By R Hariharan –
The recent rampage by Buddhist bigots against Muslims at Aluthgama and Beruwala resulting in the death of three persons, and injuries to 80, rendering over a thousand people homeless is a defining moment for Sri Lanka.
The headline “Country has a responsibility to promote Buddha Sasana” in the government-owned Daily News report on the President’s speech on July 3 eloquently summed up the President’s priorities. Addressing at the higher ordination ceremony of Buddhist novice monks, he blamed the ‘elements’ that wanted to destroy the country by letting these disputes be known to the outside world and “inviting unnecessary problems to the country.”
It is significant that he condemned neither the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) nor its extremist leader Galabodaatta Gnanasara Thera responsible for the Aluthgama attacks. He did not acknowledge his government’s failure to control the growing anti-Muslim activities indicating its culpability. In one breath Rajapaksa said “the country has religious freedom” while in another he spoke of the country having the responsibility to protect and promote the Buddha Sasana. So it is not surprising that Rajapaksa has given no course correction to curb anti-Muslim activities perhaps because his Buddha Sasana agenda does not include it.
From the statements of the President and other leaders of the ruling coalition three elements can be identified being blamed for the growth of anti-Muslim activities. These are foreign forces (identified as India, Norway and the U.S. by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa), misuse of social media by vested interests, and the opposition United National Party (UNP) colluding with international NGOs. They are all united in tarnishing the image of Sri Lanka and the Rajapaksa government according to the ruling class!
The President probably feels that any action against the Buddhist monks could create a political backlash and erode his support among rural Sinhala Buddhist voters. The Saffron activism is also whipping up Sinhala nationalism which could be useful to repair the President’s image dented by his poor performance on the human resources front.
The largely Tamil-speaking Muslims form only about ten percent of Sri Lanka’s 20-million people. Their faction ridden political leaders usually support whichever coalition comes to power regardless of its ideology. Even after Aluthgama incidents, they have continued in their cabinet posts giving hope to the President that he could buy their support even if Muslim community does not support him.
Initially, Sri Lanka had tried to suppress the reporting of the Aluthgama riots. But it failed due to social media reports; so it is now trying to control social media and the NGOs. Al Jazeera reporter is being investigated for his video coverage showing visuals of saffron-clad monks leading the attackers on Muslims and their property. The Newsweek Pakistan has highlighted Sri Lanka’s lack of concern by quoting Sri Lanka Minister for Public Relations Mervyn Silva’s flippant remark that he was prepared to marry a Muslim woman “for the sake of national harmony.” These reports have caused concern in the Muslim world. Organisation of Islamic Cooperation is said to have expressed its concern to Sri Lanka.
In this charged atmosphere, Rajapaksa may face challenges from the Muslim world as well as international Islamic terrorism, which is on the ascent. According a report of July 8 the Director General of Muslim Religious affairs after going through a recording of Gnanasara Thera’s statement to the media affirmed before the Colombo Fort Magistrate that it contained certain derogatory comments on the Quran. This may well trigger the anti-Sri Lanka backlash in Muslim countries.
It could test Sri Lanka’s “all weather friendship” with Pakistan. Employment of Sri Lankans by Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia could be affected with its adverse impact on foreign remittances forming the bulk of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange earnings.
Sri Lanka’s staunch Muslim friends may not support it at the forthcoming UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) where Aluthgama violence is likely to figure in the discussion on Sri Lanka’s human rights aberrations. This could result in further erosion of the President’s image at home.
The other more insidious challenge for Sri Lanka could be from Jihadi terrorism exploiting the situation to spread its wings among Sri Lanka Muslim population. The Pakistani Jihadi group Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) had in the past used safe houses in Sri Lanka to train and infiltrate Muslims extremists into India. The LeT could use the existing strong sectarian divide between the largely peaceful Sufi Muslim population and the smaller fundamentalist Wahabi elements to further its interest.
A small Wahabi fringe group the Tawheed Jamaat (TJ), spouting anti-Buddhist sentiments, already exists in Sri Lanka. It has fraternal links with TJ in Tamil Nadu which enjoys considerable influence. Though the Tamil Nadu TJ claims to be against extremism, it is led by former members of the proscribed terrorist group Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). This link has the potential to whip up religious passions among Muslims to condone if not support acts of Jihadi elements.
Last month when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met President Rajapaksa, he had drawn his attention to the recent arrest a Sri Lankan Muslim in Chennai caught while spying for Pakistani intelligence which had been helping Pak terrorist groups. Pak agents who employed the suspect were operating from their High Commission in Colombo. Realising the danger to national security from Pak terrorists, Sri Lanka is expelling 1500 Pak asylum seekers living in Sri Lanka.
So Rajapaksa has to fine tune his political priorities in handling anti-Muslim activity lest he jeopardises Sri Lanka’s national interests.
*Col Hariharan is a retired MI officer who served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 90. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Blogs: http://col.hariharan.info & http://hariharansintblog.blogspot.in