By M.M. Janapriya –
In a democracy government is a contractual agreement between the elected rulers and the voters who elected them, unfortunately enough, not written in blood though. The unwritten expectation of the nation is for the government to provide national security, maintain law and order and usher national prosperity. In our country the rulers have failed the nation in that they have personal prosperity at the expense of the nation as a flagship policy of all governments elected after 1977 and when compared to some of the most lawless countries in the world we can indeed boast about high levels of our indigenous law and order. No politician in the country no matter the colour has no moral right to even mention the two words national security let alone talk about it. I have already written about this and do not endeavor to delve in to or dwell in it any further. The intention of this article is to understand the mindset of suicide bombers, Islam fundamentalism and radicalism, the individuals and organizations that nurtured their growth and propagation and the reasons why successive governments failed to stop the rot.
Psychology of Suicides in the General Population
Why do people commit suicide? I remember as a school boy a young and pretty school girl hanging herself to death in my village in the outskirts of Galle in the early sixties due to a complicated love affair. When I was surgeon in Kegalle all those long years ago a young handsome dashing lawyer charred himself to death by locking himself up, in, and setting fire to, his own car. My neighbour in Kalidasa Road Matara jumped in front of the train in 1986 or so when audits were at his cooperative store where he was the manager. One thing common to all these people is extreme sadness or profound grief arising from a major setback in life which most people would have come to terms with, with the passage of time. However these people found life more painful than death at the points of time they were struck down by common day occurrences.
Suicide Bombers and Suicidal Insurrections
There are others who are well educated financially very well off and seemingly happy resorting to blast themselves in order to kill beings perceived as their enemies. These people have no such life changing or life ending so to speak, personal setbacks that drive them to take their own lives. It seems to be a case of extreme anger and an intense need to avenge generated as a result of perceived unendurable injustice perpetrated against them by the society there are living in. This was the story in the case of those 8 bombers of extremist Islam faith who recently blasted the churches and the hotels killing hundreds and maiming close to a thousand. The LTTE suicide cadres were less well educated but were equally well indoctrinated to do the job. Why do these young physically healthy people kill themselves in order to kill others? Why did the young boys and girls get killed by the armed forces choosing to stage an ill planned insanely timed and a badly executed insurrection by the JVP in 1971 and then in 1989?
Common Triggers of Extreme Response
All of the above showdowns have one thing in common and that is disenfranchisement. The oldest of these is the JVP insurrection. A Lumumba university outcast Rohana Wijeweera with his oratorical and persuasive prowess managed to move large numbers of disgruntled youth against the government to wage the insurrection in 1971. This was a time when disgruntled youth were singing the song ‘colombata kiri, apata kekiri’ meaning the government was looking after the interest of the rich and the urban population at the expense of the periphery. This was not that far away from the truth. Though the time was ripe as per the recruitment of cadres because of large numbers of unemployed graduates and the Advanced Level school children following an educational path that did not guarantee any jobs at the end of it all who were virtually staring down the barrel, it was insanely disastrous as per the timing because the government was young strong and popular. So the cadres who confronted the forces got it in the neck, others were rounded up and those who were lucky enough to escape death were rehabilitated thanks to the compassionate and motherly Mrs. Bandaranaike the then Prime Minister. Most of them were incarcerated till 1977 when the JR administration freed them. This marked the birth of mainstream JVP politics. One thing blindingly obvious was the deafening silence observed by the so called right thinking people of the west when about 15-20,000 misguided Singhalese youth were presumed killed both in battle and in custody. This was because JVP was a leftist insurrection in the line of Argentinian liberation fighter Ernesto Che Guevara. It was also being murmured that westerners even helped the government curb the rebellion.
The LTTE too is the result of a sense of being marginalized. Tamil youth in the periphery must have felt just like the JVP kids who felt step motherly treatment was meted out to them by successive administrations, which feeling is understandable. Additionally they may also have felt that this treatment they received was essentially because they were an ethnic minority. I am not getting in to merits and demerits of this perception but this led to upheavals by Tamil people that ended in communal violence. Being the minority the Tamils suffered more than the Singhalese. Emboldened by their ‘victories’ Singhalese people unleashed violence against Tamils almost once every decade since the 1958 riots till purported ‘state sponsored violence’ was perpetrated in July 1983 following the killing of 10 soldiers by the LTTE in Jaffna. Up until this event Tamils firmly believed that the riots were a spontaneous reaction of the nationalist sect of the ordinary Singhala population with occasional help from a nationalist element in the police, were prepared to come to terms with it and move on but their discernment of the said riots being one of overt blatant and shameless state involvement in shepherding the rioters in July 83 pushed the neutral Tamil to become at least a sympathizer of the LTTE. Large numbers left the country and formed a diaspora which would later nurture and fund the LTTE. A similar number returned to Sri Lanka to join the cadres to fight the Sri Lanka government in earnest and the LTTE proper was born.
History of Singhala Muslim Riots
Muslims have been living in Sri Lanka scattered amongst the Singhalese for the better part of 1200 years. Hence they are proper indigenous Sri Lankans and no one can deny that. By nature Muslims have been nonviolent and friendly traders who coexisted peacefully till 1915 when the first Sinhala Muslim riots erupted. The people who started the troubles was a sect of south Indian Muslims called Indian Moors, who initially came to Ceylon for trade. By 1915 the Indian Moors have pushed aside the Ceylonese moors and come to the forefront of internal and external trade. Even though their numbers were only about 1/8th of the former they have now spread all over Ceylon. They objected to the Kandy Perahera proceeding in front of the mosque in Gampola. Police diverted the Perahera before the mosque but the jubilant Muslims hooted and jeered at the Perahera leading to riots which lasted for nearly a month in which some Singhalese and a much greater number of Muslims died. The colonial masters brutally suppressed the riots in which they summarily executed a large number of Sinhalese including the famous Eddie Pedris. This naturally left some bitterness in the mouths of the Singhalese. I do not blame the Singhala people for the 1915 riots because British were ruling the country at that time and their inaction contributed to the violence getting out of hand to a great extent.
Thereafter except for infrequent sporadic and short lived upheavals, Moors and Singhalese co-existed cordially and peacefully for decades till riots again erupted in Aluthgama, Kalutara and Darga Town allegedly after a monk and his driver were assaulted by Muslims in 2014. This blew out of proportion apparently because of police inaction and turned in to a major catastrophic ethnic showdown where several people died hundreds injured and thousands displaced.
M. H. M. Ashraff founded Muslim congress in 1981 to address the problems of the eastern province Muslims whom he felt had been left behind by main stream politics. Pari passu with this, Muslims were becoming more aware of their rights as citizens of Sri Lanka. May be as a result of constant threat of suffering as a consequence to ethnicity based upheavals Muslims were becoming more sectarian. It is being alleged by the somnolent administrators that this transformation was effected by an external force but I feel it is most unlikely. What is nearer the truth is that they are likely to have received help from external sources. Ashraff’s nationalism must have played a part in no small measure. This started in the mid-eighties if I remember right. Sectarianism helped Muslims to bond together and this may well be the objective that drove them to be very religious. All in all their reaction was comparable to spore formation amongst bacterial colonies to guard against adverse conditions.
Singhala reaction to Ashraff’s nationalism was trying to pressurize the government to thwart attempts by the Muslims to erode Buddhist sacred land at least initially. I remember Ashraf debating with Gangodawila Soma thero live on TV, the topic being, whether or not it was right to settle people of Islamic faith in 12000 acres of land carved out as sacred Deegawapi of Buddihist worship. Later Singhalese too became more organized to the extent that the political parties championing Singhala nationalism like the Jathika Hela Urumaya were born. As a consequence to the government slumbering over alleged desecration of sacred places of Buddhist worship and repeated cries for help falling on deaf ears, a faction breaking off JHU formed Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) in 2012. Tit for tat by the Muslims and Singhalese created a vicious cycle that led to Singhalese becoming more militant and Muslims seeking refuge in ‘imbibed militancy’ from the middle east.
Sri Lanka Tawheed Jamaath appeared on the scene championing monotheism i.e. believing in only one god. Together with this polemical belief the Muslim youth so indoctrinated seemed to work towards achieving the goal of creating an Islam world. This was going to be a slow process and some of these SLTJ people were in a hurry. They broke away and formed the ultra-radical National Tawheed Jamaath which was held responsible for the Easter Sunday bombings.
By the time trouble erupted in Aluthgama in 2014 as mentioned earlier Muslims seemed prepared as a result of the above. This is why the casualty levels were high. I will not blame the BBS and other Sinhala organizations for perpetration of the riots which like ‘Arabization’ of Moors was a response to perceived inaction by the police and as such the buck stops with the government of the time itself. It was even alleged that the riots had the then blessings of the powers that be. Spontaneous clashes as a spur of the moment reaction would be tolerated by both warring parties but when violence is perpetrated against ethnic minorities ostensibly with the auspices of the powers that be then the recipients of the wrath are not prepared to take it lying down. In 2018 violence erupted in Kandy and Ampara following the death of a lorry driver assaulted by Muslim youth. Both communities suffered casualties but being a minority the Moors suffered more. This episode and perceived partisan nature of the peace keepers must have driven already somewhat indoctrinated youth even more towards militancy.
Radicalisation of Muslim Youth and Reaction of Singhala Nationalists
Constant fear of being harmed and the dire need to be able lead respectable lives could be the force that drove Muslim youth to be militant. In this day and age all youth, be it Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist look as if they are waiting for a chance to get in to a fight. This may be because they grew up learning about the JVP, seeing the LTTE at work and watching action movies on the big screen, laptop or even smart phone.
A group like this can be easily proselytized to take up arms against perpetrators of violence on them. Sectarianism came about to create the need for togetherness of the Muslims to stand against the threat of riots. In order for the youth to get indoctrinated under shelter the main stream Muslims politicians seemed have already become king makers. No matter which government was in power Muslims always held cabinet Portfolios. These ministers are being alleged to have ushered a kind of `diplomatic immunity to the militant youth from the police and hence from the long arm of the law. Because of power hunger both major parties have been bending backwards to appease Muslims. From 1994 onwards Muslims have been the king makers and seemingly shielded by these politicians the radicalization not only got a firm foothold but also started spreading their tentacles all over the island. Peace loving Muslims themselves, the local police investigators and the BBS have complained bitterly many times to the governments about the existence of radical elements amongst the Moors but the responsible authority was either in pretense that this was not real or waited till ‘the wicked folk was really at their own doorstep’.
It looks as though the Indian moors genetically were more assertive and even more combative in nature. By 1915 they have virtually overrun the Ceylon Moors in every aspect of Moor life and present day Moors are probably a hybrid of the laid back Ceylonese and trigger happy Indian Moors. It is in this milieu Moors may have felt left behind by the governments of Ceylon but the calm and tranquil Ceylonese Muslim gene in them augmented by the social status and British education perhaps stood in the way of launching anything more than a democratic demand for better lives. Dr.M.C.M. Kaleel a medical doctor by profession who used to be returned to parliament from the Colombo Central seat on the UNP ticket and Sir Razick Fareed who shuttled between UNP and SLFP the Muslim leaders of yester year, were happy to toe the line, press ahead and try to accomplish what Muslims wanted under either the UNP or the SLFP banner. They were conformists than confrontationists.
The first semblance of confrontation arose with die hard SLFPer Dr Badiudin Mahmud (interestingly his doctorates were conferred on him by the up and coming universities of Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara which were directly under his purview and were yearning for social and academic recognition around this period) who became the first ever Muslim to get the cabinet portfolio of Education. A historian called De Silva writes “this cabinet post became at once a political base and a fountain of patronage, to be used to strengthen the ties between his community and the party to which he belonged…” Dr. Mahmud rejected the age old time tested contention that Muslims were too small in number to play a decisive role at Parliamentary elections. He was of the view that however small the numbers were if he could garner their support and get them under one umbrella he could make that little difference needed to use this power as a bargaining chip. With this in mind he did exactly that by forming his Islamic Socialist Front (ISF) not as a party but as a banner under which all Muslims could and he felt should unite.
The real confrontational Muslim politics started in the Ashraf era. Ashraff a youngish lawyer from Sammanthurai formed the very communalistic Muslim Congress in 1981 with the sacrosanct motive of helping the eastern Muslims who did not seem to have much of a voice. By then Sri Lankan politics in general has been turned on its head by the old fox JR Jayewardene by opening the economy wide, changing the constitution to give power to a single individual over Parliament and apparently wanting to usher 5 star democracy. Even so journalists who criticized the government met with untimely ends. Even judges who gave judgments against the establishments had JR goons shouting derogatory slogans in front of their residences.
While JR concentrated mainly on his high position and the economy as a sideline Ashraff was counting the chickens. His ‘King Maker’ position attained in 1994 with the Chandrika Bandaranaike government remained strongly so till his demise. He used this more than as a bargaining chip. People might remember his alleged encroachment of Deegawapi, a sacred land of the Buddhists to provide housing the poor. ‘He came, he saw and he conquered’ while the successive governments had to look on ‘helplessly’ because of their hunger to cling on to power at any cost.
The Muslim sectarianism extremism and expansionism that flourished under successive governments engendered amongst the Sinahalese activists a feeling of betrayal and anger towards the administration on the one hand and bitterness and hatred towards the Muslim nationalists, their sponsors et.al. on the other. From 1994 to date practically every government looked pathetically ineffective to have curbed Islam fundamentalism and as such seemed to have depended on Sinhala nationalists to keep their Muslim counterparts under check. This cat’s paw approach of tackling self-created byzantine situations in governance has been the trademark of hung Sri Lankan Parliaments propped up by opportunistic Muslim leaders. The ping pong between the nationalists of the two communities went on unabated. The minority extremists, indoctrinated, programmed, brainwashed, proselytized or propagandized, call what you may, trained by the Isis were waiting in the wings and they blasted themselves causing the 21st April carnage. These people lodged the strongest protest of it all and it is illogical to believe that they will keep repeating this as, unlike the LTTE who could flee to South India, these people have nowhere to hide after such attacks. It is the bounden duty of the incumbent government to swear before the nation that it will leave no stone unturned to rid this country of Islam terrorism and it’s nurturing bed of fundamentalism to usher safety and security to the nation. All the same it also mandates that the government takes all the necessary measures to ensure that the misguided Islam youth are brought back to the mainstream by, exemplary governance.
*Dr. M.M. Janapriya FRCS, FRCSEd., Retired Consultant Surgeon, The National Hospital of Sri Lanka, Colombo