By Javid Yusuf –
Sri Lanka’s attempts at National Reconciliation have received a major setback with the latest inter-communal tensions in several parts of the country. Picking up the pieces after a protracted and debilitating civil war that drained national resources for over three decades would be a daunting task for any country. If it is a country which is on the bottom half of the economic ladder the task of rebuilding becomes that much more difficult. Moreover, creating new problems for ourselves would mean facilitating a situation which impedes any process of reconciliation. A repetition of the tragic events of the past is a luxury that Sri Lanka and its people can ill afford.
When every effort should be made to identify the mistakes of the past and correct them, we are allowing irresponsible small groups to do just the opposite and adding to our list of problems. With the process of reconciliation between the Tamil community and the State as well as between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities still finding its feet, making the Muslims insecure renders the Nation building project an even more formidable task.
The current anti-Muslim campaign has come as a rude shock and a bolt from the blue to a community which had been peacefully going about its day to day lives without treading on anyone’s toes. The virulent nature of the discourse and the manner in which it has been carried out clearly reflects a desire to target the Muslims rather than a genuine attempt to address Sinhalese or Buddhist concerns. Any concerns of a community can and should be discussed and addressed through dialogue and discussion in a sensitive manner without recourse to public platforms and street demonstrations that inflame passions and spread insecurity among people.
During the civil war while sharing the difficulties and common problems faced by the civilian population of all communities, the Muslims underwent considerable difficulties themselves during the LTTE-State conflict when they were specifically targeted as in the case of the forcible eviction of Muslims from the North, the massacres at the Kattankudy and Eravur mosques, dispossession of Muslims from their lands etc despite not being direct parties to the armed conflict.
Notwithstanding all this Muslims have been proud to call Sri Lanka their home. In interactions with the outside world Muslims have with pride pointed out that they enjoyed freedom to practice their religion and culture with active support from the State. The positive picture painted by Muslims about Sri Lanka abroad has greatly contributed to Sri Lanka enjoying considerable clout in the international community and being viewed as a model of tolerance to be emulated by other countries in the world. A large part of the credit for such an image undoubtedly belongs to the Sinhalese and Buddhist people and their religious leaders who so no bogeys among the minorities thus ensuring that Sri Lanka was a haven of multi religious and multi ethnic harmony in respect of which all Sri Lankans could justifiably be proud.
Yet today the model of co-existence that Sri Lanka has been proud to hold out to the world is being threatened and is adding to the growing list of challenges we face many of which are of our own seeking. Those driving the process of damaging inter religious harmony seem to be doing so with reckless disregard for the National Interest and the good name of the country. Unless this trend is arrested quickly irreparable harm and damage will be caused to Sri Lanka’s hitherto proud image of co-existence and harmony.
It is well known that despite the ethnic flavor of the civil war, there was and is tremendous goodwill among the people of all communities at the grassroots level which has proved to be a source of hope for nation building and reconciliation. Even today when there are reports of misguided individuals attacking Muslims who wear the Abaya and Nikab, it is the ordinary Sinhalese and Buddhists who have spontaneously rushed to the rescue of the victims and chased off the attackers reflecting the humanity that has long been a hallmark of the Sri Lankan culture.
Contrast the picture with other arenas of conflict in other parts of the world. In Northern Ireland the Protestants and Catholics have lived physically apart and it is only after the Good Friday Agreement inspired peace process that these two communities are trying to interact and have more inter communal engagement. In Sri Lanka we have had centuries of peaceful co-existence and should be careful not to allow a change in the healthy relationships enjoyed between the communities
When Sri Lanka is facing challenges internationally (some of which like the current anti Muslim campaign are of our own making ) we need to harness all our energies to rebuild internally as well as improve our image externally and once again take our place as a respected member of the International community.
The civil war has had many negative fall outs. One of the most unfortunate results of the end of the armed phase of the conflict is the sense of insecurity felt among the Tamil community. As a result of wrong strategies and brutal use of violence, the LTTE did a great disservice to the Tamils who today feel wounded and insecure. Whatever mistakes the LTTE made and whatever wrongs the Sri Lankan State may have committed in dealing with the LTTE and the grievances of the Tamil people, it is incumbent upon the Sri Lankan State to actively reach out to the Tamil people and heal their wounds and make them feel secure and confident.
In such a context when we are grappling with post war issues, it makes no sense to create a situation where another minority (the Muslims) are being made to feel insecure. It is axiomatic that matters of religion are emotive and have to be handled sensitively. The conduct of the Bodhu Bala Sena and other organisations with regular Press Conferences, Street demonstrations and Mass meetings as well as the tone and content of the speeches at such meetings have had exactly the opposite effect and have been laced with untruths, half truths and misperceptions which has contributed to planting the seeds of hate among ordinary people who may not have the ability to sift fact from fiction.
One of the allegations expressed is that the Muslim population is growing at such a rate that it will soon make the Muslims the majority community in Sri Lanka. Fortunately the Department of Census and Statistics has rebutted the allegation with facts and figures that prove there is no truth in the story. Another concern expressed was the story that a particular Textile Stores was distributing sweets to customers which when consumed would adversely affect Sinhala and Buddhists womens’ fertility. This too was disproved when it was discovered that the sweets referred to were manufactured by a well known Company owned by Sinhala Buddhists.
The most recent statement made is that food prepared by Muslims is spat on three times before consumption. Clearly such a story is not even worth dignifying with a response except to show the ridiculous lengths to which they would go to, to discourage Sinhalese and Buddhists from patronizing Muslim owned restaurants and eating houses.
Two issues of National concern which are troubling concerned citizens have emerged as a result of recent events.
There are many law and order issues that are being ignored by the law enforcement agencies. Many web sites which are spewing hate speech against Muslims have been operating without any action against them. There are groups which have openly declared themselves as unofficial police forces and conducting raids including against Christian institutions. Public meetings and public demonstrations that spread hatred against communities are allowed without any legal action when laws are transgressed.
How has the Bodhu Bala Sena which was founded only in the middle of last year been able to reach various parts of the country and make such an impact within such a short time? Even the two main political parties the SLFP and the UNP will not have such success in such a short time for their political camapaigns despite their wide network and existence for so many years.
The situation is fast careering out of control and can prove detrimental to the National Interest unless decisive action is taken to bring it under control. A country of contented people whether they be Buddhists, Hindus, Christians or Muslims is a sine qua non for Nation building. It would be attractive to say that the National Interest must take precedence over the interests of the Buddhists, Hindus, Christians or the Muslims. What is even more closer to the truth is the realisation that the National Interest is in fact the collective interest of the people whether they be Buddhists, Hindus, Christians or Muslims.