Written by Samal Vimukthi Hemachandra.
February 4th, 2018 is a significant landmark in Sri Lankan post-colonial history. It is the 70th anniversary Sri Lanka’s independence from the British empire. If the forefathers of the post-colonial Sri Lankan nation hoped that, in the post-colonial era, the island nation would regain the prosperity they once enjoyed a millennium ago, that hope deteriorated steadily with the rise of communal violence. The 1950s and 1960s forecasted the bleak future of Sri Lanka. But the lessons were not learned.
The emergence of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) led to 30 years of bloody war. Then, in May 2009 the war ended after the Sri Lankan government forces crushed militarily the LTTE. Have the lessons been learned however? I think not. In June 2014, a clash between Sinhala Buddhists and Muslims occurred in Aluthgama, in southern Sri Lanka. This is not a unique story. Instead, to some extent, this is the story of the whole post-colonial South Asia. In this regard what will Hegel, one of the greatest philosophers in history, say about the post-colonial Sri Lanka if ‘he walks among us’?
The defeat of the LTTE marked the death of the other. But as described above, with no time wasted, the Sinhala Buddhist consciousness replaced the Tamil Other with the Muslim Other.
Hagel’s analysis on self-consciousness is vital to understanding the ethnic conflict in post-war Sri Lanka. In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel claimed, “[s]elf- consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged.” According to Alexandre Kojeve, the self-consciousness is when “[m]an becomes conscious of himself at the moment when – for the first time – he says ‘I’.” As Hegel argues, self-consciousness needs recognition, for itself, from another self-consciousness to conceive its existence. Here the I (the self-consciousness) has to confront with another the ‘I’ (or another self-consciousness). Self-consciousness, in this regard, sees this other self-consciousness as an object which must be destroyed.
This struggle between these two self-consciousnesses is a violent one. Each seeks the other’s death for its recognition. But in the end, these two self-consciousnesses understand that the death of the other is not the solution because they need their ‘other.’ Otherwise, there will not be a self-consciousness to acknowledge its existence. At this point, the self-consciousness experiences a dilemma. It wants its ‘other’ to be killed and at the same time needs the other for its recognition. In this case, in particular moments, one’s self-consciousness gives up the struggle. This brings out a victor and a loser. To transcend the dilemma, the victor becomes the lord and the loser becomes the bondsman. In other words, the victor finds its recognition from the loser and loser has to find it from in itself. Since this article focuses on the victor, the loser’s point of view has not been discussed.
In the case of Sri Lanka, if we change the self-consciousness to collective-consciousness and the ‘I’ to the ‘We’, a different picture on ethnic relationships can be illustrated. In contemporary Sri Lanka, Sinhala Buddhists are the majority ethnic group which consists of 70 percent of the population and Tamils, Muslims and Christians are 13 percent, 10 percent and 8 percent respectively. It is clearly evident that the Sinhala Buddhist community enjoys a superior position compared to the other communities. For instance, in the popular discourse which depicts the Sinhala Buddhist consciousness, they are labelled as the natives of the island which created a great 2500 year old civilization and the others are foreign invaders. Along with this claim, the state power of the post-colonial Sri Lankan state has been enjoyed by the Sinhala Buddhist majority.
However, the recent research on identity politics in Sri Lanka questions this popular discourse on identities by arguing that the present identities were created during the British colonial period. It shows when and how the Sinhala Buddhists (and Tamils) said ‘We’. Apart from the Sinhala Muslim riots in 1905, the ethnic tension during the British colonial period had been between Sinhala Buddhists and Christians. However, since Christians, through the British Empire, enjoyed the state power, Sinhala Buddhists identified themselves through their colonial ‘master’. Absorbing the Victorian culture into the so-called Sinhala Buddhist culture and naming it as their authentic culture is a fine example of this. However, the tables turned once the British left Sri Lanka. At that point, Sinhala Buddhists captured state power and Christians become the subordinates.
This led to formulating a new ‘other’; the Tamils. During the British rule, Sinhala Buddhists and Tamils had a less-tense relationship. In several occasions, Tamils held key posts with the support of Sinhala Buddhists. One such incident is Ponnambalam Ramanathan being elected to the Legislative Council in 1907 for the educated Ceylonese and another is Ponnambalam Arunachalam being the first president of Ceylon National Congress in 1919. However, since the 1930s, the Tamils’ realization of being a minority in a Sinhala Buddhist country led them to demand more state power or in Hegelian terms, ‘recognition’ from the Sinhala Buddhists. Sinhala Buddhists made few attempts to satisfy Tamil’s claims. Instead, Sinhala Buddhists suppressed the Tamil grievances through legislative acts such as the 1956 Sinhala Only Act and non-democratic, violent acts such the burning of Jaffna Library in 1981 and Black July in 1983. These led to the emergence and the development of the LTTE which posed a great threat to the Sinhala Buddhist consciousness.
When the Sri Lankan military completely destroyed the LTTE in 2009, it not only made the Sinhala Buddhist consciousness victorious in the struggle for recognition but also it marked the ‘death of the other’. In other words, Tamils who demanded a separate state during the LTTE, now had to satisfy themselves with a unitary state structure.
The death of the other has led the Sinhala Buddhist consciousness into a dilemma after the post-war period because there is no one to recognize its existence. But another ‘other ‘ was created. This time it is Muslims. There were no major incidents between Sinhala Buddhists and Muslims in post-colonial Sri Lanka. However, after the civil war ended hatred against Muslims has escalated. Many Sinhala Buddhist organizations led by Buddhist monks such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Rawana Balaya and Sinha Le, emerged. The first campaign against Muslims by Sinhala Buddhists was led against the Halal certificate. At the same time another campaign was directed against large Muslim retail shops. The worst was the Aluthgama riot which was instigated by a BBS rally in a Muslim dominant area in the Sinhala Buddhist dominant Southern Sri Lanka. A few months after the Aluthgama riots, the Burmese Buddhist monk, Ashin Wirathu, who was termed as ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’ was invited to the BBS Convention in Colombo. As a result of Islamophobia in post civil-war Sri Lanka, a number of Muslim extremist groups such as Sri Lanka Thawheed Jama’ath have emerged.
Therefore, the struggle for recognition has already begun. The defeat of the LTTE marked the death of the other. But as described above, with no time wasted, the Sinhala Buddhist consciousness replaced the Tamil Other with the Muslim Other. The struggle with the former led to a 30-year bloody war. With the latter, it is too early to estimate the cost future generations of Sri Lanka has to bear.
Samal Vimukthi Hemachandra is a Research Officer at Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka. His research interests extend to contemporary continental philosophy with a special interest to Jacques Ranciere, subaltern politics, historiography, problems of representations and political subjectivization. Image Credit: CC by JohnnyBraker/Flickr.