By Jehan Perera –
The threat of further attacks by extremist Muslim groups linked to the Islamic State has receded. Due to the breakdown of trust in the political leaders it needed the reassurance of the army commander to make people believe that they could send their children to school. The confidence of the security forces in the improvement of the ground situation is evident in the more relaxed way they are getting about checking vehicular traffic. This is true even in the North, which was under strict surveillance in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. As recent as last week travelers to the North, and in people living in the North, complained about the hardships they were experiencing at the many checkpoints which are not present in the same way in the rest of the country.
But by this weekend the checkpoints have been reduced. Unlike three weeks ago, this time when I traveled to the North, there was no need to get down and walk to the checkpoint with one’s baggage while the vehicle was searched. This indicates that there is a reasonable assurance that the extremist network that took the lives of over 250 persons in suicide bombings six weeks ago has been disabled. The extremist Muslim network has been easier to apprehend than expected. The cooperation of the larger Muslim community would have played a big role. This needs to be appreciated by the general population who are falling prey to the campaign by anti-Muslim groups to boycott their shops and even doctors.
There have been strenuous efforts by many sections of the Muslim community to demonstrate their rejection of the suicide bombings and their disavowal of the violent extremists. In an extreme example some Muslim villagers had physically destroyed a mosque they claimed belonged to the extremist sect. Muslim opinion leaders have issued statements, participated in media conferences, joined inter-religious groups for peace and hosted Ifthar (breaking fast) events to express their remorse for what happened to their fellow citizens and also to demonstrate their goodwill. The mainstream Muslim community is also showing a positive reciprocity to proposals emanating from the government for reform of the legal system as it impacts specifically on Muslims.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has said that the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act would be amended to increase the age of marriage to 18 for Muslim women in a move aimed at unifying the personal laws as far as possible. As an initial step for implementing a common law cutting across different ethnic groups, he said the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act would be amended to declare 18 as the marriageable age for Muslim women in line with other the laws applicable for other communities. The prime minister said steps would be taken to reform the education sector and the legal system of the country. He said Madrasas or the Muslim religious schools would be brought under the purview of the Education Ministry.
In the past the mainstream Muslim religious leaders represented by the All Ceylon Jamayaat Ulema had balked at such reforms. However, the present crisis has impelled them to reconsider their positions on these and other issues. The ACJU has accepted the need for Muslim women to stop wearing the burqa which fully covers the face as a concession to the need to identify people in a time of national emergency. Sections of the Muslim community have also been willing to turn the searchlight inwards in trying to understand the violent extremism that new besets their community. They have accepted the need for self-criticism and for more engagement with the members of other communities. This again needs to be appreciated instead of seeking to punish the entire community for the actions of the extremists.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s proposal to have a uniform legal framework for all Sri Lankans corresponds to his desire to promote a Sri Lankan identity as means to unify the country. The need to press for reform of personal laws is due to the increase in insularity of each of the communities as a result of protracted conflict that has pitted one against the other. Although we live side by side, our actual engagement is limited and we tend to see the members of the other community as being the other, and not part of a common citizenry as envisaged by the prime minister.
Instead of unifying the people, the ten year post-war period has seen communal polarization grow. The town of Kattankudy from which most of the Easter Sunday suicide bombers originated is an example of separation with a corresponding enclave mentality setting in. The police have complained that they find it difficult to get the people there to follow the usual traffic laws, such as getting motorcyclists to use protective helmets. One way in which to counter this enclave mentality is to have uniform laws that apply to every citizen. But it is important that the law reform should be across the board, and apply to every community, and not be targeted on just one.
The minimum standard that would be applicable to all communities would the international human rights standard. Muslim marriage laws, especially that which permits under 12 girls to be married with permission from the religious clergy is clearly in violation of international standards. It is also likely that the Tamil personal laws of the Thesawalamai in relation to women’s inheritance rights would be similarly in violation of international human rights. It is important that when these personal laws are revised and reformed, that international standards should be maintained. All personal laws, including the Muslim, Thesavalamai and Kandyan laws could be upgraded to meet this standard.
In the course of my visit to Jaffna I met with three groups that have public influence. One comprised religious clergy, the other human rights activists and youth, and the third was a group of trauma counsellors. The common feature of all these groups was the interest they showed to engage with the larger society rather than to remain insular and live in enclaves. After the war’s end and with the onset of violent extremism they did not wish to be isolated or singled out. They could see that the problems facing the country were inter-related. There is a strong desire for interaction with opinion leaders and activists from other parts of the country.
Unfortunately this desire on the part of people in the North and elsewhere is being purposely subverted by the national level politicians who engage in divisive politics. There is a deliberate and unconscionable campaign at this time to target and isolate the Muslim community and make them out to be a security threat within the country. There is the ongoing saga in which a Muslim doctor is being accused of having engaged in the covert sterilization of Sinhala women. Women who have undergone Caesarean surgery in which this doctor has been involved have been encouraged to complain to the authorities and get monetary compensation. Doctors who do not believe these allegations are afraid to speak up for fear of being lynched themselves.
The several crises besetting the country at this time, and the apparent paralysis of the govenrment is an indication of the need for leadership within the government. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe demonstrated leadership in visiting the North and reassuring the people that the government cares for them. Unfortunately, the prime minister’s ability to do more, and in particular to deal with the crises that are unfolding, is undermined by his lack of control over the police and security forces. The punitive and executive power of the state in relation to preservation of law and order is in the hands of the president. Unfortunately, he has not been cooperating with the prime minister for several months, during which time the country has plunged into crisis.
The divided powers of government are a recipe for disaster as indicated by the evidence given by police IGP Pujith Jayasundara in his evidence before the court with regard to the total unpreparedness of the government to act on intelligence reports of the Easter Sunday bombing that led to the slaughter of innocents. Unless President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe find a way to work together the unraveling of Sri Lanka’s prospects for development and peace will continue until the next elections scheduled for the end of the year. The country cannot afford to wait for so long. A failure to put things right now will also mean that the stage is being set for worse to come during the run-up to the elections and thereafter.