Savi Hensman

Violence, ethnicity, religion and ancient symbols

By Savi Hensman
May 12, 2008

Smoke rose into the sky above Colombo in July 1983 as Sinhalese men burned the homes and businesses of Tamils, and killed some, while others hid or fled. Twenty-five years later, violence is again tearing Sri Lanka apart.

A former Olympic athlete, the national coach and a government minister blown up by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber in April 2008 were among the high-profile victims, but numerous others have been maimed or killed in recent months.

The violence in Sri Lanka is often described as the result of an ‘ethnic conflict’ between Sinhalese and Tamil people dating back to ancient times. Yet many of the human rights abuses which have taken place in Sri Lanka have been within, rather than between, communities (of which there are several). And cultural symbols have often been exploited by those seeking political and economic gain.

A closer look at the Sri Lankan experience may throw some light on other situations where struggles supposedly based on ethnicity or religion turn out to be more complex – and where human rights are of critical importance.

True believers?

For thousands of years, the island of Lanka has been home to people of various languages and faiths. At times feudal leaders have fought one another, at others formed alliances, while ordinary people have had dealings across communities and sometimes intermarried.

By the mid-twentieth century Sinhalese people, mainly Buddhist, were most numerous, followed by Tamils (some originating from the North and East, others from the central hill-country), mainly Hindu, then Muslims and smaller minorities. Christians could be found in various ethnic communities. There were high levels of religious tolerance – many believed that there were various paths to enlightenment, and in some places Buddhists and Hindus even shared shrines.

When Ceylon, as it was then known, gained independence, many had high hopes. Freedom from colonial rule seemed to many a rich opportunity for Ceylonese of both sexes and diverse beliefs and backgrounds to shape the country’s future together. Though some people still tended to look up to those of higher social status, mass literacy and a culture of vigorous political debate helped to create conditions for a lively democracy.

Leaders who were too pompous risked being satirised, alternative approaches to development were publicly discussed and the turnout at elections was high. Popular movements were able to mobilise to secure better living conditions for ordinary people, including free education up to university level and free healthcare in government clinics and hospitals. As in the rest of the world there was sexism, but women who were lucky and determined could pursue careers; later, Ceylon was to become the first country to elect a woman as prime minister.

But in an international political and social order dominated by Western powers and the Soviet bloc, progress was sometimes painfully slow, though a welfare state and public services provided some protection to the poorest in society. Frustration at the impact of underdevelopment, and competition for jobs and resources, created fertile ground for the growth of communal tension.

The centre-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and conservative United National Party (UNP) competed for power, and both were willing to stoke up prejudice among Sinhalese voters for their own ends. The decision to declare Sinhala as the only official language, and murderous attacks on Tamils in 1958 by thugs linked with the SLFP government, dismayed many people who longed for a pluralistic multicultural Ceylon.

Some Tamil politicians also played on ethnic sentiment. There were calls for greater autonomy for the North and East of the island, where most residents were Tamil, and by the late 1970s a handful of young people had taken up arms for a separate state, though they had little popular support.

Modernity is sometimes contrasted with religion, with different people favouring one or the other. Modernity is widely thought of as rational, scientific and forward-looking, religion as going beyond the rational and rooted in tradition or personal conviction.

Yet these have a sometimes subtle mutual influence, and both are affected by economic and social factors. Notions of progress and what is reasonable may be coloured by values and aspirations based on faith or self-interest, while religious teachers’ focus on, and interpretation of, particular texts and customs may be shaped in part by current trends and controversies.

This can have negative as well as positive consequences. The idea of race as a scientific category, for instance, took hold across the British empire and beyond in the nineteenth century and, despite powerful evidence of its illusory nature, continues to influence thinking. Culture, which is constantly changing, profoundly affects people’s experiences of ethnicity and gender, and the understanding of what it means to be a ‘Sinhalese boy’ or ‘Tamil woman’ can vary across generations, classes and social and political movements.

In Sri Lanka thirty years ago, to some outside observers it might have seemed that the residents could easily be classified by community, yet there were major social and ideological divisions, intensified by problems such as high graduate unemployment. Some Tamil Hindus loathed what remained of the caste system and wanted an end to dowries, the subordination of women and exploitation of the poor.

Others defended inequalities which they saw as valuable aspects of their identity. Some Sinhalese sought a privileged position for Buddhists, since Sri Lanka was one of very few countries where Buddhism was the majority religion and in addition many Buddhists were economically deprived. Others believed that this went against the universalist and non-acquisitive nature of Buddhism, or the need to build solidarity among the disadvantaged of all communities. Some business and political leaders strove for greater economic independence, others saw their future in terms of alliances with multinationals and the Western governments which backed them.

Internationally, too, there were profound differences on the way forward for the economically disadvantaged countries of the global South. Some people and organisations sought greater equality among as well as within nations and human rights for all, while others believed that free markets (at least in the South), promotion of international trade and corporate interests, and privatisation of public services were the way forward.

The term ‘market fundamentalism’ has since become popular: certainly, at the time, promoters of this approach in the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and beyond were passionate, some might say fanatical, though from their point of view they were entirely rational.

Downhill into blood-drenched chaos

The UNP government which took charge in 1977 set about creating a Sri Lanka where international investment was encouraged and troublemakers who might get in the way of profitability and ‘economic growth’ suppressed. The constitution was changed to centralise power in the hands of the newly-created role of Executive President, and large numbers of young people recruited to a gang-style ‘union’. This set about intimidating trade unions, attacking striking workers and activists in opposition parties, even threatening judges who brought in verdicts with which government ministers disagreed.

Economic reform of the kind prescribed by the World Bank was imposed, opening up new opportunities for some but plunging the poorest into destitution. After a general strike in 1980, large numbers of workers were sacked.

Such notions as the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of one’s interests and the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family, though set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, were clearly regarded as getting in the way of the kind of ‘progress’ which was being pursued.

So was the belief that no one should be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, or to arbitrary arrest: a draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act was introduced under which many young Tamils were detained and brutally interrogated, in an effort to root out the handful of rebels.

Far from stamping out the Tamil nationalist movement, this swelled its ranks, as resentment grew in the North and East against an army which behaved like an occupation force. In the South, support grew for the JVP (Janatha Vimukti Peramuna or People's Liberation Front), a party which veered between Sinhalese nationalism and political radicalism, and which had at one time engaged in armed rebellion, though it had now taken the parliamentary route.

The government tried to establish its credentials as a champion of national interests, the Sinhalese people and Buddhism, lavishing favour on extremist clergy and making the defeat of a mediaeval Tamil king by a Sinhalese rival the centrepiece of the school curriculum. The vilification of ethnic minorities had some effect, but disaffection was rife.

Parliamentary elections were due in 1983; if these were free and fair, it was practically certain that the ruling UNP would lose. So the elections were ‘postponed’, and instead a campaign of arson and murder was mounted against Tamils in the South and central parts of the island. Supposedly this was mob violence as a result of the deaths of some soldiers in combat, but it was evidently far better coordinated, and permitted by the police.

As Paul Sieghart of the International Commission of Jurists later observed, ‘This was not a spontaneous upsurge of communal hatred among Sinhala people. It was a series of deliberate acts, executed in accordance with a concerted plan, conceived and organized well in advance.’

Many Sri Lankans were horrified, including sizeable numbers of Sinhalese who sheltered Tamil friends and neighbours during the ‘riots’. There was international indignation, but the Colombo-based regime had powerful backers: by this time Ronald Reagan was in the US White House and Margaret Thatcher was the UK prime minister.

Many Tamils lost confidence in the hope that they would be safe in a united Sri Lanka. There was a surge of support for the notion of an independent state. The government banned organisations and parties calling for separation, and Tamil nationalist MPs had to step down. The JVP was also banned, on the grounds that it was supposedly responsible for the ‘riots’. The opposition in parliament and civil society had been firmly dealt with.

Yet this did not result in a politically and economically stable Sri Lanka attractive to international investors and tourists and offering trouble-free prosperity to a local elite. Instead, with opportunities for peaceful dissent shut off, large numbers of Tamil and Sinhalese youth turned to armed struggle, and militarism spread.

In an increasingly violent society where members of the armed forces kidnapped, tortured and murdered without hindrance, Tamil nationalists went in for terrorism, attacking Sinhalese and Muslim civilians and fighting among themselves: one movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, emerged as the victor, killing off or driving into exile rival Tamil groups and dissidents in its own ranks.

The Tigers recruited child soldiers, and assassinated some suspected of ‘disloyalty’ while imprisoning others in underground dungeons. The JVP too used brutal methods. Battles took place in which civilians of various communities were bombed, shelled and driven from their homes; there was also ‘dirty war’ in which people were killed or ‘disappeared’ at the hands of death squads or shadowy armed groups.

The instability in Sri Lanka threatened to destabilise its neighbours, and the Indian government intervened, but soon it too got pulled into the mess. In the North and East, different Tamils armed groups formed shifting alliances with the Indian or Sri Lankan forces in an effort to get the upper hand or at least protect their members: even those who sought to quit militant movements were frequently targeted.

In parts of the South where the JVP was strong, Sinhalese soldiers slaughtered Sinhalese youth in the hope that at least some were rebels, burning bodies with tires so that many families could not even identify and mourn their dead. India withdrew, and its own former prime minister became a casualty, a victim of a Tiger suicide bomber.

Amidst the violence and upheaval, ordinary people had very little power – for instance when Tamils in Mannar pleaded with the Tigers not to drive out their Muslim neighbours they were disregarded – and even members of the ruling elite found themselves insecure. Some of the Sri Lankan UNP politicians who had helped to create the situation were also assassinated: in certain cases, members of their own party were suspected of involvement.

Much use was indeed made of ancient symbols and stories from history, but the version of Buddhism promoted by the Sri Lankan regime was a long way from the detachment from worldly passions and compassion for all living beings taught by the Buddha. The much-vaunted chivalry of ancient monarchs and warriors bore little resemblance to the butchery by armed men and women of unarmed farmers and fisherfolk, clerks and commuters. And humiliation and massive violence was inflicted within as well as among ethnic and religious groups.

A glimmer of hope?

In the mid-90s the people of Sri Lanka, fed up of the mayhem, turned out in the streets in large numbers to prevent vote-rigging, and elected as president a human rights activist from one of the dynasties which dominated local politics. By non-violent means they had managed to thwart one of the most violent regimes in the world. In contrast to the ‘Sinhala-Buddhism’ of top politicians and the militarism of various groups, many ordinary people had remained inspired by the generosity and clarity of the Buddha, the example of Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu, and the justice and mercy emphasised in many Christian and Muslim teachings.

For a while, there seemed a hope of peace based on devolution of the power from central government to the provinces, including the North and East. The armed forces were reined in, and Sri Lankans of various communities experienced greater security. Yet progress ground to a halt because of political rivalry and corruption in the South, resistance by the autocratic Tiger leadership to a compromise involving democracy and, arguably, poor advice from international conflict resolution ‘experts’.

Sporadic violence resumed. A Norwegian-led peace initiative which treated communities as blocs, focused on appeasing the most powerful and violent within them and sidelined human rights made matters worse. Intense fighting has resumed, human rights violations by the government (now SLFP-led) as well as the Tigers are taking place on a major scale and a just settlement seems far off.

While young men have been especially at risk, many young women also live in fear of violence, sometimes from within their own communities, and in some parts of the island have less freedom than did their grandmothers half a century ago.

On a more positive note, there is far greater international recognition of what many Sri Lankan campaigners have long argued – that moves towards peace must take account of diverse views among Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim people and the human rights of all. And within and outside the country, many continue to strive to ensure that Sri Lanka can survive as a decentralised, multicultural country where people of all communities are treated with respect. While religion and cultural heritage can be powerful aspects of identity, there is much too that Sri Lankans have in common, of which the 2004 tsunami was a poignant reminder.

Worldwide, too, searching questions have been asked about ‘modernisation’, which may have a variety of meanings, some positive and others less so.

Beneath the surface

Over the past century, in many parts of the world, violence linked with ethnicity or religion has taken a heavy toll. When this happens in Asia, Africa or Latin America, it is sometimes explained away as if people from these continents are particularly prone to be carried away by sentiments linked to the distant past. Yet such situations have also arisen in Western Europe and North America.

And behind the ancient symbols lie present-day ambitions and frustrations, alliances and rivalries, while local and international power-politics can fuel conflicts. What leaders may claim as permanent customs or beliefs of a community may turn out, on closer investigation, to be quite recent in origin, or long abandoned until revived in pursuit of a present-day objective.

It is important to look beneath the surface, including at the experience of the most marginalised in all communities. While the forces that divide can be very powerful, they may be more manageable if they can be acknowledged.

Ironically, what is most beautiful and precious in cultural legacies and faith traditions may be undermined by the leaders who are supposedly their most ardent champions, while advocates of universal human rights can create conditions where this heritage is properly valued.

And historical events and sacred texts which are cited in attempts to control and divide may also have more positive aspects; Buddhist practice, for instance, may help people to stay detached from the hatred and envy of other communities which may be promoted up by irresponsible media and ambitious leaders. Drawing on varying traditions to foster wisdom and compassion can assist in creating conditions in which people from diverse backgrounds can live together in peace.


© Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities and is a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. Savi is an Ekklesia associate.

This article is part of a series on Human Rights, human wrongs and religion.

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