By Izeth Hussain –
I now approach the question of why the SL Muslims should emulate the example set by the Chinese in South East Asia, particularly in the Philippines. First of all I must draw attention to the significance of the fact that the protracted anti-Muslim hate campaign and demonstrations failed to ignite mass Sinhalese action against the Muslims, as I noted earlier in this article. It is worth recounting my first-hand experience at Kalpitiya fishing harbor last year. I went there with the Muslim owner-driver of a van, whose family were native inhabitants of the place and were thoroughly familiar with it. It was sunset and the fishing boats were coming in, and in the absence of ethnic markers in the clothing all the fishermen looked alike to me. I was told that they consisted of all three ethnic groups, Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims. How were they getting on with each other? Quite well, no problems. But just a few days earlier there had been an impressive BBS anti-Muslim demonstration in Kalpitiya, with the usual bellowing, bawling, yelling, screeching, screaming fury against the Muslims. The next day the Sinhalese and the Muslims continued to live together in peace, amity, and co-operation.
One conclusion can be drawn from the anti-Muslim campaign. The Sinhalese racist extremists are together on one side with the Sinhalese state racists – by which term I mean the Sinhalese racists who have their hands on the levers of State power and their associates – while the people, including the Sinhalese people as a whole, are on the other side. It is believed that the majority of the members of the Government and of the ruling party are also with the people against the extremists. It is known also that the political party backing the extremists, the JHU, has negligible support among the mass of the Sinhalese Buddhists. The power of the extremists probably comes from the nexus with the State racists, and possibly also with a group or groups within the armed forces.
I am postulating here something like a dichotomy between the State and the people. It has to be expected in a country such as Sri Lanka where something like Rousseau’s conception of representative democracy prevails, in which the civil society and the Opposition are weak, in which the people can be treated like slaves in between elections, and an unrepresentative power elite can exercise inordinate power over the people. This dichotomy can be seen in the violence to which the Tamils were subjected by the racist State in past decades. From 1958 to 1977 there were no anti-Tamil riots at all. The incident in which at a cultural festival in Jaffna a live wire came down and several Tamils were electrocuted was not a riot. The so-called anti-Tamil riots between 1977 and 1983 were not authentic riots in which the people got out of hand. They were in reality pogroms organized and executed by the State terrorists and their agents. There was authentic people’s participation in anti-Tamil violence only on Black Friday, for a few hours in a limited area of Sri Lanka, because of a fear psychosis caused by the story that the Tigers had come into Colombo.
In the subsequent period also the dichotomy of State and people can be seen. While the thirty year war raged our ethnic groups got on well with each other, in what can reasonably be described as peace, amity, and co-operation. A noteworthy fact is that the LTTE attempts to provoke the Sinhalese into another July ’83 – such as the outrages in Anuradhapura and Kandy – failed completely. There is more than one way of explaining the remarkable restraint of the Sinhalese people in the face of repeated LTTE provocations. One explanation is cowardice: the Sinhalese felt free to attack the Tamils in the period 1977 to 1983, but not later on after the LTTE showed its strength, as there could be reprisals. But as I have pointed out above the anti-Tamil violence in the period between 1977 and 1983 was mainly an affair of the State, not of the people. At the present moment there is the highly significant fact that the BBS and other extremist groups have been failing – even though they have State backing – to ignite mass Sinhalese violence against the Muslims.
I come now to the example set by the Chinese in South East Asia. Here in Sri Lanka we have a State that has been inveterately Sinhala supremacist, racist, with a powerful hierarchical drive that has made the State deeply averse to giving the minorities fair and equal treatment. But at the same time we have the Sinhalese people with whom the minorities can most certainly live in peace, amity, and co-operation. A significant factor is that we now have a substantially extensive private sector, much of which is outside the grasp of the tentacles of the predatory State, constituting an area in which the minorities can thrive. The Chinese example suggests that the Muslims should eschew the State as far as might be possible and focus on making good in the private sector. That seems to be part of the essence of the Chinese success story in the Philippines.
I had two spells of service in the Philippines from 1970 to 1972 and from 1982 to 1985, and could observe at first hand the Chinese success story there. Originally the Chinese in SE Asia came mostly from South China with not much more than the clothes on their backs, but very quickly they started making their socio-economic ascent, and eventually became the most affluent ethnic group. Cultural characteristics deriving from the Confucian ethical system is usually taken as the foundation for their success. They did not go into the state sector, and instead exploited the ample opportunities in the private sector. They were at the top in the world of business and in the professions. Another important characteristic is that they were not prominent in the world of politics. They tended to be disliked for being pushful and avaricious as businessmen, but there was no hatred against them, and there was no Chinese ethnic problem in the Philippines. All this seems to be broadly true, with variations of course, about the Chinese in South East Asia as a whole.
The SL Muslims were traditionally absent from the state sector and focused on the private sector, but this has been changing in recent decades with more Muslims going into the state sector. However, the glamour and prestige of serving in the state sector has now practically vanished in Sri Lanka, and today, among all the ethnic groups, it is the students who are mediocre who join the state sector while the abler ones go in for the professions and business. So the SL Muslims are already emulating the Chinese through force of circumstance. But there is, in my view, a crucial difference in that the SL Muslims have a salience in politics – indeed a salience significantly greater than their numbers warrant – while the SE Asian Chinese are hardly there in the world of political power. That is certainly true of the Chinese in the Philippines, and it is probably true also of the Chinese in other SE Asian countries as well.
At this point my argument requires that I make a clarification about political power in Sri Lanka. Why do people want power? Firstly, they want to do good to the people, to make Sri Lanka a better place than it used to be. I am placing this reason first because it tends to be forgotten. Indeed in Sri Lanka it is regarded as non-existent. Secondly, people want to become prominent in society, to cut a figure, to strut about. Thirdly, they want to make money. This has become of overwhelming importance in Sri Lanka in recent decades. Fourthly, they want to exercise power over people. This desire produces the worst type of human being that there is. The average politician has a mixture of these motives, but in Sri Lanka the third and fourth of these motives predominate. Sri Lankans today can hardly believe that power should be held as a sacred trust to be used for the benefit of the people as a whole. There has been a horrifying degradation of our politics in recent decades.
It has to be expected, therefore, that racists will have a very special aversion to the exercise of power by minority members. Perhaps that is why they have a visceral hatred of the idea of devolution on the basis of ethnicity. The racists who want to regard the Muslims as the lowest of the low can be expected to have a very special aversion to the exercise of power by them. Probably that is the explanation for the fuss about the issue of halal certification, which bewildered me over a long period. There have been so many other issues which have bedeviled Sinhalese-Muslim relations over a long period, notably that of cattle slaughter which could have stirred anti-Muslim emotions far more effectively than halal certification. Why did the BBS pick on that? In cattle slaughter the Muslims were not exercising power over the Sinhalese. On the other hand, the ACJU in issuing halal certificates not just to the Muslims but to the Sinhalese as well was exercising Muslim power over the Sinhalese. That could not be tolerated.
There should be no problem about our Muslims emulating the Chinese by availing of the opportunities provided by the private sector. The Sinhalese people have shown, as I have argued at length in this article, that unlike the Sinhalese State they are prepared to live in peace, amity, and co-operation with the minorities. But the other part, the more important, of the Chinese example, the distancing from political power, cannot be emulated at present. The problem requires in-depth examination. All that I can say at the moment is that the salience of the Muslims in Sri Lankan politics should be reduced.