By Mohamed Harees –
What happened in Mawanella involving the destruction of Buddhist statues is extremely tragic and should be severely deplored with all the emphasis at our disposal. Further, this act goes against the religious teachings, our people hold sacred. Impartial investigation should begin without any delay to identify if this is a lone wolf attack or the attackers are mere cat-paws of and part of a greater machination. Those involved in the dastardly act should be subjected to the severest punishment under the law. Even if is a lone wolf attack, a danger lurks where there are always possibilities that forces with self-centred vested interests and ruined political ambitions may exploit the emotions of the affected people to exasperate communal tensions and re-create another ‘Digana’ or bout of communal violence, in pursuance of their own agenda even at the cost of much needed communal harmony. The positive development has been the laudable manner in which the religious, political and civic leaders have approached this issue and have sat down around a table to discuss and extinguish these inflammatory issues is most praiseworthy at least for now.
Sri Lanka no longer can afford to go through any more periods of communal tensions and violence, on the heels of a continuing political crisis arising out of a constitutional coup initiated by the Head of State. Already the country’s economic progress has had many setbacks in the Post-war era with a galloping debt burden, chronic political corruption and an increasing cost of living while national reconciliation has become a distant cry. Post war era Sri Lanka has been sitting on a communal volcano and a powder keg exploding from time to time.
It is therefore imperative that the Police and the law enforcement authorities act both firmly and even-handedly to ensure that these types of vandalism and explosive issues do not explode into serious ones, by undertaking a thorough impartial investigation and identify if any possible cat-paws of conspirators hell-bent on creating mayhem in the country already wounded by 30 years of a bloody war and regular bouts of communal violence. Action of individuals should not be allowed to be amplified as actions of an entire community and tarred with communal colours, thereby allowing goons and hooligans to launch attacks on them, commit arson and loot their properties at will. Digana should serve an apt reminder and a bitter lesson.
The role of the Police in these types of communally tense situations in the past by and large has been controversial and their impartiality called into question. Police were blamed for not taking instant action to nip them in the bud, and for failure to conduct proper investigations, sometimes at the behest of some political higher-ups too. They were even accused of complicity in the riots by turning a blind eye, allowing perpetrators to indulge in mischief under the cover of curfew, and also by taking part in the acts of arson and looting. Even the good image of STF was tarnished recently. Both the government as well as the Police higher-ups should therefore treat these as serious issues and take preventive action in instances of this nature, as these types may not be the last. The President as the Minister in charge of ‘Law and order’ (despite our reservations of his credibility to hold this post) should take full responsibility to ensure that these types of incidents are properly investigated ,culprits identified and action taken against them irrespective of the race they belong to or positions they hold.
The communal riots and violence seen in this country are not spontaneous outbursts of violence between two communities; rather they all carry hallmarks of being meticulously planned and executed. It is necessary for the Police to make this distinction as the role of law and order machinery depends very much on whether the riots/violence are planned or is spontaneous. If it is well planned (as they are in respect of communal violence in our country), then it assumes a different character and requires more motivation and determination on the part of the Police to control it. These are usually pre planned by anti-social groups with pseudo patriotic labels or frustrated political elements with their own agenda or to serve the interests of their political patrons. After this planning phase, an appropriate atmosphere or scenario has to be created and this is often done with a view to raising the communal temperature by spreading atrocious rumours (Wanda pethi), an altercation causing serious or fatal injury (Aluthgama or Digana trishaw incident) or staging attacks on religious symbols ( like many ‘engineered’ incidents of destroying Buddha statues in Trinco, Colombo areas and in this case Mawanella). This greatly helps in spreading violence and justifying it. In other words, violence acquires legitimacy in the eyes of the affected community and difficult to control specially if the issues at hand involved are religious or historical deeply embedded in the emotions and psyche of the people and when political higher-ups act as patrons. The law enforcement and the government therefore have to take these perspectives and historic lessons into account when inquiring into and dealing with the incidents which happened in Mawanella.
Sri Lanka has been an unfortunate nation, despite being endowed with enormous natural resources and friendly, talented people, where communal tensions have been occurring at regular frequency since Independence. This governments of the day since the British left our shores, virtually ignored or turned a blind eye to the racist hate speech, dog whistles, hush talks , vicious barks at the grass root levels, in parliamentary corridors and also in open spaces and since of recent times, in much powerful social media as well for cheap political reasons, and allowed even minor issues to snowball into uncontrollable racist violence. The unfortunate consequence has been that much bitterness, rancour and ,mutual mistrust were created among the friendly Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims thereby diverting their attention away from working together for their mutual progress and also tarnishing the international image of the country in the process. Even the courses of action taken by the governments whenever the communal tensions showed signs of aggravation, were too little and too late as well, whether 1983, Aluthgama or Digana.
It is a reality that the Tamils are yet to get the much needed justice after the end of the war with many issues regarding settlement, compensation and missing persons still unresolved despite many promises to this effect by both sides of the political divide. Muslims in the Post war era faced the wrath of a well-orchestrated hate campaign launched by hate groups with the blessings of the political higher-ups. The main perpetrators of communal violence are still at large which has injected fear and continuously infuses a sense of insecurity into the minds of the Muslim community. Both Tamil and Muslim politicians have lost their credibility among their people, which puts the burden on the major parties to work out a consensus to make the numerically minority communities once again feel as part of the citizenry on an equal footing, while particularly building the shattered confidence of the majority community as well. It is imperative to sort out the fears and grievances of the Majority community without which nothing worthwhile will work out.
Another area which should be focussed upon is the pivotal role of the social media in spreading hate. We’ve seen social media being used as a popular tool to disseminate hate speech, especially hate speech based on religion. It is also used by nefarious elements or hate groups for propaganda-based hate messaging, in a manner whereby it often becomes viral, making it difficult to identify the source and hold the user responsible. Already many hate groups have started rolling out their venom in trying to link this disgusting incident with the never proven ‘Muslim conspiracy’. Previous experiences with the Post-violence phases have confirmed that social media plays a critical role in creating and spreading hate speech, and has been used numerous times for promoting communal and religious hate speech with a clear agenda of provoking violence. However banning or blocking social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter is not the way forward, as this will be a reactionary measure which will shut out its’ useful role in highlighting hate incidents at times when State tries to curtail freedom of expression ( as it happened when Aluthgama violence took place). The social media should be regulated to shut out hate speech and vile distortions. Recently, Facebook authorities accepted guilt regarding not taking measures in deleting anti- Muslim hate speech in Sinhala, during a meeting in Singapore.
There is a decisive role to play for civic organisations too in tackling hate and to promote inter communal harmony, across racial and religious divides. There is a need undertake “counter-messaging” campaigns to promote pluralism too at grass-root levels and in the social media and to form peace groups at the village levels through the involvement of religious leaders. The positive trend is that this has begun to happen. It is heartening to see more interaction between community leaders of all faiths and people of all faiths taking part in each other’s events. This should be passionately promoted. Further, Hate speech laws will not be effective if there is no political will to apprehend the culprits. There is widespread impunity due to the effectiveness of anti- hate laws in the present law books.
Sri Lanka cannot afford to continue with this ethnic and religious divisiveness. The country has paid and still paying too dearly, both locally as well as internationally, for promoting ethno-nationalism as cure for its political, economic and social ills. All communities are equally guilty of resorting to this suicidal mania. We let emotions to rule over reason and falsehood to reign over truth. How else does one explain that a country where four great religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam lived cheek by jowl and in total amity for centuries, deteriorated into an ethnic cauldron within little over fifty years? The blame should be laid entirely at the doorstep of power hungry politicians. Unfortunately, we have allowed them to keep Sri Lanka still as a virulently polarized country.
In this context. it is important to work out a plausible mechanism to promote national reconciliation which is the bedrock of progress. Archbishop Desmond Tutu who chaired the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in post-apartheid South Africa, at a time when there was an absolute need for reconciliation, testified that it is mandatory to have an open, honest and transparent process to deal with the past if there is to be national reconciliation. Presently, the pretence of ‘national reconciliation’ is nothing but a myth propagated by the GoSL with the sole intention of obtaining international support to keep a ‘majoritarian’ regime going. For national reconciliation to occur there are some fundamental requirements.
1. There must be a genuine intention to do so.
2. There must be regret for all that has happened, to make national reconciliation necessary.
3. The fundamental problems that caused the rift must be addressed.
4. There must be a determination to wipe out all the obstructions to this process.
Since there is no political will to make these happen, national reconciliation is still remains an election fad. Only concerted public activism can change the course of events – to change the impunity culture and to create an al- inclusive Sri Lanka where all communities can feel safe and secure and will live as equal citizens.