20 May 2008
At the heart of the Sri Lankan conflict is racism. And the insecurity, envy and hatred that always accompanies racism.
A common explanatory adage for the bitter conflict today is that the Sinhala people suffer from ‘insecurity’; that they see themselves as a unique island people under perpetual threat.
Apparently there are ‘only’ 17 million Sinhalese in the world, in fear of being swamped by the billion Indians across the Palk Straits, especially the 60 million Tamils – because there are ‘already’ 3 million Tamils on the island.
‘Surrounded’ by these ‘others’ in the region, the Sinhalese are reportedly a ‘majority with a minority complex’.
International analysts and diplomats routinely accept this ‘insecurity.’ For example a report by the conflict think tank, International Crisis Group, worries that “the international community has struggled to come to terms with Sinhala nationalism, frequently misunderstanding its nature and legitimacy.”
“Interventions, even including the Norwegian-sponsored 2002 ceasefire, which most Sinhalese ultimately judged as too favourable to the LTTE, have tended to stimulate xenophobic elements in the Sinhala community and help the extreme nationalist parties gain ground,” the ICG patiently spells out.
A BBC survey of the mood on the street in Colombo quotes a middle class Sinhala professional explaining the historic insecurity of the Sinhalese, how they are a minority compared to neighbouring India and how this has fuelled the race ‘tension’ with the Tamils.
Bear in mind that not once has India, the Indian Tamils or, for that matter, the Sri Lankan Tamils, laid claim to the Sinhala territories.
The irrationality of this ‘minority while a majority’ complex struck me when a Dutch colleague expansively informed me, in a recent discussion about identity: “you know, there are almost 17 million of us Dutch.”
Arguably, the ‘just’ 16.57 million Dutch in Holland are very much ‘surrounded’ by over 700 million “others” in Europe, including 82 million Germans who not so long ago invaded and occupied their homeland.
But there is no minority complex, despite a resurgent Germany driving European fortunes. Indeed, Holland is an enthusiastic participant in the European project.
Moreover, The Netherlands is the 25th most densely populated country in the world whereas Sri Lanka is 39th.
Nonetheless, the Dutch do not think of themselves as a ‘small’ nation under threat of being swamped. But apparently, the Sinhalese are a to be seen as a fearful ‘small’ nation under siege.
This alone is not enough for conflict, of course. Having found themselves an enemy without, the Sinhalese have also found an enemy within: the island’s Tamils.
Of course, every nation has its bit of racism. In Europe, for example, far right groups in many states love to hate immigrants (usually, but not exclusively, the dark-skinned kind): “they are taking away our jobs”, “they don’t want to fit in”, “our identity will be lost” and so on. 17% of the French voted for the National Front in 2002.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Sinhala people also had their form of ‘immigration angst’: immediately after independence, they enthusiastically supported the stripping of citizenship from a million ‘Indian’ Tamils who had been brought to the island by the British generations earlier to work on the plantations.
What was served by this act of pure racism? What were these people who had been born on the island and knew no other home expected to do? The answer is the war cry of far rightists everywhere: “go back to your country!”
But the deep-seated racism in Sri Lanka is different. For the Tamils of the Northeast are not recent or arriving immigrants and this is not the usual angst of ‘integration’.
Rather, the Tamil people have lived on the island in their own contiguous, distinct, geographical territory for millennia. They lay claim only to the territory they have historically lived in. In fact, the 3 million Tamils constituted a nation with distinct self-governance until invaded and occupied by Colonial powers – who amalgamated them with the Sinhala nation and territory for pure administrative convenience.
However, having accorded themselves an insecurity complex, the Sinhalese are now apparently entitled to dictate the fortunes of the Tamils. Hence their ‘legitimate fears and grievances’ in the conflict.
The destruction of a people begins with the shattering of its identity. But to create the necessary conditions for the destruction of a minority, there needs to be not only an ‘insecurity complex’, but shared focus on the ‘enemy within’ – demonization necessarily precedes annihilation.
The Tamils may have never claimed any Sinhala territory. Yet within years of independence in 1948 (at which point, both 3m Tamils and 17m Sinhalese inherited a reasonably healthy state), Sinhala ‘insecurity’ came to the fore as reality for them to contend with.
Knowing that the island was home to two distinct, though not antagonistic, cultures, what could possibly be the Sinhala population’s rationale in opting for the ‘Sinhala Only’ Language Act in 1956?
Except to deny that ‘other’, enemy, nation its identity and, ergo, its legitimate existence?
What is the mind set of the civil service official, the teacher, the academic or other worker who casts his or her vote on the promise of such a chauvinistic act - knowing full well that it will require their Tamil colleagues to either learn Sinhalese and pass a fluency test or lose their jobs?
And, 25 years later, what could possibly be the logic of Sinhala ministers and police torching the Jaffna library and its 97,000 (yes, ninety seven thousand) rare historical books and archival manuscripts in 1981?
Why did this act of cultural vandalism provoke, not shock and dismay amongst the Sinhala nation, but quiet satisfaction?
Sixty years after independence, the Tamils are still, apparently, a source of Sinhala ‘insecurity’. That is why all manner of violence can be unleashed against them – all in the name of the making the Sinhalese ‘secure’.
Tamils are bombed, starved en masse, abducted, ‘disappeared’, driven from their towns and villages into refugee camps. The Toronto Star last week quoted a Western diplomat as saying: “nowhere in Sri Lanka are the Tamils safe. What's happening here is de facto ethnic cleansing.”
And yet all this is apparently explainable through the logic of Sinhala ‘insecurity’.
Amid racially-driven antagonism, minorities sometimes seek to camouflage themselves: integrating, lowering their profile and so on. But, ultimately, none of this will offer no protection against a chauvinistic adversary.
And ‘democracy’ is no hindrance to racism. Indeed, democracy only serves to allow racism – on the basis of democratic will itself – to gain momentum.
If this sounds familiar it should be; the story of such racism mobilising by winning elections and leading to genocide is not new. This is the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel by the then long-persecuted Jewish people.
The Nazis came to power though the elections of July 1932, as Germany’s single largest party, with 37.5% of the popular vote. They took over 13 million votes compared to their nearest rivals, the Social Democrats with 8 million votes.
Moreover, the Nazis had increased their base from the previous elections in 1928 by appealing, not to the ignorant, but to middle class voters.
The marginalisation and persecution of the Jews in Germany also started with legislation; in 1933 the Nazis passed a law purging the civil service of officials of Jewish descent. Admission to the legal profession was restricted, media was purged of Jews, as were artistic professions. The military was sine quo non.
The parallels these dynamics have to Sri Lanka’s post-independence history are unmistakable.
The conditions often cited for the rise of Nazism were the economic depression of the inter-war years and the grievances of the German people against the ‘peace’ that the Allies imposed following Germany’s defeat in the WW1.
Herein was the ‘enemy without’. And the Jews were the ‘enemy within’
In ‘Mein Kampf’ Hitler opines: “the strength of a nation lies first of all, not in its arms but its will, and before conquering the external enemy the enemy at home would have to be eliminated.”
The Jews, according to Hitler, held unfair economic advantage; they were the cause of Germany’s ills.
This, by the way, is the exact claim the Sinhalese made whilst justifying ‘Sinhala Only’; that Tamils had been ‘privileged’ by the British over the Sinhalese. There is no explanation for why, however.
As early as 1925 Hitler had stressed to the Nazi party the need to focus on a single combined enemy: ‘Marxism and the Jew.’
Today, replace “Marxism” with “Terrorism”. With this all purpose label, the demonization of the Tamils is complete.
There is an interesting difference between Nazi Germany and Sri Lanka: unlike the Tamil people, the Jewish people did not live in contiguous territory where they were a majority. Indeed, the Jews were deeply integrated into the host German population for centuries. And many believed, quite erroneously, as we now know, that such integration would protect them.
It is also known now that even as the Nazi intent unfolded, even as the racist legislation was passed and thereafter followed by mob violence, arbitrary arrests and detention, following Krisatallnacht, (when over 1000 Synagogues were burned as were Jewish shops and businesses, hundreds killed and 30,000 men imprisoned in concentration camps), just over 50% of the Jewish population of the Reich (Germany, Austria, the German Czech areas) emigrated.
What is interesting is that he other half of the Jews stayed. As Lucille Eichengreen, a survivor interviewed by Laurance Rees for his book ‘Auschwitz’ says: “when we asked at home, the answer was “It’s a passing phase, it will normalise”.”
And this too is part of the human psyche. The clinging to the familiar, the semblance of safety, even when cold logic says it is not be there. In short, a refusal to acknowledge what is unfolding.
In the initial stages of the Holocaust, the Nazis were content to ‘cleanse’ Germany via the forced emigration of Jews. They even profited from it by taking money from those who left.
Sounds familiar? In Sri Lanka, almost a quarter of the Tamils have been forced abroad. But over 400,000 live in Colombo, though many are awaiting visas or otherwise hoping to go abroad: Colombo’s high rental prices are sustained by these people ‘in transit’.
In contrast to Kristallnacht, the July 1983 pogrom saw, not hundreds, but three thousand Tamils butchered.
And in the pre-statehood history of the Jewish people is the answer to those who argue that there are Tamils who choose to remain in Colombo ‘amongst the Sinhalese’– despite the checkpoints, the midnight round ups and the occasional deportations to the Northeast.
Indeed, as the Nazis marched through Europe, there were Jewish people in many of the occupied countries who stayed instead of fleeing, hoping that somehow they would be able to live through the ‘abnormality’.
And the Jewish people were not the only ones who refused to see what was inescapable before them.
Laurence Rees interviewed Germans on their attitudes towards the deportations of the Jews amongst them. Uwe Storjohann from Hamburg told him: “maybe around 20% [of Germans] welcomed this with huge joy (“They are only parasites”). But the vast majority bypassed what was happening with silence.”
Moreover, Uwe recalled “the thought occurred: What will happen to these people. I knew of course that it couldn’t be anything positive. They would be sent off into a terrible world”.
According to Rees: “Uwe Storjohann’s admission that he knew the Jews were being sent into a terrible world is probably close to the state of mind of most Germans at the time.”
These two dynamics – the ‘insecure’ majority and the minority ‘enemy within’ – are visibly at play in Sri Lanka. For a quarter of a century, the Sinhala majority have supported the brutality of their governments – after all, it is about their ‘security’, isn’t it?
Rees also interviewed middle level German officials who ran the concentration camps. Interestingly, he found few who relied on the excuse that they were following orders. On the contrary, the explanation often given to him by interviewees was that they believed they were doing the right thing. They believed the Jewish people were the enemy within. No different from the external enemy being fought in the war.
They now accepted they may have been wrong in that belief, but the facts as they them knew at the time led them to that firm belief and, hence, to their murderous actions.
Rees believes so many former Nazis (as an interesting aside, when does a Nazi become a ‘former’ Nazi?) found this self-justification because the Nazi regime built on strongly held prior prejudices against Jews.
Just as in Sri Lanka, there is a solid foundation of existing anti-Tamil prejudices that have been drawn up by Sinhala nationalism – from the ‘privileged’ Tamil to the ‘threatening outsiders’ to ‘terrorist supporters’ and so on.
Of course, it is easy – and convenient - to dismiss Hitler and the Nazis as an aberration, an extreme example, and therefore not a valid comparator.
But historians such as Alan Bullock (author of ‘Hitler: A Study in Tyranny’) and Rees converge in the belief that the terrible outcome, the Holocaust, cannot be attributed only to the Nazi regime but also to the prevalent culture, both in Germany and, moreover, in wider Europe: a racist logic of animosity towards the Jewish people.
As Alan Bullock notes, “Hitler indeed was a European no less a German phenomenon. The conditions and state of mind, which he exploited, the malaise of which he was the symptom were not confined to one country.”
Rees concurs: “Indeed the view that the crime of extermination of the Jews was somehow imposed by a few mad people upon an unwilling Europe is the most dangerous of all.”
Racism is a well known phenomenon now and the path that a racist ideology must trace when it comes to power via democratic government is predictable.
Hitler was able to openly articulate his racial ideology due to the prevailing bigotry in Europe. However, amid the global expectations of the 21st century, Sinhala racism has to be more inhibited in its rhetoric.
As A. Shastri notes, since the end of the Cold War, Sri Lanka’s main Sinhala political parties, increasingly sensitive to international opinion, were becoming ‘careful how they expressed themselves on the ethnic issue.’
The racist process that culminated in the horror of the concentration camps took years to advance. And it evolved organically not through explicit directives from above, but from circulating sentiments amongst the German majority.
“This notion that the Nazis proceeded incrementally against the Jews goes against the understandable desire to point to a single moment when one crucial decision was made for the final solution .. the Nazi regime was one that practised what one historian famously called ‘cumulative radicalisation’,” says Rees.
Likewise, the racist radicalisation of Sri Lanka is also cumulative. It began with chauvinistic legislation and constitutions from 1956, accompanied by a series of increasingly violent pogroms, and culminated in a full frontal attack by the state against the Tamil people.
Racism is the underlying logics of mass displacement, cleansing of historically habited Tamil land, bombing of schools and non-Buddhist places of worship, use of starvation and medical blockade.
Racism fosters the culture of impunity in which disappearances, summary killings, torture and rape take place in Sri Lanka.
The cumulative radicalisation against the Tamils, moreover, is achieved via the democratic process and sustained by it: the self-styled ‘insecurity’ of the Sinhalese is another word for racism.
And as long as the Sinhalese are confident they are winning the war against the Tamils, this chauvinism will grow.
As was the case amongst the German citizens of the Reich. As Rees puts it, “the central truth still holds that the majority of the German population, almost certainly right up until the moment where Germany started to lose the war, felt so personally secure and happy that they would have voted to keep Hitler in power if there had been free and fair elections.”
Recently, The Economist magazine pointed out, that if the war is not being won, the Sinhalese may be restrained by consideration of their own comfortable standard of living: “with much else to complain about, including soaring corruption and inflation at 25%, even the Sinhalese will not back this painful war indefinitely.”
It is in this context of economic comfort fostering tolerance of racism that the EU’s decusion to again extend its massive trade concessions and provide more aid to Sri Lanka must be considered.
What is interesting is how many of the EU countries, whilst protecting of their own Tamil citizens at home are more than ready to sacrifice the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
But Rees’ study of the attitudes amongst Germany’s European neighbours is instructive. When the Nazis invaded France and ordered the French authorities to hand over their Jews for deportation, the French complied. But they selected first, “foreign” Jews as opposed to “our” Jews. Similarly in the Channel Islands, “foreign” Jews were detained and handed over by the local authorities for deportation to Auschwitz.