By Mohamed Harees –
‘That man does not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach’ ~ (Case of Voluntary Ignorance in Collected Essays (1959).
Reports of the Gintota communal violence reached even beyond the borders of Sri Lanka. Under various headings, New York Times , BBC, Xinhua , NDTV, Indian Express and many global news-agencies covered the story in a positive manner – of how a major danger waiting to happen was averted, by and large due to the timely intervention of the government, security forces, STF and the Police. Thankfully, the confrontations between the usually peaceful Sinhala and the Muslim communities did not flare up further to become another Aluthgama. Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayaka thanked everyone who “acted with responsibility to avoid a bloodbath”. However, as Keerthi Tennakoon, of Sri Lanka Human Rights Centre says, this was not a Sinhala Muslim riot but part of regional and national political clashes to gain dominance. Thus, failure of all of us whether Sinhala or Muslim to understand these racist designs behind the scene in the real light, will lead to more minor clashes of this sort being branded as communal riots and pollute the peaceful relationships between communities, by vested parties purely to gain political gain.
Many culprits have been arrested, responsible for turning basically a minor incident into a major flare-up with communal overtones and they should be dealt with sternly under the law without fear or favour. Much damage was caused to property and many were injured in the process. However the worse damage was caused to the peaceful, mind-set of the and relationships between the communities who have been living in harmony in the past. Thus, there is much work to be done to repair the broken hearts and minds, and to restore the lost trust and confidence to live again as friendly neighbours as they once were, more than just compensating for the material losses of the victims. Many apt lessons are there to be learnt, if only one wants to!
1. Starts with a minor incident, and inability to treat at source: As in any racist conflict of this nature, it all starts with a minor incident. I recall in 1982, an argument between two drunken friends – One Sinhala and one Muslim in Galle aggravated to become a fully blown communal violence, shattering the peace and harmony among two peaceful communities which led to many deaths and severe destruction to property. It took a long time to mend the hearts and minds of the people. In Aluthgama too, once again the start up was also a minor incident which could have been settled amicably at a local level. Even the start-up to the Gintota violence too was a minor bike incident. However, communities were woefully unaware of the racist vultures operating above them to arouse their base racist instincts and emotions to make these minor incidents mere opportunities to gain political capital.
There should therefore be more awareness building at the local level ( school, temple/mosque level) to build more maturity among local communities without falling prey to the machinations of these lowly racist elements. Further. the local community/ religious leaders should take charge and intervene on time to avoid any aggravation as we have seen in the above riots. Otherwise, outside forces will barge in for parochial and political gains and take control. Police too has a major role to play in an even handed manner.
2. Vested Interests fishing in troubled waters : In all these cases, as stated, many other vicious elements and groups with vested interests from outside, got involved, to make a hill out of a molehill, exaggerating the issue, giving racist favour, hijacking all forms of discussions and imposing their will, thereby not allowing local parties to discuss and find an amicable settlement among themselves. In Galle in 1982 , thankfully, a leading Muslim organization-Galle Muslim Cultural Association, along with the mosque trustees in the areas took a leading role and had discussions with the Maha Sangha and Sinhala community leaders at the local level, which paved the way for the return to normalcy. All matters were dealt with maturity and according to law. Many attempts to widen the conflict was averted thanks to the maturity of the community leaders.
However, in the case of Aluthgama. we saw how BBS rogue monks and goons came from outside and virtually hijacked all efforts to bring some sanity at the local level. Many affected residents in Dharga Town also vouched that those who attacked came from outside. This was the same situation in Gintota too where outside troublemakers such as Mahason Balakaya and the likes brought in goons from Dadalla. Boosa and Rathgama to create more problems in the area.
It is therefore the duty of the local community and religious leaders as well as the Police to ensure that these outside forces are kept at bay without infiltrating into the affected areas to arouse religious tensions for their own gains.
3. Will of the Government in power and the Forces: We saw in 2014 in Aluthgama, how the then government not only failed to extinguish the communal fires which were raging in a full blown manner, both MR as well as Gota by their patronage also ‘encouraged’ the perpetrators through word and deed. In fact the MR government also unsuccessfully tried to portray the victims as the perpetrators of the tragedy at the Global Human Rights Council meeting.
However, there were many instances that this government too began to play into the tunes of the anti-Muslim hate lobbies.However, in this instance all credit to the Government of the day and the politicians! In the case of Gintota, they acted with maturity and vision and prompt action was taken to quell the riots without allowing the goons and groups from outside to continue fishing in troubled waters. Besides, the STF, the tri-forces and the Police too acted with insight and even handedness to control the explosive situation (of course there were cases reported of partisan attitudes which will have to be looked into). This prevented a possible refugee influx too, as we saw in the Aluthgama situation.
It is imperative that the Police deal with the culprits in a firm manner without any racial considerations and also take action to arrest all those extremist leaders who came from outside to cause trouble. Serious allegations were levelled against the Police and STF during Aluthgama riots for failing act in a just manner. Further, the CID initiate an inquiry about the groups and forces behind the scene which instigated the riots. in order to avoid other places becoming another Gintota and even Aluthgama.
4. Mature attitude of the Local Religious Leaders: Unlike in Aluthgama , it was refreshing to witness the high level of maturity of the religious leadership of both communities in the area. Both the Maha Sangha and the Muslim Ulemas in the Galle area rose above parochial lines to become peacemakers. It was pleasing to listen to Moulavi Mohamed, district chair of ACJU who spoke in perfect Sinhala appealing for calm. It was more pleasing to see a high level of maturity on the part of Ven Galagoda Atte Gnanasara who appeared to play a totally different role- as peacemaker , a total contrast to the destructive role played by him in Aluthgama.
5. Role played by the Social Media: Ven Gnanasara during the meeting at the Galle Secretariat with religious leaders and Vajira Abeywardena mentioned about the destructive role played by the social media in circulating unfounded rumours and exaggerated stories of violence in Gintota by various groups, thus arousing the communal feelings of the people particularly the Sinhalese around the country.
This is quite true as we have seen how the racist and extremist groups such as Mahason Balakaya and Sinhaley have used the FB to spread racist venom and extremely unfounded stories about Muslim ‘expansionism’ and ‘conspiracies’ against the Buddhist brethren.
This is one area the CID and also the government should look into – to bring laws and an implementation framework to ensure the freedom of expression through the social media is not abused and misused to spread hate speech. It was pleasing to hear Minister Sagala warning of stern action against those carrying out racial propaganda and spreading rumours specially the social media and wats ap. This should be followed through to teach a strong lesson for those indulging in this cheap publicity to pit one community against the other.
6. Compensation to the Victims: It should be noted that the victims who lost their homes, had their properties and businesses destroyed were not of the privileged class; but poor and middle class who mostly have meagre income means to keep the wolf from the door. There are allegations against the government about non-payment or severe delaying in compensation payments in respect of many tragedies seen in the recent past. This is totally unacceptable as these delays affect the people’s livelihood adversely affected by tragedies. Government should learn lessons from the past and ensure that affected people are duly and adequately compensated without delay.
Behind Aluthgama and Gintota, there are elaborate plans of the hate lobbies and reactionary political elements with vested interests and supremacist strategies to create a major Sinhala Muslim 1983 style clash. It is apt to quote from an article of Shilpa Samaratunga in the Groundviews in 2014, which is relevant even today. ‘The Sinhala Buddhist community is bombarded with a new message with a new enemy by the so-called saviors of Buddhism pointing at Muslims as a new threat. The majority Sinhala Buddhist community as innocent and susceptible as they are, are being taken over by this anti Muslim propaganda, the resultant shock of which makes them to forget their daily sufferings caused by mismanagement of state affairs by the political elites and their affiliates. ….. This is a threat to the nation. Sowing seeds of division, suspicion and doubt amongst citizens to achieve selfish individual political goals would potentially make the country vulnerable to new cycles of violence that can drag for decades to solve. This pernicious political culture has the ability to potentially lead to wholesale revolution and bloodletting amongst the Sinhalese at a point when political leadership exhaust ‘appeasements’ to satisfy their voters or their cheating in the name of pseudo nationalism/patriotism is realized by the citizens. Responsible politicians who love the country and its people would not tread this path’.
However, we still prefer to continue regardless like an ostrich’s head in the sand, which is unfortunate! Post war Sri Lanka still yearns for peaceful times more than mere absence of war. When will we see the light at the end of the tunnel or have the politicians switched it off?