By Jehan Perera –
While in the United States to attend the UN General Assembly, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa assured the international community that he would look after the Muslim people in the country when he met the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The meeting took place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Discussing religiously-motivated incidents that have occurred in the recent past, which he described as “isolated incidents” President Rajapaksa assured the international Muslim leader that the government will take immediate action to deal with any incidents against the Muslim community. “I will look after the Muslim community like my own brothers,” President Rajapaksa said. He also encouraged Mr. Madani and other OIC member countries to visit Sri Lanka to see for themselves the ground realities in the country and how many diverse communities coexist peacefully.
However, the visit to Sri Lanka of Ven. Ashin Wirathu who heads the 969 Movement in Myanmar which has engaged in anti Muslim activities caused considerable unease amongst the Muslims in Sri Lanka. Leaders of the Muslim community lobbied with the government to deny him a visa. The Sri Lanka Muslim Council wrote President Mahinda Rajapaksa saying “The presence of such a person who has caused so much violence on the Burmese Muslims would be a real threat to peace and peaceful co-existence in Sri Lanka.” However, those who had invited the Ven Wirathu to the great convention of Buddhist monks were part of the government’s electoral constituency. By inviting Ven Wirathu the government was catering to this constituency. But this has been at the cost of the Muslims who had a fear that his presence would provoke more anti Muslim sentiment. The Muslim community even feared being at the receiving end of violence during the visit of the Ven. Wirathu. This was certainly not the government’s intention. But the wounds of the anti Muslim riots in June in Aluthgama are still not healed.
The government has to win back the confidence of the Muslim community, and other minorities as well. It has been in the aftermath of the Ven Wirathu’s visit that the government has now set up a Cabinet level sub-committee on “Social Reconciliation and Coexistence among Communities.” At the convention of Buddhist monks attended by the Ven Wirathu one of the positions taken was that the Sri Lanka should be a Sinhala Buddhist state and that the national flag should only represent the Sinhalese majority and not the ethnic minorities. The government is attempting to walk a tightrope in a country in which ethnic and religious passions continue to motivate aggression and fear amongst the people. In this context the anticipated visit of Pope Francis to Sri Lanka, which is scheduled for January 13-15, would offer the government another opportunity to demonstrate to the ethnic and religious minorities that it accepts the reality of Sri Lanka being a multi ethnic and multi religious country. It is a balancing act that the government is conducting.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to the Vatican was described by the government media as due to his desire to issue an official invitation to Pope Francis to visit Sri Lanka. The President’s visit to the Vatican to invite the Pope personally and officially was quite extraordinary given the fact that the Catholic Church, as far back as June this year, announced that the Pope will be visiting Sri Lanka. It even gave the dates. The Archdiocese of Colombo had a news item on its website on 7 June 2014 written by Fr Sunil de Silva in which it said in banner headlines that the “HOLY FATHER POPE FRANCIS CONFIRMS HIS VISIT TO SRI LANKA IN 2015 JANUARY 13,14, & 15”. Further it showed a photograph of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith inviting Pope Francis to visit Sri Lanka. The Archdioscese website also noted that when a group of pilgrims led by Cardinal Ranjith, visited the Pope in the Vatican, Pope Francis greeted Cardinal Ranjith, and thanked him for an invitation to visit Sri Lanka. “I welcome this invitation,” the Pope had said, “and I think the Lord will grant us the grace.”
In these circumstances, President Rajapaksa’s visit to the Vatican to personally invite the Pope would be to make sure that the Pope will indeed visit Sri Lanka. The reason for there to be a doubt on this score may have come due to the increasing speculation that an early Presidential election will be called on January 7 or 8, which is the earliest that a Presidential election can be held under the law. The problem for the government, however, is that the Vatican has a policy of not having the Pope visit any country that is in the throes of an election or political instability. Church leaders have asked the government and the opposition not to exploit the visit by Pope Francis as a political tool. In particular, the Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, asked the government and the opposition to not politicise the visit. He said “We hope that the visit will not be disturbed by an election campaign and politicians of both the government and opposition would not use it as a political tool.”
If the government decides to go ahead and hold a Presidential election in January close to the time of the planned papal visit, it runs the risk of the Pope not coming to Sri Lanka. This would be a great loss. There are several reasons for the Pope’s visit to be in the national interest. At a time when Sri Lanka is getting international criticism for being a home to extremist Buddhist nationalism, the visit of the Pope and the honour paid to him by the government can send a counter message of the country’s religious pluralism and tolerance. In addition, the Pope is expected to visit Madhu in the North of the country and hold a service there. Madhu is not only a sacred area for Catholics on account of the Madhu shrine to which tens of thousands of Catholics from all parts of the country go yearly to pay homage. Madhu was also a part of the last phase of the war, and one of the last battleground areas. Therefore, a religious service there could be one that helps in the national healing and reconciliation process.
As important, the Pope’s visit could lead to a more positive environment in which elections can be held. Already the government is making preparations to change the electoral laws to enable election campaign practices that are currently prohibited by the law to become legal. This indicates that the government is preparing to go all out to use its superior advantage in terms of economic resources and command over public assets and officials to full effect. The use of violence is but a step away. However, if the government is serious about the Pope’s visit, it will have to restrain itself. If the situation gets out of hand during the election campaign and its aftermath, the Pope might have to cancel his visit, which would be a big blow to the government, Catholic community and country. Therefore, the prospect of a papal visit to Sri Lanka, and the need to ensure that the Pope is not forced to cancel his visit at the last minute would impel the government to ensure that minimum standards of a free and fair election are maintained in the conduct of the forthcoming Presidential elections.
It is in this context that the government has decided to set up a Cabinet Sub-Committee on “Social Reconciliation and Coexistence among Communities.” This reconciliation and coexistence committee is to be presided over by President Rajapaksa and will consist of cabinet ministers to facilitate the implementation of the LLRC recommendations. In a note to his ministers, President Rajapaksa has admitted that “Communities in our country have distanced themselves from each other due to the military background that prevailed over a period of more than three decades…instead of interacting with trust the people are in the process of looking at others in an unfriendly manner.” He has also pointed out that ensuring coexistence “among communities is not something that can be done easily as reconstruction or resettlement is not something which yields quick results.”
Three years ago, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commissioners (LLRC) appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa issued their report on the causes of the war and how to move forward. They pointed out that the root of the problem that led to protracted war was that successive governments, and not just this one, had failed to address Tamil grievances and resolve the ethnic conflict. They cited Lord Soulbury, the architect of Sri Lanka’s post –independence constitution, which was probably also its best, as having said that the main challenge facing the country was to overcome its communalism.
So after many years of refusing to acknowledge the continuing existence of an ethnic conflict, especially after the end of the war, the government seems to be making an about turn. It is a pity that this realization had to wait for so long. After the government vanquished the LTTE in 2009 President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared that henceforth there would be no majorities or minorities in the country, only a majority who were patriots and a minority who were traitors. But today the government appears to be moving away from these crude sentiments of national euphoria to a more sober assessment of what it takes to successfully govern a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country in which the minorities account of no less than 30 percent of the population. The government’s intention of holding a snap Presidential election at the turn of the year, and the need to woo the minority vote, may be the cause. The words are reassuring. The question is the reality on the ground.