By Jehan Perera –
Even as the government prepares to celebrate the fourth year anniversary of the end of the war next month in May, a new threat looms on the horizon. This is the prospect of violence arising from politically-motivated communalism which passes for patriotism within a society that has grown increasingly polarized on ethnic and religious lines. The sudden rise of extremist Buddhist groups is occurring in a context in which the fears of the Sinhalese majority are being fanned by increased international involvement in the affairs of the country. Patriotism is also the favourite refuge of governmental leaders in facing the challenges arising from the international community on account of their conduct of the last phase of the war. The danger is that the activism of religious zealots will become escalated from violent rhetoric to violent action.
The earlier violence of extremist religious groups was confined to marginal communities belonging to other religions. The Christians from the new churches, often described derogatively as fundamentalists, have long been a victimized group even in more harmonious times where relations between the religious communities were concerned. As they are small and viewed with disfavor by the larger mainstream Christian churches, their sufferings have often gone unheeded. It was also the same with the Muslim and Hindu religious sites that came under attack. A recent study by the Centre for Policy Alternatives listed religious sites and persons that had come under attack in the past few years. Since the end of the war there have been high-profile incidents such as the attack on the Mosque in Dambulla in April 2012, however other incidents, have received little or no public and media attention. This has resulted in a limited understanding of the scale and nature of these incidents.
The CPA report documents incidents of attacks on places of worship in Sri Lanka since the end of the war in May 2009 and discusses the broader context of such attacks. The report lists 65 cases of attacks on religious places of worship between May 2009 and January 2013. Direct attacks have been reported from all provinces of Sri Lanka. Most of the reported incidents were from the Western province (16), followed by the Eastern province (12), the Southern province (11) and the North-Western province (9). Although the list cannot claim to be comprehensive, it offers a starting point to document attacks against places of worship of the four main religions practiced in the country. The lack of coverage by the media and other civil society groups, lack of consistent documentation by religious groups, and the caution of religious and civil society groups to engage on this issue were key obstacles in the compiling of this list.
But now extremist groups are taking on more mainstream targets. Big Muslim-owned businesses located in city centres are becoming a target. The usual method has been to first spread poisonous stories about them, such as alleged distribution of sweets to unsuspecting customers, but which have the effect of rendering them impotent and decreasing their chances of producing offspring. These are clearly fabrications meant to dupe the people and to evoke hysteria amongst them. Another has been to accuse the Muslims of more heinous crimes that include having insulting images of sacred objects and even seduction, rape and coerced marriage involving innocent Sinhalese girls. As a result Muslims of all backgrounds are living in considerable fear and with insecurity. The memories of the 1915 Sinhalese-Muslim riots are being added to the host of more recent incidents of communal rioting are haunting the Muslim consciousness.
So far only a handful of governmental leaders have been prepared to take a public stand in favour of the position that Sri Lanka is a multi ethnic and multi religious society. There is a reluctance to publicly oppose the extremist sentiment that is creating and believing in a cocktail of lies and semi truths. Even those groups that specialize in community-level educational programmes are wary of getting into the explosive arena of inter-religious prejudice. The impunity and appearance of governmental patronage of the extremist Buddhist groups has intimidated civil society. The failure of the police to take deterrent action and arrest those who have been responsible for attacks has created an acute sense of vulnerability. The lack of support by the government and its media to those who wish to counter the lies and half truths of extremists is a further source of discouragement.
In this context the efforts of Minister of National Languages and Social Integration Vasudeva Nanayakkara is commendable. Last week he summoned a meeting of religious leaders and intelligentsia to discuss the issue of inter-religious tension with them. A Muslim intellectual pointed out that 7 of the 13 countries that had voted in favour of Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council had been Muslim countries. He said that in the Middle East where he had worked for many years, he had found an utmost respect for Sri Lanka on account of former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement. He cautioned those present at the meeting that the ongoing attacks on Muslims could jeopardize this high regard for Sri Lanka, especially if the news spread internationally that Muslims were being violated for practicing their culture, such as wearing their traditional clothing.
In the discussion that followed it was pointed out that although more than 90 percent of artistes and writers were opposed to racism and communalism, there was no platform for the intelligentsia to speak out. There was an appeal to Minister Nanayakkara to empower this section of civil society to awaken the silent majority. A Buddhist monk, said that unifying the country was not only a matter of reunifying its territory but also the people’s hearts and minds. He asked the question whether we can be satisfied with what the Tamil people have received after the end of the war, and said that this had opened the door to foreign intervention. This fair-minded and other-centered thinking prevalent at the highest levels of the Buddhist Sangha needs to be more widely known by the general public. The country’s intelligentsia has the necessary ideology to counter the growth of extremist religious sentiment in the country. The report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which was compiled by a multi ethnic and multi religious group of eminent persons handpicked by President Rajapaksa, contains both the theory and practice of what needs to be done to achieve national reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
Among the key recommendations of the LLRC are activities specially designed to promote inter-religious cooperation, such as the formation of inter-religious committees that could be a first point of reference to people for problem solving and taking their problems to higher levels for resolution. There is no doubt that the government has been doing much on the ground that corresponds to what the LRRC recommended. These include the resettlement of displaced persons and building of basic infrastructure facilities that is necessary to sustain the life of the community. However, there has been relatively little educational or relationship-building work that caters to healing old divisions. This accounts for the abysmal ignorance of the general public in all parts of the country, including the north and east, regarding the LLRC report and its recommendations. The absurd fact is that this document, which is at the centre of international debate, has still not been made available to the general public in the Sinhala and Tamil languages.
According to media reports Minister Nanayakkara is to present a cabinet paper in the course of the coming week that calls for a ban on groups that espouse communal hatred. There is no guarantee that he will succeed or be even given a fair hearing by his colleagues in the cabinet. Prior to National Day which was celebrated in the primarily Tamil-speaking district of Trincomalee in February, Minister Nanayakkara made a proposal to have the national anthem sung in Tamil also. This was in accordance with an LLRC recommendation. However, he came in for strong criticism from within the government itself and the matter was dropped. The national anthem was sung in Sinhala only on National day in predominantly Tamil-speaking Trincomalee.
There are laws in other countries that prohibit hate speech, just as much as there are laws in many other countries, including South Africa and Canada, to permit the national anthem to be sung in more than one language. However, legal prohibitions alone are not the answer to the growing campaign of misinformation and religious hatred that is being spread by the extremist groups. The bigger part of the solution is to educate people and win their hearts and minds to religious harmony. There is a need to debunk the myths that are being spread about the other through one-sided, baseless and simplistic descriptions of their ways of life. What is urgently necessary at this time is for political, religious and civic leaders to come out and educate the general population about the realities of living in a multi ethnic and multi-religious society as opposed to a mono-cultural society. This alone shows how far we have regressed, socially, culturally and politically, after the war.