Religion trumps race in Sri Lanka


Monk-led mob attacks Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka:

“These are Rohingya terrorists who killed Buddhist monks in Myanmar,” the monk said in his live commentary on Facebook, pointing to Rohingya mothers with small children in their arms.

Sri Lanka’s extremist Buddhist monks have close links with their ultra-nationalist counterparts in Myanmar. Both have been accused of orchestrating violence against minority Muslims in the two countries.

South Asians understand that the power of religion as opposed to race more than most people. The craven and obsequious respect granted to Arabs (and to a lesser extent Iranians and Turks) by South Asian Muslims is so natural and taken-for-granted that it only seems that way to outsiders. Despite the fact that Muslims and Hindus of any given region are clearly related by blood (in some cases, whole portions of castes convert in toto), they often speak as if they are racially distinct. Muslims somewhat sincerely, but affirming obviously false West Asian Asian, and Hindus more performatively, by asserting that India is for the Hindu race, from which Muslims are excluded.

The above story is a different dimension: the identification of Sri Lankan Buddhism monks with the Buddhist Burmese against the Rohingya. There is some historical background to this, as both the Sinhala and Burmese are predominantly Theravada Buddhist peoples. During periods of Buddhist decline in Sri Lanka lineages were reinforced form Burma, and vice versa.

The Rohingya, as I have stated, are racially really no different from the people of Bengal. And like Bengalis the Sinhala are a dark-skinned South Asian people (there are still debates as to whether the Indo-European language in Sri Lanka came from Gujarat or Bengal). The Sri Lankans I’ve met could easily pass as Bengali, and in general vice versa.

It’s an interesting observation from an American perspective, where race is the most salient factor in social-political identification. At least explicitly.