With sixty to seventy thousand people dead and half a million more driven from their homes in barely two decades, Sri Lanka is in the grip of an epic tragedy that mocks the essential tolerance and compassion of Buddhism, the religion of the majority of the island’s people. Once a model South Asian democracy, and still the region’s most socially progressive country—with strong Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian communities living peacefully together in many places—Sri Lanka is trapped in a suicidal civil war prolonged by politicians unable to rise above ethnic nationalisms and sheer opportunism. Both history and religion have become deadly weapons.

© AP/ Gemunu Amarasinghe
© AP/ Gemunu Amarasinghe

This war, however, is not intrinsically a Buddhist-Hindu struggle, although the Sri Lankan government, and its army, are certainly dominated by the country’s Sinhalese-Buddhist majority. They are fighting to prevent Tamil rebels from breaking off large areas of the country’s north and east as a nation for Tamils, most of whom are Hindus. Language and culture, as well as ethnicity and religion, divide them.

Buddhism took root in Sri Lanka more than two thousand years ago, but its early Buddhist kingdoms soon came under ruinous attack by the expansionist Hindu empires of South India. Millennia later, a suspicion of all things Indian remains part of the Sinhalese nationalist mindset—so much so that in the late 1980s, when the Indian Army came to Sri Lanka in a badly bungled attempt to disarm the Tamil rebels and enforce peace with the Sinhalese, an outburst of anti-Indian hysteria among Sinhalese nationalists fueled a second rebellion in the Sinhala heartland. Buddhist monks joined leftist Sinhalese revolutionaries in an anti-government crusade of startling brutality. That rebellion was put down a decade ago, and the rebels became a political party, the People’s Revolutionary Front. But their price for pledging recently to support a weak central government was still a promise of no concessions to the Tamils.

It is worth remembering that not all of Sri Lanka’s Tamils are fighting for Hinduism, and not all are separatists. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the Tamil nation), the last and most ruthless of about half a dozen Tamil rebel groups once in the fight, are, if anything, more Khmer Rouge-like in their totalitariansm, with Vellupillai Prabakharan, their leader, in the Pol Pot model. Since the late 1970s, when these Tamil groups operating from safe havens in India began to arm, saying that discrimination by Sinhalese gave them no option but separatism, fighting has centered in Sri Lanka’s north and east, where the majority of the Tamil population lives. But other Hindu Tamils working the tea plantations in the central highlands of the island have rejected separatism, as have many living in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, and other towns in the Sinhalese south.

Before independence in 1948, the northern Tamils, well educated by American missionaries, found good jobs in the British colonial administration. In the 1950s, the Sinhalese demanded that the Tamil presence be reduced. The “Sinhala only” language policy of President Solomon W. R. D. Bandaranaike marginalized and alienated Tamils. When I asked Bandaranaike’s daughter, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, whether she regretted this legacy, she explained that her father (who was later assassinated, ironically, by a nationalist bhikkhu) believed that the Sinhalese were in danger of losing their own cultural roots.

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