Nationality, religion, ethnicity, race, language, sexual orientation, social class are among the many things that form a part of an individual’s identity. But from a sociological perspective simply having an individual identity is inadequate. People naturally seek social, cultural and political groups that have common ideologies as them, and in turn by being a part of these groups influence the collective group identities. In areas where these group identities clash conflicts erupt; people persecute and become persecuted based on socially constructed concepts such as race and nationality that they have been born into.
This is not a new phenomenon and throughout history people have been persecuted and been discriminated against for being different. Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Apartheid South Africa, are just some of the examples from the 20th Century. Similar acts have continued on into the 21st Century; the Rohingyas of Myanmar, the Uyghurs in China, and the Ethnic Uzbeks of Kyrgyzstan are all groups who have been persecuted for being different. Unfortunately, this issue has also come to plague Sri Lanka. And while the atrocities of Rwanda and the like are much worse that the attacks against minorities in Sri Lanka, it is still important to realise that the situation in our motherland could reach such an extreme (please note that in this comparison I am NOT referring to the Civil War).
Over the years, Sri Lankans have become obsessed with ethnicity, religion and race, but what many forget is that, once we travel beyond the borders of Sri Lanka, we all call ourselves Sri Lankan. Rarely do we introduce ourselves saying that we are Buddhist-Sinhalese or Malay-Muslim to strangers from other lands. And honestly, they do not really care nor will fully understand the distinctions that we make between ourselves. Outside of Sri Lanka we are all Sri Lankan.
Furthermore, Sri Lankans seem to be forgetting the reasons behind the 26-year-old civil conflict and are forgetting the fear and the persecution that we all faced during this time. If we look back at one of the primary causes for this conflict were the political policies, such as the 1948 Ceylon Citizenship Act and the 1956 Sinhala Only Act, which marginalized the Indian Tamil minority. Such acts fuelled ideas of separatism, and resulted in the death thousands. Having come out of this brutal conflict, it would seem quite natural that all the peoples of Sri Lanka would pledge to never again fuel any ethno-religious feuds.
Unfortunately, only a few years after the end of the conflict, fractions of the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority are repeating the mistakes of the past; they have once again started persecuting minority groups. These people, with the influence of extremists groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Sihala Ravaya have been “brainwashed” to believe that being a Sinhalese-Buddhist is an integral part of being Sri Lankan, and that they are more superior and have more rights than all other groups. However what they forget is that, what makes us Sri Lankan is our unique multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious environment.
Some may say that the religious and racial slurs of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian groups are part of free speech; the most recent of these having been the “Sinha Le” slogans that were spray-painted on the walls of our Muslim brothers and sisters. However, individuals who say this are clearly ignorant of reality, and are unable to understand that the fine line between freedom of speech and outright attacks against minority groups. These people seem to have a constant need to attack someone who is different based on ethnicity or religion, because of this Sri Lanka is increasingly becoming a fractured society.
These most recent racist acts initiated via the “Sinha Le” campaign should be condemned. For those who are not aware this campaign started off as a sticker campaign. Many such stickers were pasted my motorists on their vehicles, many of who were ignorant of the content’s true meaning. This, like any other campaign was taken over by social media and spread like wildfire. Of course like before, the chief designers of this campaign are the extremist Buddhist groups such as the BBS and their sponsors, but this time unlike before they managed to instil disharmony and hatred from the shadows. Likewise the newest organisation that has sprung up is the Sinha Le Jathika Balamuwa, and it is also promoting the idea of racial superiority.
Such ignorant people must realise that we all bleed red, and I am certain that if they end up in hospital requiring a pint of blood, they will not care whether it came out of a Sinhalese or Muslim. However, we should not simply ignore what these groups are saying, doing that would worsen the situation. Rather, we all should listen to their concerns and try to peacefully address them and crate a harmonious society.
There are indeed success stories from around the world, where different ethnic, religious and racial minorities have learnt to live together in harmony. Singapore, post-Apartheid South Africa and Canada are such examples. Sri Lanka and its Government should learn from these nations and must work to counter the fractionalisation of our society. While we have moved away from the times of the Sinhala Only Act, and National policies, such as the Citizenship Education program in schools, have become more inclusive, there is much more room for improvement. For example, the school curricular for history should be amended to include the histories of all the peoples of Sri Lanka, and move away from being ethnocentric.
However more importantly, we need to raise awareness in the adult Sri Lankan population by using media and create a forum where people can freely discuss issues on neutral grounds, as well as punish the perpetrators. However expecting our Government to do all the work makes us fall short of being “good” human beings. Instead it is the duty of all morally sound Sri Lankans work against this prejudice that exists in our society. You may say that you have no power to influence society, but no one expects you to single-handedly do so. But rather, you can start by simply talking to people having a “Sinha Le” ideology and making them realise their fallacy. If all of us start from such small acts and work together it would certainly be possible to reverse this situation and finally achieve a united Sri Lanka.