By Dharisha Bastians –
As sporadic attacks against the Muslim community continue two weeks after the Aluthgama riots and instigators of the vicious religious violence roam free, fingers are still pointed against the Government for inaction and complicity. Politically there can be no victors in this ugly ethno-religious game
The first dawn after the crescent moon sighting that signalled the beginning of Ramazan fasting season for Sri Lanka’s Muslim community this year, was marked by violence.
It was the kind of shadowy, isolated attack that has been quietly besieging the Muslims of Sri Lanka for 18 long months, ever since the birth of the Bodu Bala Sena brought Sinhala Buddhist hardliners to the frontlines of politics in the country.
The Thalayan Bawa Jumma Masjid in the suburb of Borupana, Ratmalana, was spared massive damage from an alleged arson attack only because the mosque trustee and his wife woke up to pray and observe the first fast of the Ramazan season in the early hours of Sunday (29) morning. Seeing the flames engulfing the main door of the mosque, where clothes had been carefully placed, soaked in fuel and set alight, they worked to douse the flames at 2:30 a.m. The next morning, Senior Government Minister A.H.M. Fowzie arrived on the scene. The customary police complaints were filed, but little hope remains among the Muslim community that investigations will lead anywhere. Hundreds of similar attacks across the island over the past 18 months have rendered no completed investigations and no prosecutions.
On Tuesday (1) the third day of Ramazan, the Chatham Street mosque received a letter by post, threatening the trustees to cease renovations of the premises. Pieces of rotting raw pork accompanied the threatening note. The old mosque with its beautiful dark green minaret stands upon the iconic street that now houses the renovated Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct extension, with its plush restaurants, clothing stores and tea lounges. Because the path beyond the old clock tower on Chatham Street leads directly to Janadhipathi Mawatha and the Presidential Palace, the street remains heavily guarded. Police complaints about the letter were never filed after senior police officers visited the mosque’s Imam and begged him to refrain from publicising the incident. Police guards have now been stationed at the Chatham Street mosque around the clock.
This year, fasting season arrived only 14 days after Sri Lanka experienced the worst communal violence in decades, explicitly targeting the Muslim communities of Aluthgama and Beruwela. The timing would make the Muslim community feel particularly vulnerable. Last year, attacks on mosques and businesses intensified during Ramazan fasting season, culminating in barely contained communal clashes at Grand Pass, in the heart of the capital where Muslim and Sinhalese residents live cheek-by-jowl. This year, as the country reels from the aftermath of the Aluthgama horror, Muslim owned clothing stores, restaurants and mosques – large and small – in the capital and its suburbs have been provided police protection. While it is heartening that the authorities have felt compelled to provide protection to allay fears and prevent further attacks, that such measures are even necessary tells a damning story about the climate of insecurity that shrouds a religious minority in Sri Lanka today.
Two weeks and three days after his ‘yes we are racists!’ speech on a platform in Aluthgama preceded a night of bloody rioting, the Criminal Investigation Department finally hauled the Bodu Bala Sena group’s most controversial monk in for questioning yesterday. Ironically, Galagodaththe Gnanasara Thero, who serves as the hardline group’s General Secretary and chief rabble-rouser, had challenged the authorities to arrest him at a media briefing held on Tuesday (1). Despite his increasingly daring speeches against the Muslim community and Government and opposition politicians, the controversial Buddhist monk has proved untouchable so far. But with Muslim politicians demanding the monk be held accountable for the 15 June riots and public opinion building against his foul-mouthed speeches and their impact on religious harmony in the island, the Government was forced into action.
Over the past two weeks, the Government’s ‘Gnanasara policy’ has been juxtaposed unfavourably with action against the monk and his group by other entities.
Gnanasara Thero’s travel plans to ‘take the heat off’ after the religious violence were scuttled last week, when the US Embassy notified the monk that his five year multiple entry visa would no longer be valid for travel. The monk had first obtained the visa in 2011 – before the BBS was formed – to travel for a religious ceremony in Indiana that year, but ultimately never undertook the journey. Subsequently in 2013, the BBS General Secretary travelled to California for meetings and ceremonies at local temples. Technically his US visa should have remained valid until 2016. Yet on Friday (27), the US Embassy in Colombo called the controversial monk to relay a message from the State Department in Washington that he would have to apply for a fresh visa if he intended to travel again to the US. This bungled the plan to have the firebrand monk packed off to North America for a few weeks to allow the Aluthgama furore to die down naturally at home. While there will be no dearth of friendlier countries willing to offer Gnanasara Thero a visa for travel, the BBS has shown a partiality to the United States, where it has found sympathy, hospitality and benefactors at local temples in several states.
Doors are closing to the BBS and its supporters in the virtual world too. The group’s highly active social media networks provided the first clues that the BBS rally in Aluthgama would take an ugly turn, when supporters and well-wishers on their pages offered to bring cans of petrol to the meeting. After months of public complaints to Facebook about their social media pages inciting hatred and violence against Muslims, the network finally closed Facebook pages belonging to Gnanasara Thero, BBS CEO Dilanthe Withanage and several other affiliated accounts. The closures came days after reports of the death toll and damage in Aluthgama hit the international headlines, all of them prefaced with references to the BBS rally in the town hours before the violence erupted. Users renewing their complaints to Facebook about the content on BBS and affiliated social media pages since the Aluthgama riots could now attach hundreds of credible news reports about how their hate speech had incited mob violence against Muslims on 15 June in southern Sri Lanka. Legally, the network no longer had grounds to keep the pages alive in the name of free expression.
Meanwhile, in the Sri Lankan reality, the impunity Gnanasara Thero and his BBS continue to enjoy in the face of raging religious tensions in the country was leading to pointed suggestions about state complicity in the violence and unshakable patronage for hardline groups. At the centre of this storm is the country’s Defence Secretary, arguably the Rajapaksa Government’s most influential and feared official.
Over the past week, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his security establishment have stepped up the offensive to deny links with the Bodu Bala Sena. The group itself has been pitching in its share of the denial during media briefings over two weeks, but this week the security establishment swung into high gear. Yesterday, the Defence Ministry summoned a special media briefing to deny the Defence Secretary’s links with the Bodu Bala Sena and other affiliated hardline movements. The Defence Secretary himself, in his first interview since the Aluthgama riots, vowed to resign if his alleged links with the Bodu Bala Sena were ever proven, but stopped short of denouncing the group’s rhetoric and tactics. Revealingly, he also continued to posit the BBS as being just another organisation formed on ethno-religious lines, not unlike Muslim civil society groups and Islamic cleric groupings that function in the country. This argument remains fundamentally flawed since none of those other groups engage in hate campaigns or espouse violence against another religious or ethnic community in Sri Lanka.
The Defence Secretary made similar assertions when he met with a delegation of Muslim representatives from Islamic organisations and civil society for talks nearly two weeks ago. Incensed Muslim representatives rounded on the senior official during the meeting and pointedly informed him that the Muslim community in Sri Lanka believed he was protecting hardline groups like the Bodu Bala Sena. The official vehemently denied the charges, but insisted that the clergy have genuine grievances regarding the conduct of the Muslim community and informed the delegation that these concerns would need to be addressed.
The Government’s folly, from the beginning of the BBS entry into mainstream politics, has been to put the group on equal footing with other religious stakeholders. It has done so with every manufactured conspiracy, from the Halal certification fiasco to the destruction of the Kuragala Sufi Shrine. Legal mosque trustees, moderate clerics and Islamic certification board officials are forced to negotiate with railing hardliners, forced to defend against their ludicrous allegations and ultimately compelled to capitulate and compromise in the face of their relentless campaigns.
Each time the regime makes the BBS a stakeholder in ‘negotiations’ about issues between the communities it inadvertently lends credence to the hardliners’ preposterous charges against Sri Lanka’s Muslim population. The Bodu Bala Sena begins its arguments in illogical, racist and extremist realms. Its ‘grievances’ are born of this extremism and must be recognised as such. The group no inclination to ‘resolve’ issues. In the Bodu Bala Sena universe, the equilibrium will not be restored until Sri Lankan Muslims are economically crippled and socially isolated. To put it plainly– until Sri Lanka’s Muslim community is ‘put in its place’.
To genuinely address issues between the Muslim and Sinhalese communities and prevent communal tension in the future, the Government would be required to bring entirely different stakeholders to the table for negotiations. The issues are real ones, albeit nowhere near the Bodu Bala Sena’s exaggerated proportions. This is not an unnatural phenomenon in a country where ethnically and religiously diverse communities must co-exist, often in close proximity.
The Government could reach out to the Chief Incumbent of the Muhudu Maha Vihara in Pottuvil for instance, a monk who has been trying to ward off encroachment by a growing Muslim settlement on the temple’s borders for decades. Or it could bring Wildlife Department and Archaeology Department officials to speak of deforestation and settlement in the Lahugala jungles on the border of Ampara.
Instead, the Rajapaksa regime persists in indulging the perverse demands of the Bodu Bala Sena and insisting that the Muslim community acknowledge their grievances as real. The fact that the hardliners have remained sacred cows even in the aftermath of the Aluthgama devastation, points to a clear political motive in permitting their continued existence. As the smoke settles and the weeks wear on, perhaps motives and agendas will become clearer.
A fortnight after the riots, this should be the season of national stock-taking. Of lessons learnt, and pledges made that such senseless violence will never happen again. It should be the age of punishment for crimes against a people who are, fundamentally, Sri Lankan citizens, entitled to equal protection under the law. Instead, it has become the season of conspiracy theories, of blame games, of turning victims into aggressors.
Whoever the Government claims cast the first stone, this much remains true: State protectors failed the Muslims of Dharga Town and Beruwela on the nights of 15 and 16 June. They failed to prevent the Bodu Bala Sena rally espousing hatred and violence against the area’s Muslim community. They failed to stand between a rampaging mob and its victims. Cries for help were answered too late. Too many eyewitness accounts have surfaced about law enforcement standing aside while mobs looted and torched mosques and Muslim owned businesses. An epic breakdown of the law and order machinery devastated the two southern towns, creating anger and resentment and desperation that will take years to heal. But houses can be rebuilt and homes can be recreated. Some livelihoods can perhaps be salvaged from the charred wreckage. Far more difficult to restore will be dignity and trust, especially in a Government that has only sought to downplay and blackout the suffering of hundreds who were left homeless that night.
For graver still than the Government’s failure to act during the violence, is every step it has taken or not taken since. Government member after member has cast suspicion on the Muslim community for instigating the riots and stopped short of condemning – even by the slightest word – the Bodu Bala Sena group for its hate speech and extremist rhetoric. The extremist organisations have tarnished the image of the Sri Lankan state and Buddhism, they have hastened the country’s journey towards another ethno-religious conflict, and yet, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Government will say nothing, do nothing to end their reign of terror.
Ultimately, the lasting legacy of the Aluthgama communal violence will be the irreparable damage caused to the psyche of a community that is being vilified and falsely accused as being responsible for its own victimisation last month. That these accusations emanate from the top ranks of the Rajapaksa administration will prove the greatest betrayal of all. Like dominoes falling before the ill-winds of extremism and racism, perceived to be nurtured and patronised by the state, the Government is losing the trust of minority community after minority community. Already hated by the Tamil community for its poor post war policies and oppressive militarisation of the North, the regime has looked the other way while hardline groups have rampaged against Muslims and Christians with growing impunity for nearly two years.
The reasons for Government apathy with regard to the saffron robed marauders remain speculative, but the omission will cost the incumbent President valuable electoral support when he seeks a third term in office in early elections likely to be held next year. The Government’s role in the Aluthgama tragedy and its aftermath will no doubt galvanise Muslim politicians and an entire community of people, to stand against his re-election. They will be joined by other oppositional forces, together or apart, who will seek to break the President’s vote bank when the entire country polls as a single constituency. The election math is simple. No President can be swept to power on the votes of Sinhala Buddhists alone. To believe otherwise is short-sighted and foolish in the extreme. In communal politics, every victory is temporary. Long term, there are no real winners.
Mahinda Rajapaksa – the politician, should have known better.
Courtesy Daily FT