On the weekend of June 14th and 15th 2014, new attacks against minorities were successfully mobilized in Sri Lanka. This time it was not against Tamils, but against Muslims in the Aluthgama and then Beruwala areas in the South-West coastal areas. The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a right wing, racist, nationalist group has claimed and used the tired but ever-effective rhetoric of Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism: Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhala Buddhists; all minorities must know their place or else.
Five years after Eelam War IV and the end of ethnic war between the Government of Sri Lanka and the separatist Tamil Tigers, another round of minority mongering has occurred. While the state and many sections of Sinhala society celebrate the glorious end of war and the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism and its foot soldiers continue to claim victims. The state’s refusal to arrest members of the BBS, despite their racist hateful speeches, reminds us of 1983 when the state allowed the pogrom against Tamils to occur.
I use the title of Prasanne Vithanage’s recent film With You, Without You to invoke the present moment because I believe the film captures the impossibility of moving beyond ethno-religious conflict in Sri Lanka even after the war has officially ended.
With You, Without You tells us something about impossible futures, similarly to how the contemporary attacks against Muslims tell us that a future of religious co-existence under contemporary conditions may be impossible.
With You, Without You is about an army deserter Sarathsiri and his marriage to Selvi, a young, beautiful, orphaned, Tamil woman from the North. Selvi was brought to the hill country, where Estate Tamils live and work, and meets Sarath when she tries to pawn some of her jewelry at a pawnshop he owns and runs. The setting of the film in the tea estates, where South Indian Tamils were brought from South India as indentured laborers in the nineteenth century, is intentional.
Estate Tamils, or Hill Tamils as they are called, have experienced the brutalities of colonial indentured labor, continued in postcolonial Sri Lanka, and the racism of the post-independence state, which has historically expelled this minority group, claiming that they were not real Sri Lankans. Furthermore, Sarath’s occupation, as a pawn-broker tells us something about how he exploits the poverty of the Estate Tamils to make a living for himself. Hence, the place where Sarath and Selvi fall in love tells us about the long history of refusals in Sri Lanka to accommodate ethnic minorities.
Sarath marries Selvi, saves her from having to marry an old man, and attempts to provide for her. All goes well until Sarath’s army buddy visits and it is revealed that Sarath was not only a soldier, but had participated in and/or witnessed the rape of a Tamil woman. Subsequently, he lies on behalf of his soldier friends, so they are not tried for rape. Unable to live with his actions, he deserts the army and escapes to the hills.
The movie is in some senses an allegory of postwar co-existence. Can Tamils and Sinhalese survive and live together now that the war has ended? In today’s context we can ask if any minorities can live with the Sinhala majority. The film resolutely answers no. No, because Sarath, as a Sinhala man, cannot be honest about his own involvement in the decimation of the life of the other, the Tamil. He tries to make up for a history of rape, violence and war, by pretending he is a good guy, and by being kind to Selvi without accepting the past. In other words, reconciliation without truth is his method of atoning for his past deeds. Once, Selvi realizes who her husband is and what he has done, she refuses to build a life with him, and commits suicide.
Her suicide, her refusal of a future with him in post-war Sri Lanka resonates with the impossibilities of an inter-ethnic and inter-religious future in a country that cannot accept the crimes of its past.
Many people who watched the BBS’s leading Buddhist monk Galagoda Atthe Gnanasara, incite hatred against Muslims, were shocked at his rabid talk (see https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/horror-in-aluthgama-their-crime-our-shame/).
Yet, the post-independence history of Sri Lanka is a history of Buddhist priests refusing rights to minorities and claiming Sri Lanka as Sinhala Buddhist exclusively. From the tearing of the Bandaranayake-Chelvanayakam Pact, to the assassination of SWRD in the late 1950s, to virulent pro-war, anti-Tamil speeches during the separatist war, Buddhist priests in large numbers have incited violence often and done so successfully.
Yesterday it was against Tamils; today it is against Muslims. Sri Lankans cannot be surprised by this fact, because it has been a reality in our landscape for over fifty years. Without acknowledging that Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka is racist, we cannot think of a future that is multi-ethnic and multi-religious.
Finally, the terrible conditions under which the war ended, the suffering of Tamils in the Vanni at that moment, the military occupation of Tamils by the Sinhala army and state in the North and East in the war’s aftermath, and the plunder of the resources of minorities need to be acknowledged if future ethnic and religious violence is to stop.
Five years after the war, the state and large sections of the Sinhala population pompously celebrate the state’s war victory without acknowledging Sinhala chauvinism. At the present moment, large sections of elite and popular society in Sri Lanka refuse discussions of the truth, and so the past will, I believe, repeat itself.
Majoritarian Sinhala politics has merely shifted its target today to attack Muslims.