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.

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14 Replies to “Religion trumps race in Sri Lanka”

  1. Perhaps when Sri Lankan Buddhists are attacking Rohingya in support of the Burmese, they are not really favoring Tibeto-Mongols over South Asians as much as they are asserting Buddhist power in Sri Lanka over Sri Lankan Muslims- Rohingya and Burmese just being proxies in the local struggle.

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  2. Perhaps when Sri Lankan Buddhists are attacking Rohingya in support of the Burmese, they are not really favoring Tibeto-Mongols over South Asians as much as they are asserting Buddhist power in Sri Lanka over Sri Lankan Muslims- Rohingya and Burmese just being proxies in the local struggle.

    that’s kind of my point. did you read the post?

    also, it’s not just local. sri lankan buddhist and burmese buddhism have had supportive relationships over the past 1,000 years.

    finally, it’s tibeto-burman. not tibeto-mongol.

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  3. South Asians are weird that way. I remember being about the only South Asian in the West that [openly] thought we should be commonly identifying by race, the way whites, blacks and [East] Asians do, rather than religion. Others just didn’t seem to understand what that was about. Even if they thought of the “desi” label, it was really thought of in common cultural terms rather than RACIAL terms. It’s frustrating. Why we were so easy to conquer [by outsiders] I suppose.

    On the plus side, at least we don’t have the crazy XXXX-power! movements that a lot of these other weirdos have. So there’s that.

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    1. You’re a nut-job, that’s why. “Others dont seem to understand” your romanticized fascist ideas cuz it’s stupid, given how diverse South Asia is where ethnic and cultural heritage overlaps with it’s neighboring regions.

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      1. “how diverse South Asia” — We are significantly less diverse than Africans genetically and perhaps even linguistically, yet they have “black power” movements. Hell, Europeans have a plethora of languages and cultures, yet they have no problem identifying as whites. What makes us so “special”?

        Genetically we don’t overlap with Burma [yes, they are “related”. As all human groups are. But I mean genetically distinct]. That’s why they are not considered “desis” [ill-defined]. We can identify by looks alone the Nepalis whom we feel “related” to [Indo-Aryan ancestry], and those that would be considered “outsiders” [Mongoloid]. So why is it “stupid” when we are here on a blog called “Brown pundits” discussing issues that relate to exactly this phenomena?

        I think resolving issues like this would actually go a long way to resolving the silly disputes that plague South Asia [e.g. Pakistan-India nuclear, India-Bangladesh water-bickering, Sri Lankan Sinhalese vs Tamil etc.], and are problematic for our development.

        In the US, even Chinese and Filipinos can describe themselves as “Asian”. Are they not diverse culturally and linguistically?

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        1. We are significantly less diverse than Africans genetically and perhaps even linguistically,

          the between-group differences in much of africa are lower than in south asia. (african genetic diversity is aggregate)

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        2. @Butul Miah – You clearly haven’t seen map of India or where seven-sister states are located. Yes, genetically we do overlap with East/Southeast Asia and to west we overlap with Central Asia. We can see this in global genetic PCA plot, South Asias and Central Asians form a cline-between West Eurasia and East Eurasia. If we did not admix with Neolithic West Asians, we would be much more genetically closer to East/Southeast Asians. I don’t know about diversity of Africans, but in Eurasia – Central Asian and South Asian are most diverse Eurasian populations.

          I don’t know about what it’s like for you folks living in the West but back here in South Asia, or Southeast Asia or East Asia, none of them get along with their neighboring countries for various reason.

          As for ‘South Asian unity’ within South Asia – is very unlikely – largely because religion – due to what happened during Medieval era to partition era, which many Indians still hold deep grudge against, they see Islam as dividing/destructive force. While, Pakistan and Bangladesh want nothing to do with ‘Hindoos and their kind’, they’re identity is shaped by their interaction with Islamic world.

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          1. While, Pakistan and Bangladesh want nothing to do with ‘Hindoos and their kind’, they’re identity is shaped by their interaction with Islamic world.

            it’s complicated for bangladesh. the ‘hindoo’ tagore is beloved for most of the educated populace.

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          2. None of my Indian family, from Delhi to Patna, see Islam as a dividing or destructive force, or hold a grudge against their own religion. Indian does not equal hindoo.

            That said, I think you are right that many Hindus “hold a deep grudge against … Islam”. Until the Hindu community resolves this resentment, any brown identity will be stillborn.

            (But I deeply fear what modi and adityanath types would need to do to soothe their own civilizational angst.)

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          3. @Ikram

            None of my Indian family, from Delhi to Patna, see Islam as a dividing or destructive force, or hold a grudge against their own religion. Indian does not equal hindoo. That said, I think you are right that many Hindus “hold a deep grudge against … Islam”. Until the Hindu community resolves this resentment, any brown identity will be stillborn.

            I agree, that is why i said many (not most*).

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          4. You clearly haven’t seen map of India or where seven-sister states are located.

            And as if by magic, guess which happens to be the most volatile region of India? And it’s not due to Islam, regardless of what Indian political “commenters” hope for.

            South Asias and Central Asians form a cline-between West Eurasia and East Eurasia

            As you would expect, geographically. So…..

            I don’t know about what it’s like for you folks living in the West but back here in South Asia, or Southeast Asia or East Asia, none of them get along with their neighboring countries for various reason.

            Those “various” reasons are things like race/ethnic differences, resource wars etc. The point is, once you break it down to the constituent countries themselves, the biggest “fights” [within country, resulting in apparent endless cycles of violence] have to do with race [India’s North-East, Burma etc.]. This is obviously an incomplete picture, because as we can see from Sri Lanka, even the same basic race can have fights over linguistic/ethnic components. However, in South Asia, these fights are mediated by religion [e.g. Buddhist/Hindu].

            If you are imagining “South Asia” including Burma… then yes, I’m afraid that doesn’t work with regards to “race”. As you can see, they are not exactly fond of brownies… because they are not racially the same as them. In fact, this obviously includes a fair bit of the population of India’s “Seven Sisters” [they are handily lumped together, despite their diversity], and even some populations residing in current Bangladesh. Closing your eyes to that won’t make it go away. It just results in the stupid culture wars South Asians [“Desis”] have with each other that are both pointless and laughable, since everyone else will lump your brown asses together when abroad.

            While, Pakistan and Bangladesh want nothing to do with ‘Hindoos and their kind’

            Can’t speak for Pakistan. In Bangladesh, Hindu festivals are still celebrated by all [well, there are some ‘security’ concerns on certain years, caused by a crazy segment of the population. Nevertheless, it really doesn’t stop folks from celebrating stuff]. In some overall way, you may be right. But it basically misses the point. Lots of ‘Hindu’ poets/writers are celebrated in Bangladesh, but not because they are Hindu [obviously], but because they are BENGALI. That’s a type of “race” consciousness, quite apart from religious sensibilities.

            they’re identity is shaped by their interaction with Islamic world.

            Indians basically know very little about Bangladesh, and this is a clear example. Part of the problem is, that outflow has been almost one way traffic [Bangladeshi → India]. So it leads to silly observations like the above about the country. Besides, a good portion of the returnees from the Gulf [laborers] that I have interacted with were clearly atheists [especially the younger under-40 set].

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          5. Bangladesh relies a fair amount in Bengali language nationalism; Pakistan is reliant on Urdu .. Urdu, due to historical circumstance, is now a “Muslim language.”

            If Pakistan used Punjabi in the Gurumukhi script; it’s very very hard to imagine much Indo-PAK conflict (trivial example but a salient one).

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