Sri Lanka’s State Of Emergency (2018)

Racial tension hasn’t exploded yet, but it’s simmering

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Pradeep Pathiran/Associated Press, via NYTimes

It is important to note that there is NOT full scale rioting and 99.9% of Sri Lanka is business as usual. Incidents are so far isolated and contained in Kandy and earlier Ampara. However, the violence seems to be organized (FB WhatsApp groups) and it has potential to spread rapidly. The government is being cautious, giving military police powers, and imposing a physical and digital curfew around Kandy. Mobile data is slow or blocked there and Facebook seems unusably slow across the island.

What seems to be happening is racist groups taking advantage of an isolated road rage incident to unleash a lot of pent up racial hatred. This is extremely dangerous to our country, as we should all know, and thankfully this government is much more committed to protecting all communities than, honestly, any government before.

The problem is that this government is also weak. They lost the recent government elections and are divided within themselves. More racist elements were emboldened by the recent elections and, of course, the underlying tensions and resentments are very real.

Hating Muslims

Hating Muslims is a global trend right now. From America to Europe to, yes, Sri Lanka, it’s a form of racism that people feel no shame about expressing in public. This general complicity emboldens more violent people to act. I’ll get into why it’s wrong, but let’s examine how deep the fear is in Sri Lanka.

Intelligent and generally kind people casually tell me not to do business with Muslims (can’t trust them), or that they’re taking over, or that Muslims just make them feel uncomfortable. I must admit that I personally do feel uncomfortable and judgemental when I see women in niqab, for example. I can understand the racism because I’m a bit racist.

I am quite ashamed to relate my inner and ugly thoughts but I will, in the hopes of understanding. Recently I saw a Muslim man walk into a toy shop in traditional attire and judged him, thinking that he was oppressing his wife and was bad basically. Then my daughter started following his kids around so I ended up talking to this gentleman. He was just a nice guy holding a baby. And I felt terrible. Even if he was rude I still had no right judging him. I am ashamed of these thoughts and I fight them, but that latent racism is inside of me.

That attitude is there in a lot of Sri Lankans, just as it is in America and Europe, etc. The only way I am able to overcome it is because I know that it’s ethically wrong, because I practice a religion which says it’s wrong (Buddhism), and because I have Muslim friends and contacts that let me check my latent racism against reality.

It is easy to judge a group if you never meet an individual. If you do actually meet these other human beings, you see that their group membership is only one of a million things that defines them. Judging someone as just ‘Muslim’ is missing their humanity, and your own, and completely missing the beauty within Islamic culture. Sometimes it’s a battle because you have to fight the urge to judge and feel superior, but being an adult and wearing pants and paying bills is hard. There’s just some things we have to do to be civilized and decent people. I do feel that most Sri Lankans (and people) try.

Then, of course, there are also some people that are just assholes. There are some people who weren’t hugged as kids or whatever and are hateful and mean and looking for a fight. There are many Sri Lankans that actively hate Muslims. They avoid doing business with them, they practice hate speech towards them, they share hateful memes and they’re down to burn down mosques and shops.

These are the people that cause the observable problems, but it’s important to remember that there’s a general antipathy towards Muslims that enables them. Violent racists are the proximate cause of this earthquake, but general, low-level racism is the tectonic plate that gives them force.

Hate Is Bad

Racism is bad. It’s bad for the victims and it’s bad for everyone else. It’s bad for the country. I say this not to make an intellectual argument per se. Sri Lanka doesn’t need that. For the love of God people, we have experience.

Looking at the images of burnt homes and cars and military with drawn weapons, I shuddered. I shuddered because the images seem so shocking now, and they used to be normal. It immediately took me back to a place that I don’t want to go back to. Those used to be Sri Lanka’s image. War, and somewhere under there beaches. There was a point where we saw guns and bomb blasts and air raids and severed heads in trees so much that it became normal. For my parents generation, it was normal for children to have seen murder and bodies burning on the street. This wasn’t normal. This was fucked up.

That is where racism starts and that is the only place it leads. It leads to suffering and destruction for us all. Hatred is a toxin in our minds that burns other bodies and everything it touches.

In this case, we have the experience and we shouldn’t repeat it. Sri Lankan Muslims have been a part of this country since well before it was a country. They were a vital part of our independence struggle, they served indispensibly in the last war, and they’re the only major ethnic group (along with Indian Tamils) that hasn’t tried to overthrow the government.

More importantly, they’re just people, and Sri Lankans, the same as anybody else. They don’t need to present a resume to deserve physical safety. They’re friends and neighbors, they’re kind or rude, they’re good and bad business partners, they’re just people. There is absolutely no grounds for collectively judging or punishing anyone for their membership in such a wide and diverse group as ‘Muslims’.

Racism is fundamentally ignorance, which leads to hatred, which leads to suffering. For us all. Sri Lankans must remember that. If you cannot empathize, then just give it time and the pain will come to you. But let’s please not let it get to that.

A Way Out

If lots of people are a bit racist and a few people are really racist, what can we do? Well, just as we can see our racism in Digana today, we can also see our kindness and humanity.

During the 1983 riots the government stood by and, honestly, was complicit as Colombo burned for days. But neighbors opened their homes and protected each other, and strangers. We didn’t do enough and Black July is still a deep shame and sadness to this country, but Sri Lankans are fundamentally capable of living together and being decent to each other.

Thankfully today, the government is not complicit or standing by. They are not especially strong, but they are reacting waaaay better than previous governments. They are acting quickly (most important), they are saying the right things, and they are trying to control this situation as best they can. Has this government done enough to address the structural racism and dissatisfaction that is the iceberg beneath? No, but again they’ve done more than before.

Sri Lankan people are also fighting this. Yes, people are organizing violence online, but people are also speaking out and organizing respect and love. Yes, people are burning homes, but other people are opening theirs to strangers. And yes, disgraceful monks are fanning the flames of hatred, but learned monks are also protecting mosques and living the dhamma.

This is not an abstract principle for most Sri Lankans. We know racism because we have been and are a bit racist. But we also know the cost. We need to stand up now and resist the spark of ignorance and hatred before it burns us all.

Written by

A writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He/him. Videos: and podcast:

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