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Mediation Perspectives: Understanding Self-immolation in Sri Lanka

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Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors.

Since the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, representatives of the island’s Muslim minority and Buddhist majority have increasingly clashed violently. Attacks and counterattacks between the two communities have challenged the hope for peace on the island. Peacebuilding approaches to deal with the clashes between the religious communities require a better understanding of human non-material needs as motivation for political action. Considering the rationality of seemingly irrational acts such as self-immolation helps in understanding both these needs and the contentious issue at hand.


In 2013, the contestation of the state’s outlook escalated to a new level. A young Buddhist monk was videotaped while he described the detrimental conditions for Buddhism in his country and the failure of various religious and political measures to improve it. Then he set himself on fire in front of the most sacred Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka on Vesak day, the holiest holiday for Buddhists on the island. To shape political processes, Buddhist groups like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) have threatened the Muslim minority and challenged the spread of Muslim symbols in the public sphere. However, this monk decided to direct the violence against himself.

In suicide attacks, observers recognize a strategic use for the organisation behind the perpetrator. Self-immolations – that is the burning of the self – are often seen as impulsive outbursts of irrationality and thus as lacking meaning for analysis of conflicts. However, the strategically chosen setting documented in videos of self-immolations suggest that the acts are neither spontaneous nor the result of mental illness. Understanding the rationality behind the extreme act of self-immolation may offer an opportunity to provide insight into the complexity of the human motivations and thus the use of violence as a tool in politics. Understanding this, in turn, seems to me a necessary precondition for effective intervention and peacebuilding.

The outlook of the Sri Lankan (earlier Ceylonese) state – as demonstrated in my book “Religion and State-Formation in Transitional Societies” – has been contested since the island regained independence. Since the late 19th century, the unitary state has been a value central to the collective identity of the Buddhist Sinhalese. The importance of such values becomes clearer in the following example: For many Buddhist Sinhalese, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 pressured the government of Sri Lanka into accepting an agreement, which they saw as illegitimate. The Accord, which required the state to provide the regions with more autonomy – i.e. inhibiting the unitary state – was perceived to threaten a core value of the Buddhist Sinhalese identity. As I argue in my book, this thus likewise threatened the preconditions for the satisfaction of their basic needs, including the very self and meaning of the Buddhist Sinhalese community. Radical fringes of the Sinhalese community, led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, People’s Liberation Front), were able to gain control of an opposition movement as only they were perceived as defending the community’s interests. The consequence thereof was a massive outbreak of violence and the loss of human life in great numbers.

In my book, I argue that self-immolation for a political cause can be seen as rational. Religious identity provides the rational agent with a strategy to survive and satisfy his or her fundamental needs – thus, to lead a good life. Collective identities, such as a religious identity, may become the basis for need satisfaction. The fundamental needs of an agent range from the most fundamental physiological needs to self-actualisation needs. A rational agent’s interests are not limited to material gains. The cognitive models (worldviews) of an identity and the satisfaction of the variety of needs in line with it account for the rational agent’s notion of “the good life”. As certain values become central for a collective identity, a clash with a state that is seen as propagating other values can turn violent. The perceived threat to the community’s core values is seen to equal the destruction of the collective identity, which has become a precondition for need satisfaction. Thus, the very survival, the very self and meaning of an agent is endangered or threatened to be destroyed. It is this threat to the collective identity, provoked by a clash of values, which allows for an understanding of suicide self-sacrifices. This may alter the cost-benefit ratio of ‘death for change’ and ‘survival’ to such an extent that dying might be seen as the option with the best cost-benefit ratio – and therewith the rationally chosen behaviour. To put it differently, without the appropriate conditions to lead the good life, the agent’s own life becomes worthless to the extent that dying to protect what is valuable can seem more logical than continuing to live.

Dealing with rational agents in peace efforts

The violence between Muslims and Buddhists in Sri Lanka is often claimed to be the result of economic competition in the Southern and Eastern parts. Yet, for many Buddhist Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, the demand for a unitary state is not the aspiration for dominance over other groups and material economic gains. Instead, it is an expression of the perceived precondition of need satisfaction. In the perspective of certain segments of the Buddhist Sinhalese society, the demand for a unitary state is seen as a necessary requirement for the possibility of living a “good life”. When such central values are disputed between parties or groups, the survival of the collective is seen as being threatened.

These findings and the argument made about the rationality of political agents have two implications for peacebuilding efforts.

First, rational agents have more needs than purely material ones. There is more to political demands than the material dimension of interests. It is necessary to understand which elements of made claims can – and which cannot – be negotiated without challenging the very self and meaning of a community. If identity demands are dropped too easily, peace and a stable equilibrium will not follow. Even if a community’s elite gives in to pressure and agrees to drop identity demands, the wider community is not likely to support such outcomes. If certain parts of the community feel neglected or betrayed by the elite, they might take up violent means to change the situation. If some individuals become frustrated when other means fail, they may even act by burning themselves to death.

Second, rational agents are responsive to incentives. Peacebuilding approaches need not only seek to understand the core values of a community and how identity is linked to need satisfaction. They can also work towards creating incentive structures for peaceful behaviour. Working towards altering the opportunity structure of the group may set incentives for different forms of behaviour, including non-violent ones. However, setting “only” material incentives is not enough. What seems essential is to enable religious political agents to represent their interests within constitutional political processes, lest leaving violence as the only viable alternative to do so. The non-violent negotiation of the basic principles of state and society consistent with parties’ core values will not necessarily, let alone automatically, lead to finding mutually acceptable forms of co-existence, but it is an essential basis.

To conclude, a better understanding of rationality, human motivation and sensitivity for collective identities is essential to improve peacebuilding efforts in Sri Lanka. Considering identity interests instead of challenging them and setting the right incentives can reduce the likelihood of the application of violence – and self-sacrifice – as a political tool.

Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. To keep up to date with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.


About the Author

Dr. La Toya Waha is currently Senior Programme Manager for Security Policy and Radicalisation Research in the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s Political Dialogue Asia in Singapore. She has taught on ‘Religion and Politics in South Asia’ at the South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University.

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