Colombo Telegraph

Fragments & Fissures In State & Society – Post Easter

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

The State of Ceylon embraces three ethnic groups and four religions.” ~ Pierre Elliot Trudeau, 1962 

Two meetings, two pictures. They say it all about the state of Sri Lanka’s political establishment following the Easter Sunday calamities. The first (The Island, April 26) shows Sirisena presiding over an all-party meeting. The President’s pathetic photo-up to cover up his incompetence and failure generally as President and especially as Defence Minister. In the second (Daily Mirror, April 29), Mahinda Rajapaksa is presiding over a para-state gathering of the former Defence Secretary and a handful of former commanders discussing the state of national security after the blasts on Easter Sunday. Mahinda Rajapaksa is the only person in both pictures – Leader of the Opposition in one, and head of para-state in the other. 

In any other country or under any other government in Sri Lanka, the second picture would have provoked howls of condemnation that it is a virtual show of treason. But the first picture explains why the second picture is even there. A government utterly divided and totally in disarray has given the gumption to the folks of the former government to pretend that they are in virtual power now and to assert that they will be in real power soon. There is no cabinet government even in name. And the parliament, for all intent and purpose, has become totally irrelevant. This is one side of the post-Easter reality. 

Sirisena’s all-Party meeting

The other side is the sociopolitical side – its fragments and fissures that have been brought into sharp relief by the targeted bombings of places of worship belonging to one religious group by extremist outliers of another religious group. This has never happened in Sri Lanka. Nor has there been a targeted attack on foreign tourists. The external impetus to these events is now well established and that too is unprecedented. There is understandably a dialectic between the global emergence of radical Islamic groups (not movements) like the Al-Qaeda and the ISIS, on the one hand, and the radicalization of Muslim politics in many non-Arab countries. 

In its genesis and its implications, the radicalization of Muslim politics in predominantly, or majority, Muslim countries from Turkey to Indonesia, is manifestly different from the processes of radicalization in countries where the Muslims are a minority. Even among the latter grouping, Sri Lanka has its own peculiarities. India, where the Muslims are a minority, is in a league of its own as it is in every socio-political phenomenon. The Muslim question in western countries is also different, given the different source countries for Muslim migration and the differences between traditional Europe and the immigrant societies of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US.   

Muslim Radicalization

The current radicalization of Muslims in Sri Lanka is the result of a sliver of Sri Lanka’s Muslim population coming under – what scholars on Islamic radicalization call the “narrow, literalist interpretation of Islam’’, against traditional forms of Muslim worship and religious practices. The main impetus for radicalization has been acknowledged to be the ‘Wahhabi influence’ from Saudi Arabia supplemented by Saudi money and messianic inspirations. Commentators have drawn attention to early warning signs that emerged as far back as 2006 and 2007: the proliferation of madrasas and non-traditional Mosques, Tamil translations of Osama bin Laden speeches, and attacks on Sufi shrines in the Eastern Province. To their credit, moderate Muslim individuals and groups have consistently and even loudly warned government and Muslim leaders of the dangerous developments on the ground. The factors that led to these warnings being ignored were also the factors that created a fertile soil for the process of radicalization to take root to the extent that we are seeing today.

Rajapaksa’s para-state meeting

No Sri Lankan government was ever going to do anything to displease any Middle Eastern government on whom Sri Lanka depended for importing oil and exporting primarily domestic labour. The way recent Sri Lankan governments operate, as we have come to know, it is unlikely that these matters would have been discussed at any policy level to develop an overall approach to dealing with the new socio-religious channels between Sri Lanka and the Middle East. Political leaders and government officials opted to turn a blind eye to the radicalization of small groups of Muslims, and turned a deaf ear to the large number of complaints from moderate Muslims. This approach also enabled the coterie of Muslim radicals to use willing Muslim politicians as their protectors from policing and apprehensions. 

To digress here for a moment, we saw the stunning culmination of these developments in the decision of senior Defence Ministry and law enforcement officials, as has been credibly reported, to ignore the pre-Easter warnings from India because acting on those warnings might annoy Pakistan. How can anyone make any sense of this? How can any sensible Sri Lankan believe that the President would not have been a party to this native strategizing? Even if Pakistan was a serious consideration, wouldn’t it have been a more sensible approach to contact and apprise Pakistan at highest level about the Indian information, while taking every step based on that information to prevent the calamity that eventually happened on Easter Sunday. In the end, no one contacted India, no one contacted Pakistan, and the perpetrators were given a clear path to go ahead and do what they did.        

The external impulses to radicalization found a favourable local environment over the last few decades. For starters, the dynamic of Tamil separatism played its own catalytical role in the radicalization among the Muslims. Although the vast majority of the Muslims were neutral in the conflict over the separate state, more than a few of them joined one or the other group of Tamil militants fighting for separation, while others became collateral victims in much larger numbers of LTTE vengeance for alleged collaboration with government forces. After the war, Muslims became an easy target for extreme Sinhala Buddhist groups who periodically attacked the Muslims with impunity. The irony was that moderate Muslims became victims of a double squeeze. On the one hand, the government ignored the warnings of moderate Muslims about their own extremists; on the other hand, the government abandoned them when they came under attacks from the extremists of other groups. 

What has also emerged is that in the cacophony of ‘Tiger cries’ (the new way of crying wolf) that drown out any other discussion in Sri Lankan politics, the police missed out on identifying the real killers of the two policemen who were killed in Batticaloa, in November last year. The police arrested former LTTEers on suspicion while those who were responsible for the killing remained free to plan for Easter Monday.       

At another level, what underpinned the process of radicalization was the regionalization of Muslim politics and the emergence political leaders especially from the Eastern Province, and also from the Mannar area. These new leaders challenged the traditional leadership of Muslim elites in the Western, Central and Southern Provinces and their co-option into the two major political parties of Sri Lanka. Even though the new Muslim political parties that emerged remained within the moderate matrix in politics, the regional dynamic gave another impetus to Muslim radicalization. Not surprisingly, East became the incubator for the process for radicalization. It may not be widely known now, but Eastern Province Muslims have traditionally shown a flair for oratory in Tamil. That flair too has been a factor in the spread of radicalization as is being now reported. It was quite inevitable that the global messianism of Islam would provide the spark that turned these local processes into quite a little fire. 

The State and society

To complete the circle, more than a spark flew in from abroad to ignite the Easter Sunday bombs. To many commentators on global terrorism, the local perpetrators really punched well above their weight. The commentary is also that the ISIS was not targeting Sri Lanka to become its new theatre, but it found a situation in Sri Lanka that had been independently ripened for exploitation. There have also been suggestions that Sri Lanka may have been looked upon as a base for targeting India, rather than the other way around as I alluded to last week.  While there have been worldwide commentaries and analyses of what happened on Easter Sunday, the government of Sri Lanka is yet to provide a cogent explanation of what went wrong and how it is planning to put things right. This is too much to ask from a government and its leaders who cannot even offer a coherent apology or intelligently participate in international media interviews. 

The self-proclaimed alternatives to the present government, the Rajapaksa family that is, are not offering anything qualitatively different except loads of bravado. They may take their cue from Prime Minister Modi who has just been doing that in his election campaign in India. After the Easter Sunday blasts in Sri Lanka, Modi has been campaigning that such a tragedy will never happen in India on his watch because the terrorists are frightened of him. It is quite possible that Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa will borrow that slogan from Modi for use in Sri Lanka’s presidential election. But how much will he be able to do within the fetters of the Rajapaksa political formation? That is the question about the Rajapaksa alternative to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe zombie administration. Let us look at the pictures again.            

In the first picture, Ranil Wickremesinghe unsurprisingly cuts a lonely figure, stuck between the President and Sajith Premadasa, the President’s favourite UNPer. What you see in the second picture is more consequential. In contrast to Ranil’s lonely status, Gotabaya is caught in an obsequious pose, the perpetual apprentice to the all-powerful older brother – a taste of things to come even if Gotabaya were to become the next President of Sri Lanka. To add to the tamasha, Lanka’s most discredited law professor (GL Peiris) and its most discredited ex-revolutionary (Vasudeva Nanayakkara) are duly relegated to the sidelines of the para state. Perching over from behind in the other picture is Basil Rajapaksa, plotting as always to kidnap the country again for the Rajapaksas even if it means having his least favourable sibling occupy the most powerful seat in the country.  

My point is that even though it is normal to have expectations that after the next presidential and parliamentary elections things should get better with a new President and a new parliament, it is not going to be the case in Sri Lanka. For nothing in this country will change for the better so long as any or all of the grandees in the two pictures are the ones who are going to be in charge of the state and government again after whatever elections may come and go.  The two pictures say that better than all the words that we write can do. At least in 2015, there was on offer, a believable promise and in Maithripala Sirisena there was a credible candidate to ride on that promise. Ranil Wickremesinghe promised the sun and the moon and everything in between, and some of it in great detail. This time around even they know that they have neither the credibility nor the substance to offer any promise. 

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s situation is different. Just days after Easter Sunday, he paid a courtesy visit to Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and then, with or without the scarlet blessings, we do not know, Gotabaya went on to proclaim that he is hundred percent ready to be a presidential candidate at the next presidential election. If that was a high point for Gotabaya after his California summons, and relative to the post-Easter pits that Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have slumped into, he was soon brought to earth by the para-state meeting shown in the second picture. If elected President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa will likely feel more constrained by his brothers than anyone in the new opposition. 

Historically, Sri Lanka had its best time for the brightest prospects at the time of independence, in 1948. The State was at its strongest and it looked strong enough to accommodate and manage its sociopolitical fissures to the point of drawing praise from someone like Pierre Trudeau, in faraway Canada, that “The State of Ceylon embraces three ethnic groups and four religions.” This was before Pierre Trudeau (father of the present Canadian Prime Minister) became Prime Minister, in 1968. He was an intellectual activist at that time and was in vigorous argument with French Canadian separatists in his natal province, Quebec. 

Unbeknownst to Trudeau and many others, however, fragments and fissures were already developing in Sri Lanka’s State and society. The State that was set up to cement the fissures in society has since become fragmented and even atrophied. The two pictures say it all. As for the society, the old fissures have given way to new cracks and the new cracks gave a bloody appearance on Easter Sunday. Tragic though the situation is, it is neither unfathomable nor unsolvable. But not by any one in the two pictures. They are more part of the problem than they can be part of any solution.      

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