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Significance of Aluthgama

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Almost at the centenary of the first anti-Muslim riots by Sinhala mobs in 1915, the violence unleashed against Muslims in the Aluthgama last month marks a new step in the advance of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony in Sri Lanka. While the active complicity of the military and police in the organised attacks by Sinhala nationalists on Muslim businesses and homes is well recognised, what is striking is not only the government’s open contempt for Muslim leaders’ frantic protests and appeals, but the wider demonstrable support for the nationalist BBS (Buddhist Power Force) movement. Much of the analysis and commentary since the riots however, underplays the significance of Aluthgama, portraying the violence and the racism that informed it as the preserve of a small and extremist few. This ignores, and even denies, the wider legitimacy enjoyed by the BBS, within Sinhala polity, media and public pointedly refusing to condemn the group's ideological goals. Far from being an extremist fringe, the BBS is the latest vanguard of a long-running, deeply entrenched and widely supported project of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist order making that has shaped Sri Lanka since independence. 
The echoes of the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 are immediately apparent in the latest Sinhala rioting. As the Tamil economy was then targeted, albeit in a much more expansive fashion, Aluthgama was intended to break the economic backbone of the local Muslim community, whilst sending a clear message to all Muslims and their leaders that the terms of their hitherto accommodation within Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony have changed. The cause is clear: as Tamils had long predicted, rather than enabling the flourishing of repressed liberal values, the defeat of the LTTE removed the most serious obstacle to Sinhala-Buddhist project and paved the way for an intensification of state-facilitated majoritarian terror.
While the links between state leaders, in particular Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and the BBS are widely acknowledged, what is notable though, is the much muted, qualified criticism of the BBS' campaign that is arguably implicit endorsement, by the wider Sinhala polity, clergy and public. Indeed despite routine claims that ‘most Sinhalese do not support’ the BBS, the aftermath of Aluthgama suggests otherwise. The opposition UNP, often touted as the liberal alternative to President Rajapaksa’s violent and authoritarian rule, has been careful not to criticise the BBS’ ideological values. Instead, framing Aluthgama as a law-and-order problem, the UNP has focused its criticism solely on the government. Indeed, the words of UNP leader Ranil Wickramasinghe are indistinguishable from those of President Rajapaksa: calling for restraint on ‘both sides’, they both portray the violence as lawlessness in which both the Sinhala mobs and the Muslim victims are equally culpable, with neither leader expressing solidarity with the Muslim community or rejection of ethnic majoritarianism.
The responses of the Sinhala polity reflects that of wider Sinhala society. Large numbers have publicly rejoiced at the violence, with anti-Muslim hate speech proliferating across social media sites. Any criticism, albeit expressed by a vocal minority, limits itself to the violent methods adopted by the BBS in pursuit of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy, not the chauvinist ideology itself. Meanwhile, as the rioting unfolded, all but two of the country’s media sites maintained a news blackout for over 24 hours. Sri Lankan doctors were later accused of colluding with security forces and falsifying post-mortem reports. What is striking is that these actions required no instruction or coercion - that Sinhala-Buddhist violence against Muslims ought to be censored was the instinctive conclusion.
Aluthgama and its aftermath mark an important step in the Sinhala-Buddhist project. While Sinhala violence against Muslims is not new – the 1915 riots were the first, with regular eruptions since - the expanding challenge posed by the Tamils to Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist order prompted a temporary accommodation that endured so long as the LTTE remained a potent threat. For decades, rather than resist the Sinhala Buddhist project, Sri Lankan Muslim leaders responded with accommodation and acquiescence, in exchange for a degree of space within it. This suited successive Sinhala regimes who, focused on crushing Tamil resistance, actively encouraged Tamil-Muslim enmity, with devastating consequences: actively supporting the government’s military onslaught against the Tamils, including forming paramilitary (‘Home Guard’) forces, Muslims were subject to Tamil militant attacks including the mass expulsion from Jaffna by the LTTE, while Tamils endured Muslim violence in the island’s east. The tacit Sinhala-Muslim agreement of accommodation however, has been rendered void with the defeat of the LTTE. Confident of having eliminating the Tamil challenge, the Sinhala-Buddhist project is now ruthlessly redrawing the terms of its tolerance for the Muslims, as exemplified by the humiliating and racist responses Muslim leaders within the ruling coalition received when they demanded government action against the BBS, as well as the cold shoulders and openly chauvinist reactions from other Sinhala parties.
Aluthgama and its aftermath occurs within a wider context where Sri Lankan state leaders no longer feel any compulsion to even pretend to adhere to liberal principles. This is not without good reason.  The wider legitimacy of Sinhala nationalist values, whilst routinely denied by many Sri Lankan liberals, underpins much public support for the state leaders' actions. Consequently, it is crucial those committed to an inclusive and liberal future for Sri Lanka recognise Aluthgama for what it is: a microcosm of surging and deeply entrenched Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism, rather than a chance episode of violence by an extremist fringe.

Illustration Keera Ratnam

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