By Laksiri Fernando –
Compared to anti-Muslim violence at Aluthgama in June 2014, both the government action against the racist mobs in Kandy and the condemnation by almost all important political leaders against the incidents give some hope that there are possibilities of curtailing communal violence in Sri Lanka in the future, if the determination and political resolve are not diminished, and necessary actions are taken impartially and consistently. This is not the time for me to criticise the government.
The prevention of communal violence and violence in general are national as well as humanitarian tasks beyond politics, religion or ethnicity.
This is not at all to defend the delays, perhaps hesitations, inefficiency of the police, or political point scoring which might even exacerbate as the time passes, detrimental to our hope for curtailing communal violence in the future. What might be most important are (1) not to lose attention after the mobs are controlled, and (2) seek both short term and long term ‘scientific’ or evidence based solutions.
Those solutions have to be sustainable and acceptable to all communities and political parties as much as possible. Here we are talking about true ‘national reconciliation’ which we have been talking about now for some time.
Sri Lanka is not the only country with recurrent ethnic, religious or communal violence. But it has been one of the worst countries in the world in this respect, without finding durable solutions whether between the Sinhalese and the Tamils or the Buddhists and the Muslims or other religious communities. The country and the people have suffered immensely as a result of these conflicts whether in terms of life or limb, property, civic relations, international image or economic development.
The psychological and moral damage that these conflicts have incurred among the young generations, one after the other, have been persistent and the accumulated results might be some of the reasons why these conflicts and violence are recurring.
It has been unfortunate that when the country appears to overcome some of these challenges, it soon falls back to the perennial problems of antagonism and conflict. This has even given room for some to advocate ‘foreign conspiracy theories,’ but even such interferences are not possible if the people in the country are united and live in harmony. The blame should go mainly to the ‘insiders’ and not ‘outsiders.’ Outsiders on and off may be fishing in troubled waters.
The recent events of anti-Muslim violence are not without precedents. Therefore, the claim that the leniency or impunity for the past perpetrators or advocates has a great validity. It is possible that the Kandy attackers are not the same as Aluthgama attackers. However, if the Aluthgama attackers were properly punished for their crimes, then it could have been a strong deterrent.
In most of these type of events, the advocates and the perpetrators are not necessarily the same. Both at Aluthgama and in Kandy however, the advocates behind seem to be the same. They are the primary culprits. The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and the Mahason Balakaya stand prominent among others. The people who actually indulge in violence are their cannon fodder. Both type of perpetrators should be punished without leniency. It is praiseworthy that the police this time has arrested by now 115 people who were involved in attacks. However, when the police say that they have arrested the ‘master minds,’ it is quite doubtful or suspicious. Even this time, there can be some efforts to save or spare the real culprits behind.
Whoever are the real culprits of communal violence, ethnic or religious, they should be brought before the law, whatever their supposed standing in society or religion. Otherwise, our society would be constantly condemned for violence, backwardness and even barbarism.
The question of impunity goes much deeper. It is possible that there is a connection between the crimes or violations during the war and the anti-Muslim violence in recent times. Some of those who were involved in crime, robbery and general violence in the recent past have proved to be former soldiers or deserters. Even otherwise, the resistance to punish the past perpetrators has given credence to indulge in violence against ‘the other,’ this time against the Muslims.
The war against terrorism was justified. However, the excesses or crimes were not. The best policy is to deal with them internally. The failure is the reason for international pressure or interference. The caseload undoubtedly is complex. If the government/s take stern action against the present violators and violations, the complicated past might be mollified for the sake of the country’s progress. In this sense, the way the government deals with the Kandy events would be an acid test.
Chain of Events
Just because of the government change in 2015, promising reconciliation, the racist forces did not disappear. They simply started lying low. This is something that apparently had escaped the attention of the reconciliation secretariat, other authorities and even the progovernment civil society. There were no clear efforts to address the underlying forces perhaps overwhelmed by or priority given to the implementation of the Geneva resolutions. Tensions persisted underneath, like fire under ashes (alu yata gini).
Gintota last November was an early warning of the impending troubles. Over there, both groups were initially involved; however the Sinhala mobs coming from outside soon took over the attacks on innocent Muslims, their shops, houses and mosques. At Aluthgama (June 2014), Gintota (November 2017 and Digana Kandy (February 2018), all triggered through motor accidents or road rage. All the initial incidents were symptoms of violence in society in general, among individuals or groups and soon became exploited by the racist organizations.
A major exception however was Ampara which reveals well organized attempts from the beginning to create religious/ethnic disharmony wherever possible and whatever the pretext. This is what the government and the police failed to grasp and take preventive action before things flared up in Kandy. The Prime Minister admitted in Parliament on 6 March that in the case of Ampara incidents that there had been some weaknesses in the law enforcement. But it was more obvious in the case of Kandy.
Ampara attacks took place on 26 February. By the time it was well known that there had been organized campaigns in the social media, provoking Sinhalese against the Muslims on various pretexts. One such pretext was the use of ‘wanda pethi’ (sterilization pills) in food for Sinhalese in Muslim eateries and this was exactly the pretext of Ampara attacks. These provocative campaigns were heightened after the LG election results on 10 February.
The Digana incident in fact took place four days before on 22 February. It is not yet known whether it was purely a traffic dispute or whether it had some ethnic overtones/intolerance. However, the police should have been on alert even before the death of the victim on 3 March and particularly after the Ampara incidents. Even after the death of the (Sinhala) victim, there was a full one day for the police to prepare and take preventive measures. This was not done.
The initial police inaction and reported connivance of some sections of them with the mobs have undoubtedly tarnished the country’s international image. The primary damage however is internal and not external. The Muslim community, their leaders, intellectuals and journalists, otherwise moderate and reasonable, have become disillusioned about the failures of law enforcement.
The government may give compensation to the victims. But most important is to compensate for the credibility damage. It should be appreciated that the government without hesitation, this time, denounced the racist violence in that name without much delay unlike in the past.
The President made his statement to the nation immediately and declared the state of emergency to counter the situation. The Prime Minister submitted his report to Parliament on 6 March. Under normal circumstances, the emergency or curfews are not something that people could appreciate. However given the circumstances, the limited and necessary application of emergency laws have become necessary.
The events have highlighted the permanent need to have a Special Anti-Racist Intelligence Unit in the police which should report to the Law and Order Minister and through him to the President. It is not clear how far the recent confusions within that ministry has led to the delays and inaction. The third minister within three years has now been appointed for law and order during the commotions.
The government has imposed a ban on some social media including the FB. This is an unnecessary drastic measure without much justification. Islamophobic and anti-Muslim campaigns were going on in the country for the last nine months as reported by the PM. Without nabbing the culprits, the curtailing of the freedom for everyone is not acceptable. What is most necessary is comprehensive anti-hate or hate speech laws, yet within the premises of freedom of expression.
As anti-Muslim violence took place a few weeks after the local government elections (on 10 February) where the government encountered some setbacks, there were expressed suspicions that it was a further attempt to put the government into embarrassment or trouble. The main Muslim parties are within the government.
The counter argument was to say that it was a machination of the government itself, to divert people’s attention from the government’s failures and internal conflicts. It was a well known fact that the President and the Prime Minister were at loggerheads in recent times over many issues and there were attempts to remove the PM.
However, the rising Islamophobia, racism in general and anti-Muslim or anti-Tamil forces currently are beyond the main political parties in the country, the UNP, the SLFP, or even the SLPP. The JVP and such left political parties have taken more admirable positions. It is also a fact that within both the government and within the Joint Opposition (or SLPP), that there are strong chauvinist elements, but the positions of the JO or the SLPP are more towards Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism than the main governing parties, the UNP or the official SLFP.
In this context, the statement issued by Mahinda Rajapaksa as the leader of the Joint Opposition denouncing violence should be appreciated whatever its weaknesses or intentions. He has also expressed support to the government in controlling communal violence however conditional or dubious.
It has to be understood that the racist forces are a third force in politics like in many other countries whatever the connections that they have with major political parties in Sri Lanka. Also in building national reconciliation among all ethnic and religious communities in a durable manner the support and involvement of all major political parties have to be obtained as much as possible whoever the government in power.
The need for a broad national approach going beyond partisan considerations is necessary for national reconciliation. The equal need is for all political parties to stop unfounded accusations and political bickering in such a crisis situation.
Although we say it is only a minority that indulge in communal violence, which is true, without the backing or silence of broad sections of society that violence or racist third forces cannot survive. There are widespread prejudices, misunderstandings, intolerance and distances between and among communities apart from general and specific grievances. Islamophobia is one such fear or prejudice.
There is a need to address the issues at several levels.
First, not only the people who perpetrated violence in Kandy and Ampara who should be severely punished, but also the instigators and propagators behind, without fear or favour whoever they are. There are several videos and statements available to that effect. Those police and STF officers who allegedly colluded with the mobs also should be investigated and punished.
Second, there should be all leader summit of all registered political parties and the initiative should come from the key leaders like Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Mahinda Rajapaksa, R. Smapanthan, Rauf Hakim, Arumugam Thondaman and Anura Kumara Dissanayake.
Third, there should be a religious leader summit and an interreligious dialogue to iron out and dispel misconceptions and build unity and solidarity among religions.
Fourth, there should be a summit or a series of consultations among civil society, media and academic organizations and individuals to work out what measures should be taken to prevent communal violence once and for all.
Fifth, and more importantly, there should be a concerted awareness, educational and warning campaigns throughout the country for initially one year approved by the above political and religious summits or even otherwise. This can be a task for the Reconciliation Secretariat. This campaign should penetrate the temples, mosques, churches and all religious institutions. There is much talk against the American Peace Corps coming again to Sri Lanka. Instead, Sri Lanka could have its own Peace Corps, recruiting and training university undergraduates as volunteers while covering their expenses and living during university vacations.