The Fires of Hatred
This is one of those posts that I’m not sure I should publish, because it’s personal, and the topic is complicated, and I don’t feel that I have the historical/political expertise to do this any justice. But staying silent is harder so…here goes.
I am a Sri Lankan citizen, and I am ethnically a Sinhalese. A few years ago, Sri Lanka ended a brutal civil war that some of you may have heard about on the news. Sometimes I get asked about the war in Sri Lanka, and what it was like growing up with it. Answering that question is always hard for me. I suspect it’s hard for a lot of people in my position, because the answer, the right answer, consists of a lot of words, and the person asking the question tends to want answers in the form of an easily digestible summary: "well, you have your Nazis on the one side, doing bad things like killing unicorns, and the daring pure-hearted heroes on the other saving those unicorns with their laser-beams" If it took less than five minutes to explain, it’s all bullshit, no matter which side of the story you’re hearing. Not to mention the fact that the person asking the question usually doesn’t have a clue about the ethnic and geopolitical background that led to the whole mess, because who really cares about a tiny island in the middle of the Indian ocean?
But here is a simplified background on what happened, over thirty years ago.
So there is this country, Sri Lanka. Most of the people there are Sinhalese. Less people are Tamil. After becoming a semi-proper democracy back around 60 years ago, the majority Sinhalese began the standard democratic practice of treating the minorities like shit. Not nearly as badly as white America screwed over black America, I mean, we’re not barbarians, but still there were some major disparities. So eventually, about 30 years ago, a small group of Tamils decided enough was enough, and made a fuss. A couple of soldiers died in that fuss. The Sinhalese population thought that was rather bad form, and rioted. Much chaos ensued, many Tamil-owned houses were burned to a crisp (sometimes with Tamils in them), and a lot of Tamils had to flee the country for their lives.
In the ensuing 30 years, a war was waged that resulted in a massive loss of life on both sides. It’s difficult for me to explain how I feel about this part in an unbiased manner because seeing the results of a suicide-bombing first hand tends to hamper one’s sympathy for the cause espoused by the bomber, as I’m sure you’ll understand. Either way, the bloody war drew to an end a few years ago, with Sri Lanka declaring loud and proud that they truly ‘defeated terrorism’. The loudest and proudest voices were of course, the Sinhalese Buddhists.
Since the End of the War, the Sinhalese Buddhists have become even more xenophobic than before. A few of them, led by Buddhist monks no less, have organised themselves into Sri Lanka’s version of the Ku Klux Klan known as The Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS). They are on the brink of instigating yet another civil war. History is repeating itself, except this time it is the Muslims that are being targeted, since the ‘Tamils’ have already been ‘defeated’.
Why am I writing about this now? Last weekend, Aluthgama, a small town on the southern coast of Sri Lanka witnessed riots. Several people have been killed, and many more injured. The town is burning, and a curfew is in place. The people are running out of food because of the curfew, and the BBS is blocking any food parcels being sent in. The police are apathetic observers at best, because they are mostly Sinhalese Buddhists. Ignoring the violence is a matter of policy. The politicians are staunchly pro-Buddhists and racists against the Muslims. It is a jungle out there, and the violence is escalating. This incident is but one in a long series of events that rarely get reported on because of the atmosphere of silence. But disturbing snippets leak out. YouTube has a speech in which the leader of the BBS (a Buddhist monk) is heard saying that if even one ‘marakkalaya’ (a derogatory Sinhala word for Muslim) so much as laid a hand on a Sinhalese, that it would mean the end of all of them (Bodu Bala Sena Meeting - Aluthgama). The speech, in Sinhalese, makes me shiver because it is so reminiscent of the type of rhetoric that precedes communal and ethnic war. The sort of people who listen to racist priests and politicians.
The media in Sri Lanka is predictably silent. The ‘adults’ are predictably silent. The old hatred runs deep. But it is heartening to see commentary on social media condemning these incidents. I have seen many of my Sri Lankan friends, speak out against these events. Perhaps there is still hope. To paraphrase another article on this topic, it feels like “the war never ended, we just took some time off” (http://goo.gl/jpZFFe)
Image: Fire services struggling to control another Muslim shop on fire in #Aluthgama (via http://goo.gl/X0hmeY)