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At home and abroad: accountability, reconciliation and Sinhala Buddhism

Sri Lanka announced recently that it would launch a domestic probe to investigate war time mass atrocities in time for the release of the UN mandated investigation due in September. The announcement, made in the wake of a high profile visit to the island by the US Secretary of State John Kerry late last month, suggests that Sri Lanka is responding to international demands. However, it is not clear that this new international engagement necessarily translates to real changes on the ground. The government’s behaviour is notably contradictory. While it reassures international audiences that it is taking accountability seriously and is committed to reform and reconciliation, it says quite another to domestic Sinhala Buddhist constituencies. This duplicity is worrying and suggests that the government is intent on continuing with business as normal rather than committing to the deep changes in governance that are needed to secure a just and lasting peace.

While abroad or speaking to international audiences, both the President and Foreign Minister have made pious sounding commitments to power-sharing, reconciliation and the need for accountability. At home however, things are different. When speaking to domestic audiences the new government has rejected ‘foreign intervention,’ including the findings of the UN investigation and made clear its commitment to keep the Tamil speaking areas under tight military control. Having announced a domestic probe into war time atrocities, the Foreign Minister quickly explained that it was primarily a patriotic exercise designed to ‘salvage the name of our country and our armed forces.’ The new probe is therefore likely to be identical to previous ones that have been dismissed by human rights organisations as exercises in ‘make believe,’ farcical attempts to deflect international criticism. Furthermore far from moving towards reconciliation, the new government has reacted with hostility to popular Tamil demands. When the Northern Provincial Council passed a resolution describing Sri Lankan state repression as genocide – a resolution the Chief Minister hoped would also be an ‘epistle’ to his Sinhalese ‘brothers and sisters’ - the Prime Minister responded by denouncing it as ‘racist’ before going on to gloat over the UN’s decision to defer the publication of its’ report as a ‘slap in the face’ for the Council.

This duplicity cannot, however, be dismissed as mere populist rhetoric that conceals more honourable purposes. The new government’s failure to translate now pressing international demands to domestic audiences is sending the Sinhala electorate the wrong signals. During his recent visit, John Kerry stressed the need for Sri Lanka to co-operate with the UN inquiry whilst taking concrete steps towards a political solution to the Tamil question. The British and Indian Prime Ministers have given similar messages in their meetings with President Sirisena. Yet, when speaking to Sinhala audiences the President insists that he is not under international pressure whilst the Foreign Minister heralds Sri Lanka’s ‘return to the international stage’ without explaining what Sri Lanka is expected to do in return.

In the absence of a countervailing explanation, Sinhalese voters can be forgiven for thinking that the international community’s renewed enthusiasm for Sri Lanka’s is simply a matter of the new government’s more skilful diplomacy and high profile diplomatic visits can be read as an endorsement of the Sinhala majoritarian status quo. Certainly John Kerry’s visit to a Buddhist temple, abstracted from the overarching messages on accountability and reconciliation, and the new government’s trumpeting of its international successes, will be read in this light. Buddhism in Sri Lanka is after all not just a religion but asserted as the ‘rightful’ and ‘national’ religion of the entire island, and one that is guaranteed the ‘foremost’ place in the constitution and which the state has a responsibility to ‘protect and foster.’

The privileging of Buddhism moreover regularly requires the subordination of other identities. Just days before Mr. Kerry’s visit, a government appointed commission ordered the destruction of the long established Kuragala mosque claiming that it sat on Buddhist archaeological site. Meanwhile across the occupied north-east the military builds Buddhist temples and conducts elaborate Buddhist festivals amongst the overwhelmingly non-Buddhist population whilst also preventing locals from culturally and economically rebuilding in the aftermath of devastating war. The government’s duplicity – saying one thing abroad and another at home - appears to secure international legitimacy for this reality and makes the transformations that will be needed for a more a more inclusive order to emerge that much more difficult to secure.

Continued international engagement will be crucial to establishing credible accountability in Sri Lanka as well as a lasting political settlement. However, Sinhala leaders also need to step up to the plate and make clear to their electorate that the status quo of ethnic hierarchy and ongoing militarised repression in the Tamil speaking areas is internationally unsustainable, quite apart from it being ethically un-defendable . The end of apartheid in South Africa was presaged by F. W De Klerk’s campaign amongst white South Africans that spelt out the necessity of political reform to ward off the threat of further international cultural and economic isolation that was imminent in a post-Cold War world where apartheid could no longer be justified on the basis of its alleged centrality to the global anti-communist campaign.

If the new government is serious about its international pledges, it must start doing the hard talk with the Sinhala electorate. If instead it continues on its current course of pledging accountability, political reform and an inclusive multi-ethnic order to international audiences whilst pandering to the Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism of domestic ones, this current set of pledges will simply be washed away by the next tide of Sinhala nationalist mobilisation as have all previous ones. Most recently the Norwegian mediated talks were cut adrift by a surge of Sinhala nationalist mobilisation that balked at any compromise with the Tamils; a dynamic that rehearsed the failure of the most distant compromise between Bandaranaike and Chelvanayagam in 1957 undone by Sinhala Buddhist mobilisation including a now infamous march to the Buddhist temple in Kandy by the uncle of the present Prime Minister. Sinhala leaders need to make the case for the urgent necessity of change before Sinhala audiences – not Tamil or international ones who do not need convincing. But this is precisely what they are not doing.