By Mohamed Harees –
The Daily Mirror of 20th March 2018 carried a rather alarming and distressing news-item on its’ front page. The headline of this news-item read ‘The claim that a majority of Sinhalese were against the recent attacks on Muslims is wrong…‘Most Sinhalese happy about recent attacks’, reporting a speech delivered by a prominent civil servant Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya (MD), interestingly at a workshop on ethnic harmony on the theme’ building bridges’ at SLIDA. Strangely the e-version of this new-item has apparently been withdrawn and is no longer available for on-line access.
After reading his rather alarming speech, the Muslims would have felt like ‘a man being gored by a bull, after falling from the tree’ as a Sinhala idiom goes, only weeks after scores of Anti-Muslim hate mobs swept through Muslim villages, both in the Eastern and Central Provinces engaging in a well-orchestrated campaign of vandalism and arson attacks. MD also reportedly added that a majority of Sinhalese were happy to see the Tamils too being attacked in 1983, only to regret it a few years later, thus demonising the Sinhala people. His speech continued to challenge the Muslims to adopt an indigenous lifestyle and assimilate themselves into a Sri Lanka nation. In the overall context, it raises an all-important question in the minds of all Sri Lankans; not just the Muslims: Has anti-Muslim hate gone mainstream in this Dharma Dweepa?
It is not clear in what context that such sweeping statements were made by a person in the stature of MD who chairs an important public commission such as the Elections Commission. Few possibilities exist: Did the Daily Mirror merely engage in sensationalizing this new-item; the types of sensationalism as the mainstream newspapers do for petty gains, in which events and topics in news stories and pieces are overhyped to present biased impressions on events, which may cause a manipulation to the truth of a story. They knew very well the bad timing of this news and the negative emotional impact and uneasy feelings it may cause in the minds of both Sinhalese and the Muslims specially, upon the heels of a spate of communal violence carried out by hate groups on Muslim areas which caused much damage to the harmony between the two communities. Still they did it and later withdrew the online access. Or did the newspaper quote him out of context(in which case DM would have demanded a correction?( which he did not ); OR Did he say base it on some reliable and valid study/ survey (which is still not known in the public domain)?. It therefore appears that his speech may have been based on his own experiences, hush talks and dog whistles he may have come across during the interactions with his fellow religionists (being a Sinhala Buddhist himself); his gut feelings. However I beg to differ, having lived with Sinhalese and moved with them closely for the most part of my life in Sri Lanka. Besides, feeling happy about the misery of another is very un-Buddhistic to say the least and his remarks will be an insult to the Buddhists too! Only positive aspect will be that it will open up a dialogue on an area of study long hushed up; perhaps an elaborate academic or social study will help to capture public perceptions in this sensitive area.
It has been a fact that Sinhala people at the grass-root/village levels has always been tolerant and lived amicably with the other communities in the South. I can personally vouch for strong bonds of friendship and amity between the Sinhala and Muslim communities, as a social activist hailing from the South. Therefore, MD’s observations that ‘Most Sinhala people are happy about the recent anti-Muslim attacks’ seems not only incorrect but also an outright insult to the tolerant track records of the Sinhala Buddhist people at the grass-root levels, as things stand at present. However, the fact that there had not been any visible objections from the Sinhala Buddhist intellectuals, politicians, or social activists to MD’s offensive and controversial statement about their community appears intriguing.
It has been a historic fact that Ceylon got its’ Independence in 1948 with the support of all communities. It was in 1956 when SWRD become PM on a Sinhala Buddhist platform heavily initiated by some influential sections of the Maha Sangha and then troubles began to brew. Two years later in 1958, the first ever Anti Tamil violence started in Post independence Ceylon. In 1959, SWRD was assassinated by one of the Buddhist monks. Thereafter, the narrow minded political leadership in the years which followed sowed misunderstandings between the two communities, which culminated in the Anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983, leading to 30 years of bloody war fought by a ruthless LTTE terror outfit. Despite Post war hopes of Sri Lankans for peace and amity, MR did not play the historic role of a leader of Post war peace times, which led to another war – a religious war; this time against the other minority-the Muslims. The well-orchestrated hate campaign initiated at the behest of political masters against the Muslims led to creating a climate of fear and insecurity which continues upto this day under various pretexts from 2012. It was these political elements and their cat-paws which should bear the blame and not the Sinhala community at the grass-root levels. However if only the majority community had been more vocal in their opposition; the outcomes would have been much different! As a matter of fact, even the Sinhala community too has not had a good deal to improve their lot from any Post independence governments; on the contrary they too have many grievances to complain of. Tamils have been marginalized too. Thus, all communities are equal on that count!
In fact, in 1983, then President JRJ attempted to indirectly blame the Sinhala people by saying the 1983 attacks was a natural reaction. However, it was no means a mass uprising of the entire Sinhala race against Tamils. As a matter of fact, the majority of the Sinhala people were against what happened then, and also protected and saved Tamils often at great personal risk, as accepted even by many Tamil authors. Otherwise the consequences would have been much grave. Even in the face of provocation from the Tigers who attacked the Dalada Maligawa and also killed many monks in Arantalawa and many other places, the Sinhalese kept their cool. Further, in the case of Post-war anti-Muslim hate campaign during the MR era carried out by the BBS, despite it being well –orchestrated and well-oiled through well – known State patronage, the BJP (BBS Political wing) candidates were not even able to retain their deposits and were rejected in toto by the Sinhala electorate. This was again another good yardstick to measure the stand taken by the Sinhala people about the extremist lines of thinking advanced by the hate groups among them
Even in the aftermath of Aluthgama violence, despite Ven. Gnanasara’s hate speech exhorting Sinhalese to raise up against the Muslims and the MR government attempting to unjustly portray the Muslim as perpetrators, the violence did not spread to other areas. They certainly rejected these hate groups as representing their way of thinking. Some may argue that the blossoming of the Pohottuwa in recent elections was a sign that Sinhala People as a whole are leaning towards extreme Sinhala nationalist ideology. This again may be another false generalization as the anti-govt trend will well be due to the extreme levels of dissatisfaction and disillusionment of the electorate with the dismal track record of the Yahapalana government.
Let us take the recent Anti-Muslim violence in Ampara and Digana (and other areas) as another example. It was true that the government and its’s law enforcement arm and STF woefully failed to protect the Muslim villages, people, mosques and their business environment. However, the local villages did all they could to protect their Muslim neighbours and families. There are many positive stories where Sinhala people in the affected areas led by exemplary Buddhist monks stood up to face these hate mobs and protected Muslims and their properties. Of course they were outnumbered and the mobs had their final say as they were reportedly given a free hand by the belated response of the government as well as the apathy and also connivance of the Police/STF. What happened in Anamaduwa was really heart-warming and emotional, which I think truly represent the great people the Sinhalese generally are. The Sinhalese business community there proved that they want peace and harmony with all communities when they built the Muslim Hotel set on fire by mobs within one day.
There are thus numerous stories untold about the level of amicable relationship between the Sinhalese and Muslims. Judging by statements given by leading monks, many speeches in Parliament from both sides of the divide, writings of many Sinhala intellectuals, many press conferences convened by mainly Sinhala activists show that the this hate campaign did not have the support of the mainstream Sinhala community. So, the Muslims quite rightly blamed not the Sinhala community for the anti-Muslim attacks seen in Aluthgama, Gintota or Digana; instead they pointed their blaming finger towards the fence which ate the crops( Govt+ law enforcement arm which failed to protect them against the mobs led by hate mongers and gangs ‘blessed’ by rogue monks) for their tragedy. These hate groups are an insult to the peaceful Sinhala community. The Sinhalese and/or Sinhala Buddhists as a community/ mainstream or at the grass-root levels have thus not shown any visible signs where they appear to have ever condoned violence against either Tamils or Muslims. They have, in contrast being protecting and supporting brethren from other communities living among them.
Having said that, it is also not a secret that there is a growing sense of aloofness, indifference among them to speak out publicly against these destructive hate elements which claim to speak in their name. This trend will be dangerous specially when there are political conspiracies in place to divide the nation into separate compartmentalized communities and to instil unsubstantiated and unfounded fear among the Sinhala Buddhist people that the minorities in general and Muslims in particular are all-out to destroy their culture, race and heritage. These anti-Muslim hate campaigns are all well- planned borrowing from global Islamophobia hell-bent on making Sri Lanka a hell-hole for the Muslims for various socio-political reasons. Indi Samarajiva wrote in ‘Medium’ blog that as long as the core ingredients of (some) excuses (or ruses) +racists+ people standing by, are there, another race riot (against the Muslims in this instance) cannot be prevented. Further, as seen in Anamaduwa, the arsonists who set fire to the Muslim hotel were young GCE AL students and many of those who engaged in such atrocities were all young. All these offenders were victims of a systematic process of radicalization and brain washing initiated by hate groups through social media ( specially FB) by demonizing the Muslims and introducing hate into their young minds. Many rogue monks too feed this hate rhetoric into these young minds misusing the peaceful Buddhist religion too.
On the other hand, the Muslims should also look inwards and rectify areas which are reported to be causing annoyance or raising fears among the Sinhalese community as they feel that present day Muslims are alienating themselves from the mainstream society due to their changed lifestyles being more Arab rather than indigenous. Therefore fighting hate in society should be the joint responsibility of all communities to prevent hate going mainstream. Let the hate mongers be assigned to the fringes.
However, as the Joint submission by the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and the Special Rapporteur on racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, argued, ‘Hate speech is but a symptom, the external manifestation of something much more profound which is intolerance and bigotry. Therefore, legal responses, such as restrictions on freedom of expression alone, are far from sufficient to bring about real changes in mind-sets, perceptions and discourse. To tackle the root causes of intolerance, a much broader set of policy measures are necessary, for example in the areas of intercultural dialogue or education for tolerance and diversity. In addition, this set of policy measures should include strengthening freedom of expression…..’. This should attract the attention of our policy makers, religious leaders, intellectuals to work out a comprehensive program of action to make Sri Lanka a country where all communities can live in peace and harmony.