By Jehan Perera –
The quelling of anti-Muslim violence in Kandy took longer than anticipated. The curfew in the Kandy district continued for close on a week. A state of emergency, which gives the government special powers, and which enables the military to take on police functions, has been in effect since Tuesday. The protracted anti Muslim violence is a wake-up call about the tensions that line beneath the surface in society, which make them susceptible to abuse by powerful forces with larger political motivations. In a manner reminiscent of the prelude to the three decade-long war against the Tamil rebel movement, the sentiment is being promoted amongst sections of the Sinhalese ethnic majority is that the Muslim minority is a source of threat to their own security.
That war, which ended in 2009, devastated the north and east of the country and set back the national economy by decades even as countries that had once been far behind Sri Lanka forged ahead in the race for economic development. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has spoken about the economic and social setback to the country. A few days before he was in Singapore promoting Sri Lanka as a paradise and canvassing for foreign investments. Those hopes will have gone up along with the smoke of burning Muslim shops and other properties. Hopefully the eyes of the general public will be opened as to what national priorities are and the interconnection between communal harmony and economic development.
The targeting of Muslims for hate speech has become especially marked after the end of the war in 2009. There was a serious anti Muslim riot in the town of Aluthgama in 2014 that claimed four lives and the destruction of many Muslims businesses and houses. This was accompanied by a vicious campaign on social media that portrayed the Muslims as plotting to take control over the country with the help of global Islam. A tragic feature of Sri Lankan history has been the exploitation of Sinhalese fears by politicians eager to win the votes of the ethnic majority as the easier way to political power. The newly formed Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP) that trounced the government parties led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last month made fear of division of the country and the danger of foreign forces a main plank of their election campaign.
But even more than the economic cost would be the human and psychological cost of a further fraying of the bonds that ought to unite the Sri Lankan family, who in the words of the national anthem are children of one mother. Without trust in one another no family, or country, can succeed. Wherever they live as a minority, which is most of the country, the Muslims will feel a greater sense of insecurity and vulnerability. It would be not unreasonable for them to feel that if they are attacked in Kandy, which is the second most important urban centre in Sri Lanka, they could be attacked anywhere in the country. Both the government and civil society need to priorities restoring the confidence of the Muslim community that Sri Lanka is their home as much as it is the home of the other communities.
Muslim children tell their friends they do not feel safe. My daughter came home and said this after returning from school in Colombo. A Muslim colleague for many decades in the field of inter-ethnic relationship building phoned me to say he was in a hut in his garden as he did not feel safe to stay in his house in Kandy as the mob came nearer. He also appealed that something be done to keep the mob away. It is tragic that an entire community of people should feel insecure and have nowhere to go where they might be secure. With the exception of pockets in the north and east of the country, the Muslims live as a minority community everywhere.
The eruption of anti-Muslim violence at this time, first in Ampara and then in Kandy, has dealt a big blow to the post-war reconciliation hopes of the country which is essential if the economy is to take off and there is to be foreign investment. The instigated violence threatens to pit community against community. This can only mean a downward spiral in which mob attacks by one community will see mob attacks by the other. Having only just got out of a thirty year civil war, it looks like Sri Lankans are now being pushed into a new one unless the Sri Lankan polity as a whole and civil society makes the promotion of inter-community interaction and understanding a central pillar of all that they do.
In this context the declaration of a state of emergency for a limited time period is best seen as a signal that the government was serious about putting an end to the mob action that threatens the lives and property of a substantial section of the people. If it had been a spontaneous eruption of anger by Sinhalese against Muslims, it would have spread elsewhere also like a wildfire. It is to be noted that the violence did not spread out of Kandy. The fact that it was instigated and organized is also to be seen in the scant respect that the mobs showed to the police even in the face of the declaration of curfew. They were not afraid because they felt they had political protection.
One of the most ugly and fearsome features of the last government was its practice of impunity. The fear of the “White Vans” that would abduct those that the government did not favour and make them disappear was pervasive. While it was primarily directed against those who were deemed to the LTTE supporters, its excesses included political opponents of the government including journalists. Its radius of intimidation included businessmen at Rotary Club events who privately admitted that they did not wish to speak up as they feared to be noted by the government. Those who were the perpetrators of impunity did so in the confidence that they were engaging in actions that upheld national interests as dictated by the government leaders.
During the period of the war, and even after the war, the White Vans death squads abducted people and made them disappear because they had been told by their superiors that this was necessary to ensure national security. This is where a Truth Commission will be needed to look at the human rights violations that took place in the past and the justifications given for them. The violence in Kandy persisted even during the curfew hours because the actors on the streets felt they would be protected by those who were giving them leadership. In their minds they were attacking others with justification because they were doing it for the sake of the nation.
Over the past few years, there has been a deliberate and purposeful build up of tension that is being done for political reasons. This has to be undone by enlightened leaders of government. In the longer term there is a need for trust building and community awareness programmes to be undertaken. The government has a duty to reassure the Muslim people that they are equally deserving of the protection of the state and will receive it. The leaders of government must come out and talk to the people and reassure them. The government leaders must act and speak publicly and take the people with them.
Civil society has its own role to play by educating people. Sri Lanka is still in a post-war phase in which the wounds and traumas of the past three decades of violence and war have still not been healed. Until the national political leadership takes firm and determined action at this time there is an increasing likelihood of Sri Lanka a new cycle of communal violence that will become uncontrollable. This is the message from Ampara and Kandy which the government needs to take more powerfully to the people.
It is to be hoped that this crisis will also convince the leaders of the government that they need to work together rather than against each other. The past several months have seen the two main parties that form the government alliance at loggerheads with each other. This was partly the reason why they fared so poorly at the local government elections. But now they can see that everything they fought together to come to power in 2015 being threatened, and the peace of the country being threatened too. They need to remind both themselves and those who voted for them about why the vote went the way it did. It is still not too late to obtain a second chance.