By Jehan Perera –
The security situation remains fraught with uncertainty and tension. Not many children in their school uniforms were to be seen on the streets, even though the government schools reopened this week after a prolonged and enforced holiday. Religious leaders have requested the government to keep the schools closed for further period until the situation is brought firmly under control. Although large numbers of arrests have been made, and number around 200 according to news reports, this is not reassuring to the general population. President Maithripala Sirisena has said that there are still another 25-30 active members from the group involved in the Easter Sunday bombings still at large, though he expressed confidence in the ability of the security forces to nab them.
The security forces are doing the best they can. Not only are they conducting cordon and search operations. They are also going to the homes of people to brief them as to how best enhance their security. In a sign of the success of post-war normalization and rehabilitation of former LTTE cadre, it is reported that the security forces are enlisting the services of former LTTE cadre in the north and east to assist them in supporting the security network. This speaks of the government’s commitment to reconciliation and the trust that has grown after a decade of peace. There are also checkpoints on the road, which are a throwback to the days of the war with the LTTE. On the road to Mannar in the North which has a concentration of Catholics our vehicle was stopped several times. On four occasions we were asked to get out of the vehicle. This occurred both on the way to Mannar and on the way back to Colombo.
In one location were required to carry our bags out of the vehicle so that the search of the vehicle could be more thorough. There is no doubt that the immediate challenge is to ensure that those planning further attacks are thwarted and apprehended. The role of the security forces in this is paramount and the general population is prepared for the inconvenience. But there needs to be constant monitoring of this process so that it does not unnecessarily alienate people. At one location we were stopped for about half hour although our vehicle was the only one on the road. Later when we tried to understand why, it seemed that our driver had annoyed one of the security force personnel who was searching the vehicle. The lengthy delay, in which each item of our clothing was taken out the bag and scrutinized, may have been in retaliation.
We were going on a visit to Mannar to meet with the District Reconciliation Committee. These were set up two years ago when President Sirisena in his capacity as Minister of National Integration and Reconciliation, got the Cabinet of Ministers to grant approval to establish District Level Reconciliation Committees (DRCs) to address the incidences of inter-religious and inter-ethnic tensions and to promote national integration and reconciliation in all 25 districts. The functions of the DRCs were to undertake study on the background and causes of religious and ethnic tensions in the locality; formulate suitable strategies and approaches to mediate the problems; provide rapid response to resolve conflicts and tensions; invite the perpetrators and victims and facilitate conflict resolution; maintain database on incidence of tensions and attacks on religious places; mediate, negotiate and resolve conflicts and prevent hate speeches.
The DRCs were to be convened by the District Secretary of the relevant District with representation of inter-religious leaders, the Superintendent of Police, retired Judges, School Principals and other relevant officials as observers. These are all prominent persons at the community level who are expected to be able to contribute towards social harmony and peaceful coexistence. But they have still to be activated. At the present time they can be a valuable mode of engagement between the communities so that no one community feels it is being marginalized or excluded.
The meeting at the Mannar district secretariat was between the government officers working at the secretariat, civil society and religious leaders from all communities and the police. The role of the DRCs in keeping all communities together through engagement with each other, and without isolating any one community was highlighted on this occasion. Their role in keeping the communities integrated even as the problem of violent extremism was addressed was the theme that had the most resonance with those present at the meeting. The lessons learnt about coping with violent extremism during the previous conflict with the LTTE was alive in the consciousness of those gathered at the district secretariat. This was evident when a lawyer present on the occasion who claimed that there had been many arrests made in Mannar and there was a danger of innocent persons being detained, which the police was responsive to without a knee jerk rebuttal of the claim.
The same sensitivity to the complexity of the current problem, which requires that the entire community is not seen as the same as those committed to violence is also evident in the police visits to people’s homes. In one case reported to me they had given a briefing on the current security threat and suggested a series of actions that need to be done to enhance security. These included having CCT cameras and night lights and clearing of spaces in which packages may be concealed. Also notable was the manner in which the police urged those they were addressing not to bring up issues of religion or community in relations between neighbours. They further explained that the swords and knives found in mosques and homes of people were not for war purposes but were for self defence. They were self-critical in saying that Muslims had been at the receiving end of mob violence in the past several years in which the response of the government was tardy.
The police also referred to the information that was coming out of the Muslim community that had helped to track down several associates of the Easter Sunday bombers and potential bombers. This nuanced and enlightened approach of the police at this time is an indication that the many years of conflict sensitivity education and peace education programmes have produced good and sustainable results in key sectors of society. Unfortunately, this thinking has yet to percolate to all levels of society. The government leaders have done too little and the nationalist politicians who oppose them have been more effective in taking the message that violent extremism can be crushed by stronger methods. Ironically, President Sirisena who once ordered the setting up of District Reconciliation Committees has accused civil society and human rights groups of pushing for human rights at the expense of national security.
Inadvertently, such careless statements by responsible authorities supports a mindset that states that the infamous “White Vans” that abducted people with impunity during the years of the war against the LTTE and made them disappear, should be brought back. With bombers on the prowl it is most important that national security should be given top priority. At the same time the message needs to go out that the vast majority of people do not support such activities. The opposition must join the government in taking this message to the people. There needs to be more engagement between the communities in this time of extreme stress and anxiety rather than less. There will be no solution forthcoming if an entire community is first seen, and then targeted, as potential supporters of extremist violence.