The history of Sri Lanka through the Fifties to the present time is a sobering reminder to those who fail to see that unrestrained democracy can lead to the tyranny of the majority and that robust diversity is as often a cause of friction and strife as it is a strength to be celebrated.
If nothing else, the timing was impeccable. It was March 2, 1991, and we were celebrating my elder son Isaac’s seventh birthday. His actual birthday was still a few days away, but March 2 was the closest Saturday so it was convenient. We had just finished singing a joyous, boisterous round of “Happy Birthday” and Isaac was gleefully hovering over the chocolate cake to blow out the candles. The explosion was deafening and literally shook our house of solid masonry. My son’s eyes widened in amazement and delight: obviously his doting parents had included fireworks as part of the festivities. It wasn’t until an hour or more later that we learned that Ranjan Wijeratne, Sri Lanka’s Defense Minister, along with thirteen innocent bystanders and five bodyguards, had been killed by a remote-controlled car bomb. Wijeratne knew that he was on a target list and so he was always careful to alter his route and alter his work schedule. Besides, he drove in an armored car. But Saturday mornings were predictable; he had a routine he refused to vary. On his way to the ministry each Saturday, he invariably stopped to see his mistress. That pattern had not gone undetected by the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE). The devastation was considerable a few blocks away from our house, but the cracks in our living room walls were no big deal. This was after all Sri Lanka and occasional bombings were a part of life.
How life in Sri Lanka has changed since 1991—and how life has not changed much at all there, except the groups and religions involved. In 1989, right before our arrival in Sri Lanka, the central government had finally quashed a homegrown communist movement called the Janatha Vimukthi Peramunai, usually abbreviated to JVP. The JVP were a particularly virulent and violent communist organization more along the lines of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or Shining Path in Peru. Terror was their weapon of choice and they wielded it wildly. The defeat of the JVP was broadly welcomed by the civilian population and a certain sense of optimism could be felt among the general population when we arrived in the summer of 1990 for a two-year tour at the U.S. Embassy. People no longer leaned over bridges to count the corpses floating downstream and there was far more interest in economic development than in killing.
But not all of Sri Lanka’s troubles were over after the defeat of the JVP. An even greater threat to the country was already ongoing since 1983 in the form of the Tamil separatist movement that had killed the Defense Minister on that early March day in 1991. The LTTE, commonly called the Tamil Tigers, for short, sounded more like a triple A baseball team than a terrorist group. But the Tamil Tigers fought ferociously for a Tamil homeland in the North and East regions of Sri Lanka for decades, only finally being defeated in 2009 after their longtime leader was killed. Among their contributions to the modern world, the Tamil Tigers reintroduced the concept of suicide bombers (including female bombers) since embraced so passionately by Islamic extremists.
It was hard, despite the atrocities committed on their behalf by the Tamil Tigers, not to sympathize a little with the Tamil population of Sri Lanka. They had been favored by their British overseers when Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was part of the British Empire, and the Tamils were a very hardworking and industrious group who disproportionately filled the huge colonial bureaucracy. Once independence was gained, the Sinhalese majority wasted no time in using its democratic institutions to oppress the Tamils, even going so far as to pass legislation in 1956 making Sinhalese the only official language of Sri Lanka, thereby further alienating its Tamil minority. (This law was later modified, but the discrimination against the Tamil minority continued for decades.) When Sri Lanka gained its independence in 1948 and throughout the Fifties it could boast having one of the highest standards of living in all of Asia—only Japan and Taiwan at one point had a better standard of living. But an excess of democracy, a devotion to socialism, and inter-racial rivalries quickly put an end to Sri Lanka’s economic vitality. The history of Sri Lanka through the Fifties to the present time is a sobering reminder to those who fail to see that unrestrained democracy can lead to the tyranny of the majority and that robust diversity is as often a cause of friction and strife as it is a strength to be celebrated.
A More Frightening Future: The Muslim Extremists vs. Everyone Else
Perhaps one of the saddest things that has changed since the 1990s is the role of the local Muslim minority. At that time in the Embassy we used to joke that the small portion (less than 10%) of the population that was Muslim were the only sane Sri Lankans we knew. While Muslim groups from other countries were being radicalized and causing great violence, the Sri Lankan Muslims were peaceful and productive citizens, refusing for the most part to choose sides in the bitter rivalry between the Buddhist Sinhalese and the Hindu Tamils. Our driver, named Raja, was a Muslim and his devotion to our children and his apolitical attitude seemed indicative of his entire faith. Our housemaid was Catholic Tamil, and she too avoided politics and ethnic and religious rivalries. The Muslims and the Catholics were bystanders, not participants, in the ongoing struggle between Hindus and Buddhists. An embassy colleague of mine who had converted to Buddhism was so appalled by the attitudes and actions of his fellow Buddhists that he invariably would refer to them as “the killer vegetarians.”
Perhaps part of the genius of the Muslim population was that they were primarily inspired by the Sufi school of Islam, a generally peaceful and more mystical sect, usually abhorring violence and far less attracted to politics. In the seventh century, when the first Muslims came to Sri Lanka, they did so not as conquerors, but as traders. They came in peace and they stayed in peace, marrying among the local population and settling down as a merchant class. When the late-arriving Portuguese showed up centuries later and waged war on the Muslims, the Sinhalese rulers gave the Muslims refuge and protection. Their tradition of Sufiism and living peacefully among their neighbors continued into the 1990s when I was there.
But things then changed dramatically. Beginning in the Nineties and continuing even today, Saudi money came pouring in and with it a more intolerant form of Islam took root. Muslim women in Sri Lanka are now adopting the niqab (full face covering) and Muslim men, having gone as laborers to Saudi Arabia, come back indoctrinated with Wahhabi views of the world and Islam. Of course, some Sinhalese Buddhists have accelerated the process of Islamic radicalization by discriminating against Muslims and committing violence against them. For example, the Sinhalese-orchestrated anti-Muslim riots in March of this year went largely unreported in the Western media even though over twenty mosques were vandalized. Reminiscent of the Sinhalese-orchestrated anti-Tamil (Hindu) riots of the Fifties, these attacks on peaceful Muslim communities serve only to convince younger Muslims that the Saudi brand of intolerant Islam is the true path.
Yet, the nexus between the anti-Muslim riots in March and the Church bombings in April is tenuous. The Christian communities had nothing to do with the violence perpetrated against the Muslim population. The clearer and more obvious linkage is between the Church bombings and the growing influence of Wahhabism among Sri Lankan Muslims. As I have seen elsewhere in the world, most notably Cambodia which once also boasted a peaceful, tolerant Muslim community, there is a dangerous turn toward radicalization and a proliferation of Wahhabi-sponsored mosques built with money from Saudi Arabia. It is remarkable that as a country, despite all the evidence, we continue to believe Saudi Arabia a close ally and refuse to accept that Saudi Arabia is the greatest state-sponsor of terrorism. Unfortunately, President Trump and his administration’s singularly obsessive focus on the far lesser threat posed by Iran has obscured our vision. He refuses to see what Candidate Trump saw very clearly: that Saudi Arabia poses a worldwide threat to peace and stability. Until he does, more churches will burn and more peaceful Islamic communities will turn toward violence and intolerance.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a still from EWTN of St. Sebastian’s Church, which was damaged during a bombing in Negombo, Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019.