By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“…full of a fanatical tension that knows no respite or peace.” – Italo Calvino (Collection of Sand)
Minister Rauff Hakeem has warned of the existence of a ‘big project’ aimed at putting Lankan Muslims ‘in their place’ by crippling them economically[i].
The belief that minorities are eternal aliens who must be made to accept their unequal status is an article of faith with racial/religious supremacists. The desire to keep the religious/racial ‘Other’ down is common to all retrogressives, from White Supremacists and Hindu fanatics to Muslim fundamentalists, Zionists and Buddhist extremists.
Distorting history to justify contemporary persecution is a standard supremacist strategy. As Minister Champika Ranawaka stated, “The Sinhalese are the only organic race of Sri Lanka. Other communities are all visitors to the country, whose arrival was never challenged out of the compassion of Buddhists. But they must not take this compassion for granted. The Muslims are here because our kings let them trade here and the Tamils because they were allowed to take refuge when the Moguls were invading them in India. What is happening today is pure ingratitude on the part of these visitors”[ii]. According to this outlook, minorities are lesser citizens and their democratic demands for equality and justice are nothing but rank ingratitude. Implicit in this is the belief that the majority must teach the minorities their ‘rightful (read inferior) place’, peacefully or otherwise.
According to the 2012 census (the latest), Sinhalese constitute 74.88% of the Lankan population while Buddhists make up 70.19%. Sinhala and Buddhist components of the Lankan populace are thus at their peak today (since census-taking commenced in 1881[iii]). Consequently there is no factual reason to think that Sinhalese/Buddhists are in danger of becoming a minority in Sri Lanka. But extremists have no use for facts; lies serve their purpose much better.
Tamils have been ‘put in their place’, thanks also to the suicidal maximalism of the LTTE. The long war had a devastating effect on Sri Lanka and all Lankans but the community most affected by it was Lankan Tamils. Upcountry Tamils are too mired in poverty and Burghers are far too miniscule in numbers to amount to an effective ‘threat’. So the choice is really between Christians and Muslims.
Post-Aluthgama it looks as if the turn of the Muslims will come first.
Minister Hakeem has warned about the danger of pushing a community against the wall. The aim of Sinhala-Buddhists supremacists seems to be precisely that – to push Lankan Muslims into the same mire as Lankan Tamils: persecute them, inflict violence on them, weaken the peaceful-moderates and strengthen the violent-extremists among them and ignite another conflict. True it will have a devastating effect on Lanka and all Lankans. But extremists do not care about costs (which will be paid by others); all they care about is achieving their dystopias.
The Tamil struggle succumbed to extremism and paved the way to its own destruction. If Muslims can be pushed in the same extremist direction, it will enable Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists and their political puppet-masters to array themselves as warriors against ‘Islamic-Terrorism’. True a new religious conflict will inflict irreparable harm on Lanka and all Lankans, but the Rajapaksas and their extremist acolytes might consider that a risk worth taking since, ultimately, the Muslim community will suffer the most devastation. Given the possibility of a full scale Sunni-Shia war in the Middle East, the Rajapaksas and their ideologues might think that the Islamic world will be too divided and preoccupied to care about the fate of Lankan Muslims.
Conflicts and wars have other advantages. There are no better excuses for anti-democratic measures.
Anti-NGO-crackdown and Anti-minority Politics
This week, the Prime Minister informed the parliament that “several NGOs have exceeded their remits even to the extent of procuring weapons for terrorists”[iv].
According to an impending new law, ‘all not-for-profit or non-profit organisations’ will have to register with the Minister of Defence as NGOs. “Any organisation that does not register with the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development will have their bank accounts closed and obtaining foreign funds will also be expressly forbidden”[v].
The crackdown on the NGOs is a part of the generic Rajapaksa effort to destroy the remaining democratic spaces and totally silence alternate voices. In January 2014, a training workshop for Tamil journalists had to be abandoned, after a Buddhist monk-led mob invaded the venue[vi]. In May 2014, a workshop on corruption was cancelled due to pressure from the military[vii]. On June 7th, a three-day workshop on Investigative Journalism ended abruptly when the local police ordered its cancellation – after a ‘well-organised’ mob invaded the venue[viii]. The fact that some of the NGOs were quite vocal in condemning/exposing Aluthgama violence would have further motivated the current crackdown.
The Rajapaksas may have won over most of the minority parties via a carrot-stick combination; but a majority of the minorities do not support them politico-electorally. Winning over minorities would require measures which will deepen and broaden democracy and thus be inimical to the Rajapaksa project of concentrating all power in familial hands. From the point of view of the dynastic project, it makes more sense to frighten a majority of Sinhalese into supporting the Rajapaksas. And enough Sinhalese cannot be frightened into disregarding real-life concerns such as poverty, economic development, democratic rights or social progress without a sufficiently terrifying threat.
If the Rajapaksas have decided on using the Muslim bogey, Aluthgama violence can be the precursor to an anti-Muslim pogrom.
Extremists often aid each other to the common detriment of their own peoples. When some Palestinian extremists kidnapped (and murdered) three Jewish teenagers, Tel Aviv used it to unleash a new war and thus undermine the Palestinian Unity Government. “……Israel’s Shin Beth security service barred reporters from telling the public that gunshots were heard on the furtive emergency call made by one of the kidnapped teenagers. The Israeli journalist and commentator Noam Sheizaf argued that keeping salient facts of the investigation secret for weeks allowed a government-backed social media campaign to channel outrage over the abductions to grow….. Another Israeli journalist, Raviv Drucker, suggested that concealing facts from the public might have built up support for the military operations in the West Bank against Hamas operatives during the search for the teenagers, but also created an atmosphere of blood lust and open calls for violent revenge in the days before a Palestinian boy in East Jerusalem was abducted and burnt to death.”[ix]
The carnage in Gaza is an example of how societies can be hoodwinked and enraged into embracing violent solutions which are against their own interests. This was what happened in Aluthgama; an altercation between a Buddhist monk and three Muslims was distorted into a punishable Muslim-crime. According to some reports, the lie that a Buddhist monk was murdered inside a mosque was used to enrage the mob into greater violence.
Winning elections can be left to the Opposition. But preventing another bloodbath is the responsibility of every one of us. Individually and collectively, in private and public spaces, we must do our utmost (be it signing a petition or holding a candle) to prevent another pogrom and another war.
[ii] Daily Mirror – 16.10.2008
[vii] The Army denied pressurising the hotel management; “We only informed them that according to our intelligence sources a group of people are organising a protest rally against the workshop”, the military spokesman stated. Subsequently the owner of the hotel, Deputy Minister Siripala Gamlath, confirmed the allegations: “Our managers told me there is huge pressure from the army, so I asked the organisers to get permission from the military. They apparently tried until noon…..and failed” http://nidahasa.com/news/news.php?go=fullnews&newsid=1326