By Ameer Ali –
One of the most distinguishing features of Sri Lanka’s post-colonial history and politics was the growth of a majoritarian ideology with its ultimate objective of creating a supreme Sinhala Buddhist state, while crippling simultaneously the rights and freedom of ethnic and religious minorities. They would eventually be turned into communities of second-class citizens. This objective was eloquently expressed on 7 June 2019 in a public rally in Kandy, where the obstreperous bhikkhu Gnanasara Thero, the General Secretary of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), proclaimed that Sinhala Buddhists are the sole owners of the island and that minorities could live here only at the behest of the owners. Until today, no political leader of any hue or standing from the majority community had dared to repudiate that claim in public, except the late Mangala Samaraweera, who for denying it was chastised by certain elements from the Sangha. Over seven decades, this majoritarian ideology has destroyed not only the communal harmony that prevailed in this country since time immemorial, but also undermined the collective effort to build up the economy, impoverished the nation’s intellectual and social capital and damaged Sri Lanka’s international reputation as a tolerant and hospitable country.
It all started with the disenfranchisement of Plantation Tamils in 1949 an act to which, rather ironically, a few indigenous Tamil and Muslim leaders in the legislature lent their support. These leaders did not have the foresight to realize that that measure was only the beginning of a political process through which the status of all ethnic and religious minorities would be reduced eventually to a lesser status. Thus, after disenfranchising the Plantation Tamils, on whose blood and sweat the economy was thriving, majoritarianism turned its attention to indigenous Tamils from 1950s. Through parliamentary legislations, deliberate discrimination and at times with state sponsored violence that community was targeted to suffer repeated victimization. Eventually it led to a costly civil war, which lasted for twenty-five years and ended in 2009 with the elimination of the Tamil militia. Following that victory, a triumphalist president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, appeared on the podium and announced jubilantly that there would henceforth be no more Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims but only Sri Lankans. That brought a great sigh of relief to a vast majority of citizens. However, there was a very powerful and influential minority that reminded the president of certain unfinished business. That minority wanted nothing less than an outright Sinhala Buddhist supremacist state, and in its view that would not be possible without destroying the very existence of a second minority, Muslims. To those supremacists, who were only echoing what the national hero Anagarika Dharmapala said in late 19th century, Muslims, after more than a millennium of indigenization, integration and coexistence had become a community of aliens and deserved to be expelled. In that sense, the end of the civil war marked a turning point in the history of Sri Lankan Muslims.
Even though Dharmapala dubbed Muslims as aliens and provoked the 1915 Sinhalese-Muslim riots in which that community endured heavy losses, no Muslim in the aftermath of the riots ever dreamt of migrating to another country like the Tamils, but remained rooted more firmly than before to the Sri Lankan soil. Today, majoritarianism has caused not only Tamils and Muslims but even Sinhalese to emigrate in search if greener pastures. In a timely publication edited by a Muslim woman activist, Shreen Saroor, titled, Muslims in Post-War Sri Lanka: Repression, Resistance & Reform, a new breed of mostly young researchers, some of whom belong to the hashtag generation from all three communities, have recorded and analyzed the circumstances, causes and consequences of the tragic events that happened over the last thirteen years in which the Muslim community bore the brunt of religious hatred, ethnic vilification, indiscriminate violence and discrimination at the hands of a supremacist mob that had acted with legal impunity and political backing.
Yet, unlike the Tamil community, which resisted majoritarianism with Gandhian Satyagraha at first and when it failed continued the resistance by boycotting parliament and when that too failed resorted to armed struggle, Muslim community relied entirely on governments in power via their parliamentary representatives to seek redress for their grievances. They demanded no privileges but only justice. But the governments remained totally insensitive to their plea. It was in that context a bunch of misguided Muslim extremists brainwashed by Islamist propaganda from abroad seem to have decided to wreck vengeance by massacring a total of 269 innocent Christian worshippers and wounding another 500, while destroying three churches and four tourist hotels on that fateful Easter Sunday in April 2019. This macabre incident which cannot be condoned under any circumstance is yet to be researched in detail. However, it contributed to worsen an already damaged Sinhala Muslim relationship and provided a badly needed rationale for the supremacists to unleash a new wave of Islamophobic violence. Muslims were blamed for every problem in the country, from pandemic to pollution and poverty and to public insecurity. Shamelessly, the governments in power during those trouble times, with an eye on the Sinhala vote bank turned a blind eye to the prevailing mayhem.
The essays in Saroor’s publication go into sufficient detail to discuss the aftermath of the Easter infamy and raises a number of questions regarding not only the nature of investigations that were undertaken and actions pursued thereafter, but also how justice being continued to be denied to the Muslim community. The fact that the twenty-two volume Presidential Commission of Investigation (PCoI) report is still hidden away from the public smells a rat about President GR’s hidden intentions, and adds immense credibility to Archbishop Malcolm Ranjit’s allegation of an insider in the regime who masterminded the entire crime and remains protected by the highest office.
Yet, even before the PCoI report was completed and handed over to GR, security forces had started rounding up Muslim suspects, and currently an estimated three hundred Muslim men and women are reported to be languishing in jails, suffering torture and deprivation without being brought to trial. Justice delayed is justice denied. Apparently, quite a number of them have been detained under spurious charges and on doctored evidence, as in the cases of the poet Ahnaf Jazeem and former provincial governor Azath Saly respectively. To avoid possible embarrassment in the court of law the regime has hurriedly devised a plan to send these detainees to so called rehabilitation centres, like what China has done to Uighur Muslims. The supremacists would have preferred rather a Myanmar solution to Rohingyas if not a Hitlerite solution to the Jews. Wasn’t one of their monks who wanted Muslims to be stoned and GR to become a Hitler if needed to lead the country? There is an environment of fear and helplessness governing the Muslim community at present. An incompetent and selfish Muslim leadership has politically orphaned the community.
Be that as it may, as the country’s difficulties multiply, public anger and frustration against the regime is mounting. Corruption, nepotism, injustice, Covid, militarization and above all a punishing cost of living have combined to make life unbearable to millions of households. As if to add fuel to their fire, Pandora Papers have added a couple of Rajapaksa family members to the list of international tax dodgers and money launderers. President GR says that the regime would learn from the past and start governing the next three years with a clean slate. Has the leopard ever dropped its spots?
Given this environment the country is witnessing once again a scare mongering campaign against Muslims. Even though the BBS secretary is leading this campaign he has found a valuable support inside the parliament from the Minister of Public Security, Sarath Weerasekera. What is the end game of this campaign? The answer should be found in the context of recent twist in foreign policy. There seems to be a tilt towards India at the expense of China. The contract awarded to Adani Group to build and operate the Western Container Terminal, redirecting fertilizer import from China to India and the controversial leasing of World War II oil storage tankers in Trincomalee to India are developments that demonstrate this tilt. There is also news that around 125 VIPs, including the President and some Buddhist prelates would be the guests at the opening of the Kushinagar Airport in Uttar Pradesh. Yet, there is a snag. India still insists on the implementation of the 13th Amendment and holding Provincial Council elections. As far as the Rajapaksa regime is concerned any election at the current environment would be suicidal. One way of avoiding elections is to create an environment of domestic unrest and instability. The anti-Muslim campaign by provoking a communal clash would serve that purpose. Muslims are under siege.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia