Sri Lanka may not admit it, but it has scored a self-goal. The visit of the United Nations high commissioner for human rights to Sri Lanka — invited by the government that promised to take the envoy, Navanethem Pillay, wherever she wanted — was expected to fetch the country a healthy dose of publicity prior to the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Colombo in November. But the visit has left Sri Lanka with more egg on its face. Ms Pillay has thanked the government for its efforts. But she has also ticked it off for the “obtrusive” presence of the army in the north, the use of intimidation, sexual abuse and surveillance as tools of State control, and a pronounced tilt towards authoritarianism. None of this has gone down well with the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. It has sought to hit back at what it believes to be Ms Pillay’s pro-rebel propaganda with a counter-propaganda. Sri Lanka’s indomitable defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has reiterated his belief in an international conspiracy trying to influence the country’s destiny. A caveat has been added this time. The defence secretary has said that the country faces not only a resurgence of terrorism but also the threat of Muslim extremism. Unable to manipulate international opinion, the government has evidently gone back to keeping its appeal within the country intact by playing up the victimhood card.
Sri Lanka’s so-called victimhood at the hands of international conspirators, who are seen to persist with their allegations of war crimes, has always stimulated a virulent Sinhala national pride that has kept the Rajapaksas’ political legacy safe. For the country’s minorities, however, it has proved to be a bane. Sinhala nationalism, which translates into the chauvinist majoritarianism of the Sinhala Buddhists, has shrunk the space for the other ethno-religious communities, whose loyalty to the nation has become suspect. Just as the Tamils, Muslims today are the target of public ire inspired by ultra-nationalist Buddhist organizations such as the Bodu Bala Sena that will not allow room for any exclusivity for the minorities. Despite having stood by the government, Muslims find their culture and trade under attack. The government could address their concern by declaring that minorities, with their distinct ethnic and religious identities, are as much a part of the nation as the majority community. Unfortunately, it is too busy playing the victim itself.