This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the conclusion of the Sri Lankan Civil War. Beginning in 1983, the war left deep, decades-old wounds in the fabric of the country and continues to do so. It was clear from the beginning that reconciliation would be immensely difficult. It has not been easy to make an objective judgment on how complete the healing has been between Tamils and Sinhalese, although the horrific Easter bombings in April (which claimed 258 lives and injured hundreds more) have discredited claims that reconciliation was a simple step that began and concluded after 2009. Tamil sources would emphasize that little has been done to prosecute the Sri Lankan military for alleged war crimes, or to uplift the dire poverty of Tamil communities. There is lingering suspicion and resentment in certain circles of the Sri Lankan intelligentsia and political class regarding what they see as an untrustworthy Tamil underbelly that sporadically erupts into Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.
Finally, there is a great deal of anger. Coverage by international English-language media, which is framed mostly through a sympathetic narrative of Tamil suffering and Islamophobia, is seen as hypocritical and duplicitous. However, there is also anger at the government. Murmurs circulate among Sri Lankan communities and online that a nebulous and vaguely defined “establishment,” captured by the image of the corrupt politician, stands to benefit from inflaming mutual enmities between different ethnic and religious communities. The greater the Muslim resentment, the quicker the presence of radicalized extremists grows. Whatever the government’s true attitudes toward the peace process, it is obvious that the current situation is a crisis point for the island nation.
The Sri Lankan terror bombings—and the capital generated by exploiting the tragedies for political ends—reflect a disheartening trend toward splintering of opinions and polarization across the world. There is no continent where one cannot identify nationalist surges or convulsions. In South Asia, Narendra Modi’s landslide triumph in May’s Indian elections has validated his party’s strategy of casting the country as a “Hindu nation.” Both Modi and Imran Khan, the charismatic and bombastic leader of Pakistan, have widespread appeal while having a canny sense of where certain nerve points can be pressed. The electoral appeal of populism reminds us of a sober truth: appealing to division rather then unity, crafting a narrative of who is in or out, can be politically advantageous. The difference with Sri Lanka is not just the lack of a charismatic strongman figure comparable to Modi or Khan, but the fact that Buddhism plays a complex role in the country’s politics and reconciliation process.
Rather than seeing Buddhist institutions as only a “church and state” conflict or collaboration, it is more helpful (as it is with most Asian cultures) to see it as a kind of membrane overlaying all corners of society and culture. Buddhism serves at least three ambiguous functions: it simultaneously drives, negotiates, and alleviates nationalist forces and political feelings between the Sinhalese majority and other ethnic groups and religious traditions. Buddhism can therefore serve a tripartite function in advocating, balancing, and neutralizing political instincts and movements.
These three functions might sound contradictory, but examples abound of these paradoxical roles. In the first case of driving nationalism, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) is perhaps the most uncompromising party of the island’s “political Buddhism”—the assertion of Buddhist authority over the political. Its 2004 manifesto demanded hereditary rights for Sinhalese, and party members were adept at integrating a fiery platform that lambasted corruption, decried Buddhism’s neglect, and criticized the peace process with Tamil Muslims. (Frydenlund 2016, 105)
Buddhist monks also play a crucial role in alleviating nationalism, as many did in March 2018 by protesting the anti-Muslim riots that forced the government to declare a state of emergency. In the “middle way” case of negotiating nationalism, Buddhist politicians act as gatekeepers or guardsmen of what is “legitimate” political Buddhism and what are “reasonable” causes to advocate. Monks serving as MPs remain fiercely protective of Article Nine of the Sri Lankan Constitution, which accords Buddhism a primus inter pares status among the island’s faiths. This priestly lobby is effective: it was monastic pressure that forced president Maithripala Sirisena’s reinstatement of a ban on alcohol consumption for women in January 2018.
A holistic strategy for reconciliation therefore cannot limit itself to a singular approach, such as simply looking at Tamil-Sinhalese relations. It must take into account the extended nature of the Sri Lankan Civil War and an acceptance of the fact that the peace process is, despite protestations to the contrary, ongoing. We’ve observed how, through driving, negotiating, and alleviating nationalistic drives, that Buddhism is an instigator, mediator, and counterbalance to the impulses of the nation-state. These push-pull forces must all be considered as skillful means in a holistic strategic culture that deploys Buddhist leaders in the name of peace. An effective strategy must also draw from the wisdom of those who have borne witness to the Sri Lankan Civil War since its agonizing inception, such as Dr. A. T. Ariyaratne, whose unapologetically Buddhist Sarvodaya movement has, without favor or bias, transformed the lives of villagers across the country. Economic factors such as poverty and access to social goods are crucial nerve points of integration or alienation.
The Sri Lankan body politic is torn asunder and desperately needs to be brought back together. The country has lurched from one political crisis to the next every year, and now must contend with the scourge of terrorism. This year’s Easter bombings demonstrated that civil strife is not over just because the state’s enemies have lost physical territory and an alternative proposition for government. The legal war may have been won, but the journey to true peace continues.
Frydenlund, Iselin. 2016. “Particularist Goals through Universalist Means: The Political Paradoxes of Buddhist Revivalism in Sri Lanka.” In Buddhism and the Political Process. Edited by Hiroko Kawanami. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.