Colombo Telegraph

From 1983 To Digana Communal Violence: The Crisis Of Impunity In Sri Lanka!

By Mohamed Harees

Lukman Harees

The anti-Tamil pogrom, also known as “Black July,” started on the night of July 23, 1983, which caused the mass exodus of Tamils from the island to many Western countries ,and sparked the start of a 26 year-old war that ended in May 2009. The war ended but with serious allegations of violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law being levelled. After the end of the war against Tigers, a sense of triumphalism prevailed in the country initiated by the majoritarian lobby interpreting the war victory as the win over the Tamils , which resultantly marginalized and alienated the Tamil community. Then the supremacist groups close to the higher echelons of power ventured to marginalize the next numerically smaller community –the Muslims, instilling fear and a sense of insecurity among them by way of well- orchestrated spate of violence, hate attacks, boycott campaign and pogrom style campaigns inflicting much damage on the community in the Post-war period.

The common thread for all these violent acts is a culture of impunity that has persisted in the island from the time Sri Lanka gained independence 71 years ago. Sri Lanka has been unable to hold accountable the perpetrators of these spate of violence, riots or the war that ended in 2009, despite its continued commitments to international organizations –a lack of substantive movement towards accountability pervaded specially in the past decade. The government continues to shield the perpetrators from any form of accountability. As Sri Lanka stands in its own shadow,  it should reflect on the harm that impunity has caused to its’ international image and the gradual erosion of confidence of its’ people in the process of rule of law .Failing to hold those accountable for their actions, and inactions that lead to harm and loss, and compensate the victims adequately, fails humanity as a whole. Thus, almost ten years after the end of the war, Sri Lanka is still grappling with its recent past and many challenges remain unresolved and many of the physical, emotional and psychological wounds of war and communal violence remain unhealed.

With regard to the victims of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom , in July 2004, President Kumaratunga issued a national apology for the July ’83 riots as an interim reconciliation measure and appointed a special commission to pay compensation to victims who lodged claims with the Commission. Then, thirty-five years after , it was only last year, that this government apparently engaged in a series of measures including the launch of Enterprise Sri Lanka in the North, laying out a vision for a future of hope, engaging with the people and very importantly for women’s issues, cancelling micro credit loans up to Rs.100,000 mostly for the single women headed households, among other measures. 

However, displaced Muslims in the North are yet to be treated fairly. Although the end of the civil war created high hopes among the northern Muslims that their displacement would come to an end and they would be able to return to their traditional villages, no concrete plan or program was initiated by successive post-war governments. These displaced Muslims have voiced their grave concerns and wanted the government to recognize their displaced status and facilitate their return and resettlement in their traditional villages. However, the authorities continued to neglect these issues.

Muslims in the Post War Period

However, despite the nation’s resolve not to allow any repeats, the mentality, the politics and rhetoric which enabled and created July’83 has sadly not entirely left our public discourse. Worryingly the same rhetoric later emanated from the self-proclaimed saviours of the Sinhala people particularly in the Post-war period , in relation to the Muslim community, which instigated mini pogroms from Dharga Town Aluthgama in 2014, to Ampara and Digana Kandy during this Yahapalana government which ironically promised the country- national reconciliation and to ensure such impunity will not be repeated. Perhaps the most enduring lesson of July 1983 was not learnt and at worst repeated. 

It may be boring to the readership to remind over and again how a well-orchestrated hate campaign against the Muslims ,was organized with tacit support from those in power. So let me just comment on min-1983 type pogrom which happened in Aluthgama in 2014, causing three deaths and extensive destruction of Muslim owned properties. The whole episode of orchestrated hate attacks on Muslims and their properties in Aluthgama reportedly began when a Buddhist priest alleged that some Muslim youths attacked him without any provocation. The fiery monk Ven Galagoda Atte Gnanasara harped on that incident, made a provocative ‘Aba Saranai’ speech and the rest was history. However, 4 ½ years later, in February this year, the judiciary held that there was no case and acquitted all the Muslim youth jailed, in view of the number of contradictions and the unreliability of the evidence against them. Kalutara Magistrate Chandima Edirimanne acquitted all three accused on 27/02/2019, in the case where three Muslims from Dharga Town were charged with causing hurt by attacking Ven. Ayagama Samitha Thero, Chief Prelate of the Kurunduwatte Sri Wijerama Viharaya, Dharga Town and his driver Vishwa at Aluthgama on 12th June 2014.  

This belated acquittal should be viewed in the light of consistent demands from the Muslim community to institute an impartial Presidential commission to inquire into these disturbances and hold those responsible to account. The previous regime simply ignored this demand while the Yahapalana regime which promised to do so have also been evasive of this demand to-date for reasons of political expediency. The nation then stood aghast when the then Defence Secretary and his puppet deputy DIG of the area worked hand in gloves to ensure that Ven Gnanasara stood above the law. Will the law enforcement authorities charge Ven Ayagama for making a false complaint which led to a major catastrophe?  Judging by the past, this will not happen. 

With respect to the Ampara and Digana anti-Muslim spate of violence too, the same strategy of waging hate mini wars based on pretexts was used.. In February 2018, Ampara, in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, a mini-riot in Ampara was waged by Sinhala Buddhist racist goons with clear signs of meticulous pre-planning based on a fictitious canard of a ‘wandha beheth’, which resulted in much damage to Muslim businesses and a Muslim mosque in the area. Then, later in early March 2018, in Digana area, a road rage incident between Muslims and a Sinhalese youth was exploited and was projected as a racist attack in the social media and once again racist goons took to the streets armed with clubs, swords and knives  in organised groups and formations widely thought as pre-planned to extract revenge from the whole community.

The anti-Muslim violence spread like wild fire, in the context of apathy of the officialdom,to many areas in the Central Province. Scores of Muslim families took to the jungle and the woods to escape the marauding goons .Curfew imposed were not effective and there were allegations that the Special Task Forces (STF) even helped the perpetrators in the attacks done under cover of darkness while Muslims were confined to their houses. Widespread looting of the business and then setting on fire were reported while the forces were turning the blind eye. One Muslim youth was burnt to death in one of the business premises set on fire in Digana. After much damage was done, the government woke up and imposed State of Emergency enabling the armed forces to take over. Although some action was taken to bring the situation to control, the Muslim community continued to live in fear and insecurity not only in the affected areas, but also in other parts of Sri Lanka too. This shows and proves how those in the higher echelons of power whether in the previous government or this government have been using racism as a political tool through satellite groups under the pretext of championing the Sinhala Buddhist cause. Further, the revelations of Namal Kumara (the Police spy) gave further reasons for fear for the community as there were attempts to create communal tensions in the East and blame it on the Muslims. This lead was not adequately inquired into as well. This shows meticulous political planning involved in the background.

PM Wickremesinghe in the aftermath of this Digana tragedy assured victims that they would be compensated as soon as possible, and said that Rs. 100,000 would be made as an initial payment and the Cabinet would decide on further compensations after assessing the individual needs. He said those whose business establishments had been fully damaged, an initial payment of around Rs. 500,000 would be made. He also promised that the compensation scheme would be worked out on the basis of damage caused to the properties.However, as of now, the victims only received the initial sum and the politicians observe mum while the victims are undergoing suffering. At that time, Mujibur Rahuman said he felt deceived by his own government and felt ashamed too. It is however not novel that Muslim politicians shed crocodile tears in these types of crises.  

In a study published in the Ground-views (12/06/2018), individuals whose homes and businesses were damaged by Sinhala-Buddhist extremist mobs spoke with increasing frustration of the inadequate State response to the violence. A victim said ‘We received 100,000 rupees from the government in the immediate aftermath, that was all… This compensation barely covers a fraction of the cost for a single piece of equipment that he would have to purchase, let alone the reconstruction of his entire showroom. To add insult to injury, officials are asking him for bills, blueprints and other documents to help assess the value of what he lost. ‘I tell them “Sorry sir, I wish I could show you all that but I lost it all in the fire’”. It was revealed that the Attorney-General’s Department visited to valuate his building, but  nothing was put down in writing, and he was not given any concrete idea of when the next round of compensation would be paid. Then, another study published in the same journal 905/03/2019) quoting another victim says. ‘One year later, these concerns still remain….He speaks of how the full compensation owed to affected individuals has not come through, lost in what seems like a mess of bureaucracy’

In respect of the Ampara tragedy, it was reported that not only that those responsible were not brought to book, but also the victims and their businesses burnt and the mosque damaged on a false pretext, were not compensated for as well. The Muslim political leadership from the East should be ashamed for not strongly taking up this issue, to safeguard their political links with the top. 

Adding salt to injury, the nation was treated to an eyewash of arresting some ‘Digana’culprits under ICCPR Act and releasing them after the Constitutional coup in October 2018. As it is known, ‘the release on bail of key suspects , compounded with the flawed reparations process, heightens fears that ‘the State will not acknowledge the costs passed on to the victims and endured more generally’. Continued impunity will only deepen the mistrust and anger, leading to equally heavy loss in future’. The legal experts say that the existing legislation is adequate to punish the culprits who indulge in hate speech and attacks. But the problem lies in State and law enforcement apathy. 

In a ICJ report titled The Crisis of Impunity in Sri Lanka (2012), it says, ‘ 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; institutions to protect the independence of the judiciary have been eviscerated; the Attorney-General has become politicized; and political forces have continually sought to influence and interfere with the judiciary. Blatant disregard for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary has crippled the justice system, leaving victims with little or no prospect of remedies or reparations for serious human rights violations’. Thus, instances of impunity shown above are but  part of the story. Unless the crisis of endemic impunity is combated and sorted out, the rot will continue to make Sri Lanka a pariah state subjected to international shame. 

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