By Mohamed Harees –
What happened in Sri Lanka on that black Easter Sunday 2019, in a series of well-orchestrated and coordinated terror attacks on churches and other locations, which killed more than 260 innocent souls and injuring many more, was an unforgivable and brutal tragedy of catastrophic proportions. As the nation marks another anniversary of this barbaric attacks this Sunday two years on, with much grief and anguish, solemn thoughts of people of all faiths and nationalities will be with the Christian brethren and their families whose lives were changed forever by the senseless violence which took the precious lives of their loved ones that day who were worshipping in churches and those who were relaxing in some hotels in Colombo. May their souls rest in peace.
No words can offer consolation to them; but this solemn remembrance can be an apt occasion to reflect on, and learn lessons from, the extreme levels of insanity, this ‘hate madness’ towards the ‘other’ assumed, in the name of race and religion. As a result of this unforgivable crime, it will never be same again for the nation and was a game changer. This was reportedly carried out by an extremist group carrying a Muslim name, and the sheer shame and renewed levels of demonisation the Muslim community has been compelled to face and undergo as a result, have been simply mind boggling and still ongoing.
Few months before this disaster, a similar massacre happened in another corner of the world – this time targeting a mosque – Christchurch New-Zealand (NZ) where a religious fanatic walked into a mosque spraying live bullets killing dozens and streaming live on Facebook and calculated to go viral. Both horrors were designed specifically for an era that has a bigger pandemic to face – graver than the Corona – the racist and religious bigotry motivated by hatred towards the ‘Other’. The difference between these two terrible disasters (at least with regard to the way governments of Sri Lanka and NZ responded) was the style of leadership which was displaye subsequently and also months and year on. It spoke volumes of the quality and character of their personalities which made them to face this grave crisis as they did. NZ PM Arden stood out tall, and said ‘the challenge for us will be ensuring in our everyday actions, and every opportunity where we see bullying, harassment, racism, discrimination, calling it out as a nation. That is when we’ll show we each individually have a role to play in making sure that New Zealand has changed fundamentally for the better“. She introduced sweeping gun reforms and started a global discussion on keeping violent extremism from the internet after the massacre. There was then an increase of public activism in Sri Lanka, which asked the country’s political and religious leaders to follow Arden’s, whose calmness, compassion, and tough leadership style were praised by observers in the wake of the worst mass killing in her country’s modern history.
Unfortunately, the government response in Sri Lanka in comparison can at best be described as lukewarm. Unlike in NZ, in Sri Lanka, there was ‘political leadership’ involvement in letting this terrible attack to happen. There was alleged governmental indifference and also thus ‘complicity in the wider context’ as they clearly ignored prior intelligence warnings and failed to take constructive action to prevent this attack. Both President, PM as well as the law enforcement authorities and Intelligence chiefs of the previous government need to take responsibility for being clearly responsible for this failing. It was left to the Cardinal to ensure that anti-Muslim sentiments prevailing at that time did not aggravate into a full-scale carnage against the community. The government also acted too late and too little, and failed to prevent the anti-Muslim violence in North Western Province in the aftermath of this Easter Sunday attacks.
The recently concluded Easter Sunday Presidential commission probe was praiseworthy. However, what was really missing in the jigsaw puzzle was non identification of the ‘Mahaa Molakaru’ (mastermind) responsible for this massacre. The more worrying aspect was the very nature, patterns, timing, planning, and execution of these despicable attacks. They clearly show tell-tale signs of a greater machination at work beyond mere cat’s paw involvement, aimed at creating further mayhem and disharmony among people who are recovering from the wounds of war and post-war communal violence. Within the two months after Sri Lanka was terrorised, analysis of this tragedy went from a simplified narrative of being just the end-result of Muslim-perpetuated ‘extremism’, to be viewed through a lens of a dynamic interplay of an international adventurist and domestic political forces. There are many factors which caused concern:
Both Cardinal and other human rights groups expressed their disappointment in this regard. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said in a recent statement “Our effort is to establish who was actually behind the attacks on Sunday. This is not an issue only for Catholics. All Sri Lankans suffered after this attack.” He demanded the government find the perpetrators, as worshippers held silent protests in early March. The Report talks of many subsidiary players and causes for this disaster; but not who were the main forces or powers behind this. In short, the symptoms of the disease and not the cause (both local and global) which led to this were identified. Of course, the main group of victims were Christians; but it was also Muslims who suffered immensely by being used as collaterals in this master plan. Till today, Muslims are suffering and regularly being asked quite unfairly to assume collective guilt. This Report for example, also did not seriously consider the forces both local political and global, who clearly were seen to benefit from this tragedy.
Also, the fact that many churches and members of one religious group were targeted; the manner in which the attacks had been orchestrated simultaneously across Sri Lanka (the level of ‘sophistication’ of which was not seen even in the days of the ruthless Tamil Tigers); and the targeting of leading tourist hotels in the capital, bore the hallmarks of expertise and professionalism. May be perhaps with international affiliations and a vested political and economic agenda, rather than the work of ordinary lone wolves, psychopaths, or a small hate group; which raises much suspicion about the possibilities of many ‘outside’ interests. Who used this Easter Sunday and spread anti-Muslim hate to come to power? Did not this disaster pave the ground to stress the national security imperative which ultimately became the main platform for the ruling party, at the last elections? Why did the Present President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announce his Presidency candidature, just after the Easter Sunday based on the need for national security? Why did the government inform all MPs (as Kumar Welgama stated) beforehand and not the Cardinal of the impending disaster? What international players had their irons in the fire? Specially, the victims of the tragedy and also the Muslim community who are at the butt-end of a well-orchestrated demonisation campaign expects nothing less than justice through identification of those responsible and punishing them while taking action to prevent the recurrence of such tragedies!
Further, in the backdrop of a near ‘free-for-all’ post-tragedy environment, there has been a rise in unbridled hate speech both in the mainstream as well as social media, the sharing of fake stories, canards often borrowed from the global Islamophobia platforms, and the usual quoting of Qur’anic verses out of context. Post corona – demonisation of the community continues until today such as forced cremation policy(which ended thanks to international intervention), proposed burqa and madrasa bans as well arrests of Muslim activists on flimsy charges. The country sees these gimmicks as diversion tactics to hide the government inefficiency ; but continued campaign will aggravate communal tensions. The authorities appear to turn a blind eye to the wider machinations at play, in order to put their security and safety at risk and, by failing to decisively act upon and prevent the increasing level of harassment, discrimination and gross human rights violations. By default, Muslims were portrayed as part of the problem, rather than taken into confidence to be part of the solution, as rationale dictates.
Rule of law and principles of justice have been flouted both by the government and the law enforcement authorities. On a daily basis (almost), many political stooges and MPs charged for various crimes are being released . Presidential pardon is being abused and many convicts pardoned, making a mockery of the judicial system. None of those who were responsible for instigating and leading various pogroms – such as the anti-Tamil pogrom, also known as ‘Black July’, in 1983; the anti-Muslim mini-pogroms in Dharga Town, Aluthgama in 2014, in Ampara and in Digana Kandy in 2018 – were actually prosecuted. It was not just Muslims and Tamils who have been targeted; even the Sinhalese Christians were targeted in the past by Sinhala Buddhist extremist groups, with many attacks on their churches on record, but no action was taken.
Impunity has been a major crisis in Sri Lanka. In fact, an ICJ report titled ‘The Crisis of Impunity in Sri Lanka’ (2012) said that, in Sri Lanka, “impunity has over the years become institutionalized and systematized; mechanisms to hold state actors to account for their actions have been eroded; checks on the arbitrary use of power have been diluted, if not dissolved.” Impunity means “exemption from punishment or loss or escape from fines”. In the international law of human rights, it refers to the failure to bring perpetrators of human rights violations to justice and, as such, itself constitutes a denial of the victims’ right to justice and redress. Impunity is especially common in countries that lack a tradition of the rule of law, suffer from corruption or that have entrenched systems of patronage, or where the judiciary is weak or members of the security forces are protected by special jurisdictions or immunities. Impunity is sometimes considered a form of denialism of historical crimes. Sri Lanka is a clear example in the current context.
The Sri Lankan government should, therefore, decisively act against impunity, serving as an effective bulwark against ‘extremism’ and ‘terrorism’ and thus, would prevent a climate where Muslim grievances will be exploited by criminal groups to recruit their foot soldiers. Otherwise, there is a volcano waiting to explode – one which would be more disastrous to this wounded nation than the Easter Sunday tragedy. As Cardinal suggested ,’proscribing extremist groups that are a threat to national security with immediate effect, as well as their foreign sponsors and local agents, and even banishing preachers who promote religious extremism through hate speech should be banished from the island’ are all good ideas, as long as it applies to all communities alike. It was hate speech which led to many attacks against the Muslims. What eventually sadly happened was not charging the culprit monk responsible for Aluthgama attacks, but was pardoned using presidential powers, after being taken in for contempt of court charges and jailed. A case of unabashed impunity!
This is undoubtedly the most challenging chapter in Sri Lanka’s recent history. Sri Lanka will have to figure out how to move forward so that events like this one do not recur. Things like ‘terrorism’ are complex issues of our time, and as other countries around the world have seen, they lack clear solutions: gun bans do not end violence; cracking down on social media does little to deter racism or hatred, and stigmatisation and demonising communities do not work. On the contrary, it is a concerted plan of action and public activism, across racial or religious divides, that is needed. They will do the right things: avoid emotional outbursts, ensure people are alert to the evil elements amongst them, expose this evil, and forge unity among people to confront it, all whilst ensuring common values of humanity are protected at all costs.
For the mainstream Muslims of Sri Lanka, showing solidarity and resoluteness in healing the scars of the wounded nation, the foremost challenge is to project the real message of Islām in the public domain, confronting false propaganda media narratives from the clutches of radical and ‘extremist’ elements. As Muiz Bukhary, a well-known Sri Lankan scholar, then said: “we need to work hard to put things right”.