Every why has a wherefore (There is a reason for everything.)
Posted on March 14th, 2018

Attempts to make sense of the regrettable incidents of communal violence last week are frustrated by the level and content of commentary on the events. In fact, the lack of depth in analysis is as disappointing as the communal violence itself. Specifically, political commentary and discourse on the diabolical problem of communal violence seem to be taking place within boundaries that seems to have not changed since the Muslim Vs. Buddhist and Christian riots of 1915: same old cries of shock, horror are followed by renunciations of violence and appeals to humanity, with attendant remarks about the need to improve interfaith relations. These boundaries were exceeded by the UNP cabinet spokesperson notorious for ‘lying through his teeth’ when he tried to implicate political rivals to the violence without substantiation. He also mischievously attempted to pre-empt the appointment of the new Law and Order Minister by nominating a cat’s paw to achieve his own political ends.


History and current events prove that discussion on recurring communal violence, limited to such a stale set of factors, based only on ethnicity and religion, is unlikely to yield solutions in the form of useful policy prescriptions. Finding effective solutions to the intractable problem of communal violence will depend on ‘no holds barred’ search for the causative factors of the violence; open discussion of issues — undertaken for the purpose of seeking political, economic and law enforcement policies useful for the prevention of periodic recurrences in future, and not for the purpose of justifying violence or exonerating perpetrators — should not be limited by self-imposed taboos that are likely to render attempts to deal with the problem ineffective.

Searching for causes should not be a particularly new concept to our political leaders with avowed commitment to Buddhism; the fundamental tenet the Buddha laid out in the first sermon is that everything (other than Nirvana) results from causes. The path he prescribed for reducing suffering is based on seeking and overcoming craving or attachment, the cause (samudaya) of suffering. We also find a typically brilliant paraphrasing of the eternal truth propounded by the Buddha in one of the farcical plays written 2000 years later by William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors: the line ‘Every why hath a wherefore’ — everything has a cause or a reason — that can be easily understood without venturing in to its dramatic context. Modern science also considers causality as the agency that connects natural phenomena where the cause and effect are partly dependent on each other.

Admittedly, the causes of interreligious and inter communal conflict and its dynamics are complex and often involve a host of underlying political, economic, social, cultural, and territorial factors. The first requirement in the search for meaning and solutions to the national malaise, however, is the realisation that the commonly identified factors religion, language and ethnicity stubbornly mask the true causes that underlie violent expression of such identities.

An Indian historian who introduced the study of the role of economic factors as a key component of the study of Indian history, the late Professor Bipan Chandra (1928–2014) of the Jawaharlal Nehru University holds in his landmark book ‘Communalism in Modern India’ (1984) that communalism [in India] is not inspired primarily by religion. Professor Chandra’s view has received universal agreement since, with the recognition that communal conflict is caused by a complex set of underlying factors and violent outbursts are triggered by one or more proximate causes while the cases of suspected ‘infertility pill’ and the murder of a driver in Ampara and Kandy respectively provide case studies of ‘proximate causes’ that trigger violence, the purpose here is to delve deeper in to the structural factors that underlie animosities.

Poverty is the primary cause of ethnic hatreds

It is commonly known that ethnic, religious and other communal violence is primarily a characteristic of poor multi-ethnic states weakened by stagnant or deteriorating economies. It is clear that poverty gives rise to increased tensions among ethnic groups. This observation leads to the recognition that the fundamental ‘economic problem’ of competition and rivalry for individualised economic and political goods is at the root of such crises. The situation is not helped by capitalist neoliberal economic activity operational in most such countries, typically generating sharp and visible inequality, producing new social strains and anxieties.

The inevitable cyclic contraction of such economies intensifies competition over increasingly scarce resources, with the attendant perceptions of unfair competition favouring the groups that succeed. At a loss to understand the real causes of poverty and scarcity staring at them, the masses seem to perceive the ‘other’ community as the cause of their woes. Over time, the social anger and frustration of impoverished people often find expression in ghoulish violence whenever opportunity arises. The characteristic features of a particular ethnic conflict depend upon factors such as the distribution of members of different ethnic groups with ethnic geography — the territorial concentration and increased group cohesion of ethnic groups— and cultural factors such as problematic group histories and stereotypical perceptions, are common causes of ethnic conflict.

Communalism is thus a distorted expression of the social reality of discriminatory economic systems characterised by inequitable economic opportunities and standards of living that generate resentment.

The vulnerability of poor states to communal violence would be exacerbated by other factors such as deterioration of the political situation, administrative incompetence and the perception that the government is unable to promote economic progress. Such conclusions ultimately lead to poor communities turning to their own devices. The events in Sri Lanka may have been at least partly generated by such concerns.

The ethnic market-dominant minority syndrome

One of the more significant intellectual contributions to the analysis of ethnic animosities in developing countries was provided by Professor Amy Chua of Yale Law School in her 2003 book ‘World On Fire’; the book provides a sound analysis of the phenomenon, backed by statistics, that unequal distribution of wealth in favour of ethnic minorities in developing country economic and political systems is the usual cause of communal violence.

Amy Chua’s primary proposition is that in many developing countries the minorities that attract the wrath of the majority population comprise a miniscule group (branded ‘ethnic market-dominant minorities’) that enjoys hugely disproportionate economic power. Chua acknowledges that rich and powerful minorities attract resentment everywhere, but resentment against the ethnically different — and highly visible — minorities carries a serious risk of violence.

Chua contrast the economic position of ethnic market-dominant minorities in developing countries with that of small ethnic minorities in western countries including the US where they constitute a primarily disadvantaged group. She charges that insulated by this vastly different reality, the western world is being hypocritical in attempting to take the moral high ground in their advice how to deal with communal violence in developing countries. It is no surprise that Chua’s espousal of this ‘inconvenient truth’ was behind the failure of her book to receive due attention in academic and political spheres.

Chua extends her proposition using the example of the overseas Chinese minority in Southeast Asia where they usually constitute only a tiny proportion of the population, but enjoy an overwhelmingly dominant economic position: in the Philippines, where the Chinese account for 1% of the population controls well over 60% the country’s wealth. Similarly, in Indonesia the Chinese Indonesian community makes up 3% of the population but controls 75% of the economy. The same is true to varying degrees in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Southeast Asia is an acute but by no means isolated example of the phenomenon. Other examples include European Diasporas throughout Latin America and Africa; Jews in the Middle East; Russian Jewish Oligarchs in post-Communist Russia; Croats in the former Yugoslavia; Indians in East Africa, Lebanese in West Africa and Mexico, and the Yoruba, Igbos, Kikuyus, and Tutsis in Africa.

Throughout Latin America, an elite white minority primarily of Portuguese and Spanish extraction has traditionally enjoyed economic and political power. Although the black majority in South Africa now enjoys political freedom, economic power still remains firmly in the hands of a minority white elite.

The promotion of free market democracy in the presence of a market-dominant minority has been found to invariable result in backlash against markets culminating in violence directed against the market-dominant minority.

Also, political conditions that empower the poor, indigenous majority could increase majority backlash against a disproportionately wealthy ethnic minority. Chua argues that the mass killing of Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda in 1994, anti-Chinese riots that followed the fall of the Suharto regime in Indonesia and the conflict between Serbs and Croats in the Balkans following the collapse of communism all involved reprisals against the economic advantage enjoyed by minority groups.

Chua, an American-born descendant of a Chinese Filipino family, shows admirable academic honesty and great magnanimity in empathising with the Filipino majority resentment against the Chinese community despite the personal tragedy of the murder of her billionaire aunt by her Filipino chauffeur and maids. The police has recorded the motive behind her killing as ‘revenge’!

It is worth investigating to find out whether Amy Chua’s keen observation applies to the animosities between the majority Sinhalese and the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka. It appears at the first glance that Amy Chua’s discussion of the different strategies deployed by minority groups — ranging from colonial legacies and apartheid in Africa to culture and family networks and political patronage in so-called democracies modelled on the American duopolistic model — to capture market dominance is highly relevant to interpreting the Sri Lankan situation.

Case of Muslim minority in SL

The history of the beginnings and growth of the Sri Lankan ‘Moors’ — a derogatory Portuguese description of Muslims — has been previously studied at length, laudably by historians like the late Tikiri Abeyasinghe and Lorna Devaraja and Kamalika Pieris. Suffice it to note for the purposes here that since a colony of Muslim merchants established themselves in coastal Ceylon around the end of the seventh century, the Muslim community has transformed itself from a closed, comparatively backward group into a minority wielding considerable economic and increasingly political clout in Sri Lanka.

The transformation of the Muslim minority appears to have taken place through several ‘spurts’ through significant oppression perpetrated by the Portuguese and Dutch colonisers and benefits from the British.

The decision of the first Muslim merchants who landed on the Sri Lankan coast during the pre-colonial era to settle appears to have been prompted by the religious tolerance of the Buddhist population and cordial reception they received from the Sinhala kings. By the 10th Century they had gained control of the trade of the south-western ports, and it is clear that the Sinhalese Kings treated the Muslims favourably due to the revenue and gifts they brought as against the Sinhalese who were disinterested in trade and were largely poor subsistence farmers. The kings began employing Muslims to manage commercial affairs, and by the 13th Century as ambassadors to key trading partners like Egypt.

As is commonly known, the kings also came to the rescue of the Muslims when the Portuguese and Dutch colonisers challenged the Muslim control of coastal trade and expelled them from their settlements. The kings welcomed them to the interior where they began engaging in agriculture, fishing and weaving for their livelihood.

The fortunes of the Muslims changed with the British invasion: the British, in their cunning, saw the utility of another minority as a tool for their ‘divide and rule’ strategy and reversed the sanctions imposed by the Dutch. By 1880, the export and import trade, the Pettah wholesale trade and the retail trade, in most parts of the island, were all dominated largely by Muslims. Emboldened by the economic empowerment and British encouragement, Muslims began developing an ethnic identity for themselves.

While the Sinhala nationalists, led by Anagarika Dharmapala, dubbed the Muslims as unwelcome foreigners, the Tamil leaders attempted to incorporate the Muslims’ identity under the broader Tamil identity. Anagarika Dharmapala described Muslims as ‘an alien people who became prosperous by Shylockian methods, like the Jews’. Piyadasa Sirisena wrote similarly in the ‘Sinhala Jathiya’ newspaper.

By contrast, Ponnambalam Ramanathan asserted at the legislative council in 1885 and in a paper titled ‘The Ethnology of Moors of Ceylon’, read at the Royal Asiatic Society in 1888, that Moors were in fact ethnic Tamils. His contention was bitterly resented by the Muslims, and was rebutted by I. L. M. Abdul Azees, (Founder-President of the Moor Union) in a paper titled ‘A criticism of Mr Ramanathan’s Ethnology of the Moors of Ceylon’ published in 1907; Muslims were seeking representation. The British obliged by recognising, encouraging and institutionalising a Muslim identity in concordance with their colonial policy of divide and rule.

The 1915 communal riots between the Muslims and Buddhists and Christians is supposed to have resulted from Muslim extremist provocation of a Buddhist procession and a Christian carol service. A book by A. C. Dep, a former Deputy Inspector General of Police — Sinhala-Muslim Riots (2001) published posthumously by his son, the current Chief Justice Priyasath Dep — provides an excellent account of the background to the riots as well as the handling of the event by the police and the British colonisers. The British clearly showed their partisan treatment of the Muslims by arresting, under Martial Law, prominent figures of the independence movement including F. R. Senanayake, D. S. Senanayake, Anagarika Dharmapala, Captain Henry Pedris, Baron Jayatilaka, Arthur V. Dias, Piyadasa Sirisena and A. E. Goonesinghe. Dharmapala had his legs broken and was confined to Jaffna; his brother Edmund Hewavitharana died in Jaffna jail. The Muslims returned the favour to the British by refusing to join the anti-British Ceylon National Congress formed by the Sinhala and Tamil elites in1917.

Recent events, trends and emergence of controversial political movements and leaderships in the Muslim community suggest that there is a concerted movement to consolidate as well as to more powerfully assert a distinct Muslim identity and power. Their increased assertiveness manifested itself through the 30-year-war, beginning with the formation of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress led by M. H. M. Ashraff in 1981, demanding autonomy in the in areas of the Eastern Province predominantly inhabited by Muslims.

The rebelliousness of certain Muslim clerics and the rise in those wearing the burqa (rarely worn by Sri Lankan Muslim women a quarter century ago) is part evidence of this trend. The emergence of particularly raucous ‘leaders’ denote the emergence of a more conservative version of Islam as well as an increasingly belligerent approach to politics.

Another particularly sinister trend — from the point of view of ‘one man one vote’ style democracy we are in — is the apparent tendency of the Muslims to vote as a ‘block’ at elections. Election results at national, provincial and local government level clearly illustrate this feature. Associated with the block vote is the undisputable pattern among Muslim politicians to align ‘en masse’ with the group that is likely to win at times of political turmoil, as demonstrated during the 2015 regime change. The end result of Muslim politicians always occupying ministerial posts irrespective of the party in power speaks for itself.

Such trends, combined with their obvious economic clout, concerns or even alarms a section of the majority population, serving as the ember beneath the ashes that wait to be ignited.

Where to from here?

The key missive attempted here is the recognition that communal violence against minorities is the final expression of many political and economic concerns among the majority population that lie hidden to be triggered by seemingly insignificant proximate events. Analysis reveals at least some concerns are factually based, needing corrective action by Muslims, by way of changed behaviours aimed at preventing backlash from the majority community.

As discussed here, the current status of deep economic imbalance in favour of Muslims in Sri Lanka is believed to have been achieved since the time of kings to the British, through a strategy of ‘currying favours with’ the powers that be. Redressing the economic imbalance will need sustained economic progress that seems beyond the horizon currently. As an urgent measure, politicians of all persuasions can help remedy the situation by refusing to do politically expedient ‘deals’ with minority groups on the pretext of promoting national reconciliation. The Sri Lankan public have proved repeatedly that they are awake to political deceptions and it will be in the best interest of the politicians themselves to be forthright on the matter.

Finally, western and particularly American and EU advice on how to deal with communal issues need to be ‘returned to sender’ due to the simple reason that they are utterly unfamiliar with the scale and history of ethnic diversity in countries like Sri Lanka. They speak from a background where achievement of democracy was long predated by the rise of capitalism and the market, allowing redistribution of wealth through the welfare state. This model is the antithesis of the kind of market policies preached to the developing world by the Washington consensus. The western dogma that a neoliberal economy always engenders a more liberal and tolerant society is simply untrue in the case of a society characterised by ethnic cleavage founded on grave income inequality.

Sri Lanka’s communal violence is a home-baked problem needing home-baked solutions. Politicians can help by introducing measures to erase economic inequality first, and then by preaching.

One Response to “Every why has a wherefore (There is a reason for everything.)”

  1. Ananda-USA Says:

    Govt. surveyors on strike against move to hand over their dept. to US firm
    March 14, 2018, 10:58 pm

    By Priyadarshana Liyanage

    The Government Surveyors’ Union commenced a three-day strike from yesterday in protest against a government move to hand over the Survey Department to a US firm.

    President of the Union Duminda Undugoda told The Island that the Survey Department employees countrywide would take part in the strike. The strikers would however carry out functions in keeping with court orders, Undugoda said.

    He said a protest would be held in Colombo on March 16. “If the government fails to give an assurance that it would abandon its plan to hand over the Survey Department to a foreign company we will resort to a continuous strike and our members will also keep away from mandatory court work,” Undugoda said.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.



Copyright © 2023 LankaWeb.com. All Rights Reserved. Powered by Wordpress