is fine.
This week, innumerable references from leading politicians, religious figures and civil society on the end of the war as well as the anti-Tamil pogrom in July 1983 were used to calm heightened emotions and quell the violence. Save for a handful, the most active on social media today weren’t alive in 1983 and were too young to critically engage with conditions, context and conversations at the end of the war, a decade ago. The warnings, in this light and for a younger demographic, are resonant and relevant. They also miss the point that we are already witnessing another Black July. Since Easter Sunday, the spread, scale and scope of violence – verbal and kinetic, digital and physical – against the Muslims and Tamils indicates the success of the Easter Sunday terrorism, targeted precisely to prise open festering communal divisions. As a post on Facebook sardonically noted, Sinhala Buddhists in greater numbers took over the task of ISIS terrorism, gratefully and with glee. The structural conditions, the systemic racism, the sustained impunity, seething violence and sickening impunity, controlled and condoned by the State in July 1983, are on full display in May 2019.
This weekend, we celebrate the end of war and Vesak. The ironies could not be starker.
First published in The Sunday Island, 19 May 2019.