Edited speech delivered at the meeting of Sri Lankan High Commissioner with Sri Lankan Muslim organisations, Melbourne, Australia on 12 March 2018:
His Excellency Somasundaram SKANDAKUMAR the High Commissioner of Sri lanka,
Mr Sampath Prasanna WALPITA GAMAGE Consul-General of Sri lanka,
Mr Riyaz Mustafa, President of USMAA,
Leaders and exco members of Muslim organisations,
And ladies and gentlemen
Assalamu Alayykum Wa Rahmatullah
May Peace and Mercy and Blessings of God be Upon You
Ayuubowan | Wanakkam
Why have we gathered here today?
We have gathered here this afternoon to condemn the recent abhorrent and intensified racist attacks on the Muslim minority community in Sri Lanka. This escalation of violence towards minority muslims needs to cease and I appeal to the Sri Lankan government to take immediate action to safeguard the security of its citizens, regardless of their religious and ethnic affiliation. Many of our own families and those of others have been affected and disturbed by these barbaric attacks on innocent civilians and it is imperative an immediate halt of this type of hate violence be stopped.
Sri Lankan Muslim Community
The Sri Lankan Muslim community, just like other communities, has a long history dating back many centuries, and the contribution of this minority community and its leaders have contributed to nation building process and ensured a harmonious coexistence with all communities around the country. The demographic pattern and existence of Muslims in NE and other areas has never been felt as a threat to other religious communities living in this region.
To best describe the Muslim community, one could say that it is a distinct minority community which takes its identity from the religion they follow rather than the language they speak. This unique identity as a small minority community within another minority community makes the muslim community bilingual within the home and the larger community in NE and NNE. This cordial relationship earned them the nickname as ‘pittu and coconuts’, both are essential to make ‘pittu’.
For the record let it be noted that muslims have never demanded an independent state or posed any threat to the country. Throughout history they have maintained cordial relationships with neighbouring communities in Tamil and Sinhalese speaking areas. Muslim politicians have also been part of the UNP, SLFP, JVP, TULF and other minor parties, even after a Muslim political party, the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (SLMC) was formed in the eastern province -to address grievances of Muslims that were inflicted by Tamil militants- in 1981 and was formally registered as a political party in 1986.
Tamil leaders from Ponnambalam Ramanathan in 1880 to Prabhakaran in 1980 tried their best to claim that Muslims belong are part of the Tamil community as they speak Tamil at home. Then LTTE even went to the extent of trying to get the whole community to surrender at gunpoint to state the Muslims were ethnically Tamil as they tried to name them as ‘Islamiya Tamilar’. Muslims refused these calls saying that their identity is formed from the religion they believed and practised not from the languages they speak.
It must be noted that the Muslim community’s peaceful coexistence was challenged initially by Tamil terrorist groups in the NE and now at the hand of racists in Sinhala speaking areas. I would like to emphasise the point that Tamil terrorists were not representing the peaceful Tamil community just as racist Sinhala mobs are not representing the peaceful Sinhala community.
Political problem turn into communal clashes…
In the early seventies the policies introduced, frustrated Tamil youth who couldn’t enter the universities. This lead these youth started to form as groups which turned towards acts of crime like robbing banks and targeted assassinations of elected Tail leaders. In 1975 Prabakaran shot the mayor of Jaffna under the pretext of calling him a ‘traitor’. Then called ‘the boys’ became a movement and divisions among them gave birth to many other Tamil youth movements. Almost all of them were involved with similar activities. Then in 1983 Prabakaran lead an armed group to kill 13 army soldiers which sent shock waves throughout the country. This resulted in the uprising of the Sinhalese mobs to attack the Tamil community instead of government taking action against a group of small armed Tamil boys who were involved with criminal activities. These revenge attacks were turned against the whole Tamil community, which later became known as the ‘1983 riots’. This is a sad turning point in Sri Lankan ethnic history, as this led to members of the Tamil community being seen as suspicious by some people in the community, thus many innocent lives becoming easy prey for racist mobs in different parts of Sri Lanka, during this period.
Later the LTTE started to point their guns at different corners, starting from killing the mayor to other politicians, Tamil militant groups, police personal, security forces, innocent Sinhalese and Muslim civilians. This was a very difficult and sad time for all citizens in all parts of the country. At this point the LTTE became the single force challenging the whole nation by their horrible guerrilla attacks. LTTE’s choice to attack Sinhalese in the city of Anuradhapura, massacre bus loads of Buddhist monks in Aranthalawa, Muslim worshippers in Kattankudy and innocent Muslim and Sinhalese villagers placed the nation in a state of terror. From the other side of the coin, revenge attacks by security forces, Home Guards and mobs on innocent Tamil civilians took place in many places like Kokkadicholai. A simple google search with the following words “List of (non-state) terrorist incidents in Sri Lanka”, “List of LTTE Attacks on Civilian Targets” and “List of attacks on civilians attributed to Sri Lankan government forces” brings up hundreds of inhumane massacres where thousands of civilians were mercilessly killed.
What have we gained from this? Have we learned any lesson from it? The answer is nothing and nothing.
A three decade long war with LTTE terrorists ended only a few years ago in 2009. Everyone suffered, irrespective of race or religion and the country lost its good name as one of the safest and beautiful tourist spots well known as the ‘pearl of Indian ocean’. Previous riots launched against minority communities in 1915 Muslim community and after independence from 1956 to the major catastrophe of the 1983 violence, did NOT bring any positive outcome to Sri Lanka. For the short term selfish benefits of somewho initiated these heinous acts, thousands of valuable lives and millions worth of properties and assets including places of worship were destroyed. Human rights violations, massacres, targeted killings, abductions, extortion, robberies, bombings and use of forced child soldiers were terms heard frequently during this period. In addition, the notorious white van stories carried much dread as to who would be kidnapped and killed next.
Have Muslims become the next easy target for racists?
Since the ethnic conflict ended in 2009, a sense of relief descended for a short period that has been destroyed by the emergence of certain racist factions who claim to be followers of Buddhism. An organisation by the name of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and other factions appear to have formed with the prime motive of creating ethnic tensions intent on attacking Muslims, their properties, mosques and threatening their existence. Its founder Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara along with CEO Dilantha Withanage and a few others sought to represent millions of silent peace loving Buddhists in the country. Their continuous hate preachings brought about animosity and hatred resulting in violent outbreaks of attacks against the Muslims. A simple google search of “galagoda aththe gnanasara thero” will bring loads of results to assess his personality, vulgar comments about Islam and Muslims, plans and intentions that provoke racism.
BBS initiated a drama from Halal food products claiming there was a tax imposed on every consumer who bought halal products. Further, images inciting extremist views towards muslims were posted with images of Muslim Women in hijabs, palm trees planted for beautification of a particular city and mosques. The overall message was that these visible signs pointed towards a growth of extremist views of Islam.
More ridiculous claims have been the (wanda pethi) sterilisation pill story where a rumour was spread that bakers were placing sterilisation pills to ensure the Sinhalese women would be unable to conceive. Even though this story is not new it was highlighted after the attacks in Ampara. This wanda behet story started a few years ago and was used to frighten Sinhalese women to also not buy their undergarments from shops owned by Muslims. They said wanda behet have been already applied to the garments which will eventually make Sinhalese women barren.
The malicious elements in the society who preach hatred have successfully reached some young people within the sinhala Buddhist community, fuelling them with hatred towards other religions with a hegemony attitude of trampling other religions. Their attempt to create divisions and binary identities of ‘Us and Them’ have lead to the sad reality of what we are witnessing over the recent years in Sri Lanka. Without giving any value to the peaceful teachings of Buddhism, their contrary approach of harming others went exactly opposite to the teachings of Buddhism and universal human right conventions.
Unfortunately many innocent people believe these rumours and are misguided by such teachings. This was evident by many youth including young girls who were involved in riots and lootings of Muslim properties and places of worship during the recent violence in Digana. This is a new development in the history of Sri Lanka as it is quite rare for women to come forward or be involved in violent and destructive acts such as arson and lootings in Sri Lanka.
It is unfortunate that a harmonious coexistence of Muslims with other communities going back thousands of years, is now questioned by an organisation founded only in 2012.
As anyone can observe when you look at these racial attacks on Muslim communities, these attacks are pre-planned. Tracing the logistics and people involved on the front line and behind the scenes in these racist attacks show a pattern. The offenders are the same people belonging to common racist groups whose aim is to maximise the destruction and damage to Muslim businesses,wiping out muslim places of worship in the area they pick to attack. They do not have any goodwill or loyalty to contribute to the country or even to Sinhala Buddhist community other than spreading hatred among the communities to achieve their short term goals.
The incident that took place in Ampara (26 Feb 2018) and the murder of the lorry driver in Kandy (5 Mar 2018) are not the cause for these riots taking place. If that was the case when this incident took place in Ampara how was it possible for a lorry load of people to launch racial attacks against the Muslim community in a very short space of time? The same applies to the incident in Kandy. The death of the truck driver by drunken Muslim men is not the main cause for the violence to spread to Kandy? It is obvious that the same racist groups mobilise their resources informing their supporters by social media and other means to instigate these riots. . It’s rather disturbing that the funeral of this innocent Sinhalese truck driver was used as a catalyst to spark violence in the area. You could ask the question of how the Buddhist monk Ampitiye Sumanarathana from Batticaloa was coincidentally there at this time in Kandy? If you were to google the words “Batticaloa Monk”, the video clips speak for itself.
Sadly these hate crimes are lead by a few monks who claim to be preachers of Buddhism and it is because of their actions the term ‘saffron terror’ is being introduced in the media to identify these specific monks. This is in direct contrast to what I recall in my childhood. These unscrupulous nature of such people are changing the good name and message of peace in Buddhism.
From anti-halal food campaigns, attacks of a shrine in Anuradhapura and a masjid in Dambulla, attacks on civilians in Aluthgama, Gintota, Ampara, Digana, Akurana and other places, there is a greater question that needs to be raised – how will Muslims survive what could be seen as a repeat of what happened to the Tamils. Certain actions like the BBS inviting the man behind the Myanmar massacre of Muslims to Sri Lanka and the grant of visa for such a man carry a story that conveys the hidden agenda behind these mass riots. Roma Rajpal Wei notes that “Nationalist Buddhist monks in Myanmar and Sri Lanka are playing a key role in instigating hatred and provoking violence towards the Muslim minorities in both countries, claiming that such action is necessary in order to protect the Buddhist race and culture”.
It is interesting to note that as Colombo telegraph noted (5 MArch 2018) Gnanasara and Priyasath, both representing extremist groups, are currently on bail over cases where they are accused of inciting communal violence against the Muslim community. Gnanasara Thero and the BBS, in particular, played a leading and violent role in the Aluthgama riots a few years ago.
What can be done?
Extremism and violence are diseases of the contemporary world. It does not belong to any particular religion or race. It belongs to people seeking to control the masses for their own ascension to power and this is seen in some ignorant clergymen who manipulate the minds of naive and uneducated religious people. The unemployed youth in rural areas become a target group, as few monks spread hate speeches in the name of religion. what is imperative is nothing other than law and order and this should be implemented with stealth to prevent any further atrocities such as revenge killings. Misinterpretation of religious text or wrong hate religious preachings by anyone -including clergymen- should be handled by educated clergy and the government swiftly to prevent further damages in inter community relations.
Muslim, Hindu and Christian communities are not second class citizens of this country. Our constitution guarantees safety of its citizens without any discrimination. It says: “No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such grounds”. Again the law enforcing authorities should be at the forefront to ensure the security of lives and property of any citizen without being bystanders when atrocities are committed against minorities or to anyone. Injustice or discrimination should not be supported for any reason.
The prejudice and extremism are not allowed again anyone. Government, religions and civil forces should work effectively to eradicate these elements from our society. Establishments of places of worship for all religions must be moderated by a common authority without any favoritism. There must be a transparent criteria if one wants to construct and establish any place of worship in the country and no place of worship should disrupt the average lives of civilians in the neighbourhood.
If any druggie or drunken person or even a thug from a minority or majority community should lead or invite other communities to unleash violence and incite riots against another community, legal, military, religious and civil action needs to be taken against such parties. Authorities need to intervene immediately arresting law breakers and imprisoning them, justice needs to prevail.
I divide people into two categories – peace lovers and trouble makers. Trouble makers have no religion other than their own set of goals which are always corruption, injustice and terror. Sadly, this is what took place around Ampara and Kandy during the recent violence, where the trouble makers wanted to see a blood baths on our streets, which they finally saw sadly.
We, being members of the Sri Lankan community of Australia sought not to attempt demonstrate in our cities, as we are still hopeful that the Government will take the necessary action against the perpetrators and culprits of these anti-Muslim riots. There is hope that the silent majority will not continue to be silent for these acts of violence to erupt in our cities, The Anamaduwa attack is an example to uphold as an example of communities working together. For those unfamiliar, this incident was when a restaurant belonging to a Muslim was attacked, many local Sinhalese people came forward to rebuild it within a day. The restaurant was able to open its doors within a 24 hour period which was a heart-warming effort of all involved. . Other reports of many Buddhist monks protecting mosques and properties of Muslims from mobs is also something to cherish.
I’m a victim of terrorism, my father along with 17 of my relatives were killed in cold blood by the LTTE terrorist. When agitated Muslim youth wanted to commit revenge killing I stood up and said ‘No’ to kill any Tamil because my father and brother was killed by LTTE terrorist who claimed that they represented the Tamil community. My younger brother who was only 10 years was found holding my father in a pool of blood. What was the crime my father and 10 year old brother committed to be killed by these blood thirsty terrorists?. I said if my innocent father and brother were killed by LTTE terrorist and we are crying for the loss of our loved ones, then how could I let another innocent Tamil be killed. Then I said that LTTE terrorists represented nothing other than terrorism NOT Tamils. Terrorists are terrorists, their religion is terrorism not Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam or Christianity. Let this fact be remembered and etched in all our minds and hearts. .
If we are still not prepared to make this brave move to stand up for injustice, one day our situation will epitomise the writings of Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a Protestant pastor who was an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler. He criticised silence of German intellectuals about the Nazi atrocities against millions of people.
I have modified his famous poem to reflect what has taken place in Sri Lanka.
First they came for the Tamils, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Tamil.
First they came for Muslims, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Muslim.
First they came for Sinhalese, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Sinhalese.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me
So Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims or even the Government should not keep quiet when injustice is committed against any innocent person, as we need to remind ourselves that we are only in the upper deck of a sinking ship, and we will also eventually go underwater after lower deck.
I hope this tragedy will not be repeated, May God protect Sri Lankans from the evil of racism and from another war where many suffered for many decades.
The Mandate is with the government to establish law and order – when will that be carried out?