Colombo Telegraph

Why Violence In Sri Lanka: Some Critical Notes On Sinhala-Buddhist Symbols

By Imtiyaz Razak –

Dr. Imtiyaz Razak

Why? That was the question raised by some non-Sri Lankans, who follow Sri Lanka, when they learned the recent wave of violence in Ampara, Eastern Province and Digana/Teldeniya, Central Province against Muslims by Sinhala-Buddhist Evidences suggest that Muslim properties were systematically targeted and destroyed both in Ampara and Digana. Violence against Muslim in the so-called post-war Sri Lanka surprised many Muslims because Muslims expected peace and harmony in the island when Tamil Tigers silenced their guns in May 2009.But careful observers of Sri Lanka should know that recent wave of violence against Muslims didn’t occur in vacuum. There’s an ideology and there’s a political program behind this stage of violence. This article would attempt to provide some thoughts on Sri Lanka symbols.

Sri lanka state’s central ideology rooted in Buddhism and the interests of Sinhala-Buddhists. Though Buddhism is not a state religion in Sri Lanka, Buddhism is accorded foremost position while allowing people of other faiths to practice. This place in the constitution actively empowered Sinala-Buddhists to pressure politicians to gain concessions and to mobilize Sinhala-Buddhists particularly in the villages. There was a pressure from liberal groups to change the constitution in order to reflect true secular nature by removing special status for Buddhism. But there was huge opposition from Sinhala-Buddhist forces and politicians Sources say that “more than 75 prominent monks warned the government not to change the constitution or it would face consequences.The opposition, led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, and hard-line Buddhist groups have warned the government of nationwide demonstrations if the government went ahead with changes to the charter.” This mirrors Sri Lanka’s challenge to establish peace. It is hard to win peace when we do not have willingness to offer concessions.

Since Buddhism is a crucial part of Sinhala-Buddhists’ symbol, experiences suggest that Sinhala-Buddhist politicians seek support from Buddhist monks and authorities to win and to consolidate power. In some cases, these forces win concessions from the state and its institutions, for example Sinhala-only language act and national flag, which is the lion flag.

National flag is key symbol of any nation.Sri Lanka’s national flag is the lion flag. The lion in the flag represents bravery of Sinhalese. “The four Bo leaves represent four main concepts of Buddhism Mettā, Karuna, Mudita and Upeksha. The stripes represent the two main minority groups. The saffron stripe represents Tamils and the green stripe represents Muslims, and the maroon background represents the majority Sinhalese. The Gold border around the flag represents the unity of Sri Lankans.” SriLanka’s national flag, which mainly repr mirrors the majoritorian domination and politics.

Sri Lanka’s national flag is called the lion flag. In the flag, “the lion represents bravery of Sinhalese. The four Bo leaves represent four main concepts of Buddhism Mettā, Karuna, Mudita and Upeksha. The stripes represent the two main minority groups. The saffron stripe represents Tamils and the green stripe represents Muslims, and the maroon background represents the majority Sinhalese. The Gold border around the flag represents the unity of Sri Lankans.”

The lion, which represents the Sinhala-Buddhists, occupies the majority portion of the flag. The stripes– saffron and green stripe represent Tamils and Muslims respectively. As I mentioned elsewhere, the lion with sword not only simply represents the Sinhala-Buddhists, but also it is warning both Tamils and Muslims with bloody consequences if they (Tamils and Muslims) would go against the interests of the majoritarian domination. In other words, the lion with sword passes the message to non-Sinhalese communities to “behave”in a way the majority Sinhala-Buddhists want or face the dire consequences.

Flag is one of crucial identity markers of a nation. In divided societies, state should represent multi dynamics of different ethno-religious communities. Exclusive nature of state symbols and state formation may provoke fears and tensions at popular level among the powerless groups. Such a dynamic may push powerless groups to resort to exclusive ideologies. In that political conditions, political societies rather than seeking inclusive agendas, they may resort to violence and extremism. This is a blueprint for instability and insecurities. If Sri Lanka’s political elites want to establish peace and reconciliation, they should demonstrate political willingness to take measures to establish peace. One of such a measure is to redesign the nation flag. Sri Lanka’s new national flag should be inclusive in ethnic nature and accommodating in political consciousness. This is not an easy task, because Sinhala-Buddhist politicians would use such a move to outbid their opponents in elections to win Sinhala-Buddhist votes. But that voter outbidding politics both by UNP and SLFP since 1948 ( as well as SLPP from 2018) forms a greater challenge to reach out to an acceptable political settlement for Tamils and Muslims.

The fact is that Sri Lanka has been struggling to win trust of Tamils and Muslims. As Ted Robert Gurr has observed, there is no comprehensive and widely accepted theory of the causes and consequences of ethno-political conflict] Instead, there are many factors that can lead to tensions between groups of people. In Sri Lanka, Sinhala-Buddhist majority’s minority complex is one of primary sources for the rise of violence against Tamils and Muslims. That minority complex primaarily encourage socalled saviors of Sinhala-Buddhists such as politicized monks to incite hatred and violence against Tamils and Muslims. This along with politicization of ethnic relations to win power continue to contribute to rising fears among Tamils and Muslims.

Many expected the current government, which came to power three years ago, would broker peace because, they thoughts, ruling politicians are rather liberal in nature. But Sri Lanka experiences suggest that it’s hard to seek a political settlement for Tamils and Muslims by ruling political party, because opposition would use such a concessions to Tamils and Muslims to win votes. Our experiences also teach us that patriotism and fears of Tamils and Muslims can win more votes among Sinhala-Buddhists, who live in villages.

For this reason, redesigning Sri Lanka national flag, which symbolizes Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony and/or making Sri Lanka truly secular, by abolishing the state support for Buddhism isn’t an easy task. If that’s true, sadly, Sri Lanka’s path to embrace peace and harmony may have to confront more tensions and violence.

The current wave of violence against Muslims is neatly dangerous. Sri Lamka politicians should take punitive measures to ease tensions and to calm fears shared by many quarters of Muslims in the island. Sri Lanka should not open a new path for destruction and instability, by pushing Muslims into corner and/or giving birth to new form of protracted tensions and violence.

*Prof. A.R.M. Imtiyaz is a US based scholar. His scholarly pursuits on Sri Lanka have led to publications at various international venues, including the /Journal of Asian and African Studies/ (JAAS), / the Journal of South Asia/ (JAS), the /Journal of Third World Studies/ (JTWS), the Journal of South Asia/ (JAS) and /Asian Affairs/. His most recent research examines issues pertaining to Muslims in Middle East and Xinjiang province, China.

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