By Mass L. Usuf –
The cliché that the Sri Lankan government emerged victorious in the separatist Eelam war but failed to win the hearts and minds of the Tamil population is very true. Not long after the end of the war began the attack on the Muslims. Both the previous government, which is credited with the victory and, the present government have miserably failed in creating an environment facilitating co-existence for its minority citizens. This dereliction is an indictment on the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, sitting President Maithripala Sirisena and the Prime Minister. Each of them singularly and collectively lacked the political will to take affirmative action in the matter of race relations.
The Prime Minister’s frequent rhetoric on the drive towards development, luring foreign direct investors etc. is doomed without the foundational issue being adequately addressed. No foreign investor will be willing to park his funds in a market overshadowed by chronic ethno-racial tension. Insecurity is a major factor, among others, that would remain a threat to stability and growth prospects of any economy.
To pat oneself on the back for ensuring law and order by ordering the police and military to a trouble spot is simply treating the symptom. What the country needs is a scientific and qualitative approach to address the root cause and mitigate its effect.
Priority And Speed
The creation of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) and the establishment of a separate Ministry for National Integration and Reconciliation are steps in the right direction. The vision statement, “To build a strong integrated Sri Lankan Community whilst protecting socio-cultural value system ….” of the Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation is indeed encouraging. So are the thematic focus of ONUR, “Build an inclusive society by promoting social integration. Support the healing process within communities. Bring youth and children to the forefront in building national unity and reconciliation.”
Deliverables, however, are not robust and have not been felt on the ground. This does not mean that they do not do anything at all. On the contrary, whatever is being done is insufficient and has not reached the wider audience – the masses. Also, apparently, these institutions lack momentum. It is also imperative that they co-ordinate their activities to support the training of Police personnel on diversity (see below).
Forms of Racism
Racism in the Sri Lankan society is a reality. The subtle or covert form of it is experienced almost on a daily basis by those belonging to ethnic or religious minorities. Everyday racism like being ignored, ridiculed or treated differently in circumstances, do not make headline news. However, the covert nature of such microaggressions are symptomatic of the prevalence of this ‘disease’ in the people. The cumulative effect of such aggressions over a period of time impacts on the thinking of both the target, as victim of racial prejudice and, the racist, as the aggressor with a sense of superiority.
The unfettered and unchecked progress of this sense of racial superiority is dangerous to society. History teaches us the lesson of death and destruction which had its roots in racial superiority. Hitler’s fascist Nazi idealisation of the German ‘Blut und Boden’ (Blood and soil) is reflected in the Sinhala Buddhist ultra-nationalism and Sinha Le manifestations in Sri Lanka.
Agents Of Metastasis
Racism like cancer metastasises fast. The agents of metastasis are the social media and the monks. In their cultural tradition, the Buddhists pay obeisance to monks with great reverence. This reverential bonding psychologically places monks in a position of influence over the thinking and behaviour of the lay people, especially the youth. There is sufficient empirical evidence for this. Some of these monks, instead of inculcating samma ditti (right view) in the minds of the people, they are teaching hatred, intolerance and vengeance. Instead of weaning the lay Buddhist youth from violence, they lead them to thuggerism. The social media is an easy platform to spread evil and indoctrinate the rest of the gullible people.
Similarly, the novice monks too are under the sway of their seniors. This writer has explained in an article before about the detrimental effect of this dominant and peer influence. (See: Culturing Fear & Hatred In The Sinhalese Mind – 21 May 2017 – Colombo Telegraph).
An Accident Or Love Affair
The full-blown effect of covert racism can be seen manifesting itself in a totally unrelated incident finally, taking the form of racial conflict. Let it be a road accident, an argument with a bus driver or a love affair if the parties involved are Sinhalese and Muslims the outcome is different. In the distant past, such events were dealt with according to the nature of the problem. Not so, today.
Once two of my Sinhalese friends and I were on our way to a wedding function. While walking past a certain area, some guys rushed to assault one of my friends to settle an old score. I intervened to save my friend and they engaged me. The three guys who attacked my friend were all Sinhalese. My friend, too, a Sinhalese. Today, such an incident will be converted into a ‘thambiya gehuwa’ incitement (‘thambiya’ a supposedly derogatory word used against the Muslims by the Sinhalese, ‘gehuwa’ hit).
This stands as proof of the drastic social transformation that has evolved over the years towards ungodliness. The genesis of the racial violence in Gintota a few days ago was in fact, an accident which happened on 13.11.2017. If all were Sinhalese, the angry crowd may burn the vehicle or assault the driver and the matter ends there. Since the parties in the Gintota incident were the explosive combination – Sinhalese versus Muslims, it took the form of racial violence.
Arrest Institutional Racism
The advanced stage of covert racism is its graduation towards the much serious form of institutional racism. In Sri Lanka, this progression has now fruitioned considerably in the affairs of governmental institutions especially, the Police. The sight of policemen driving past, waving their hands at the looters, arsonists and killers in response to the latter shouting ‘jayawewa’, during the 1983 pogrom, is a spine chilling reminder of institutional racism. Even in Gintota, some allege that the Police were mere bystanders when some business premises were attacked. There are also allegations that some Policemen were themselves involved in damaging the properties of the Muslims. Many were the tales of such non-intervention or complicity by the Police during the June 2014 Aluthgama riots against the Muslims instigated by the infamous Gnanasara Thero.
The previous government never made an attempt to check such institutionalised racism. This lapse had contributed in normalising what would otherwise be named as racial discrimination. It must be stated unequivocally that there are Police Officers with the highest integrity. Unfortunately, the lower rung is populated with some unsocial elements stigmatising even the good apples amongst them.
If the government is thinking in terms of development and a prosperous Sri Lanka, it needs to seriously device mechanisms to arrest the metastasising of racial prejudice amongst the majority community.
Training On Diversity
The government must take on this task of reorienting the Police and the Special Task Force (STF) which are important state security apparatuses. The Police department must enlist the services of race relation experts, social scientists and social psychologists to develop a curriculum to train the Police personnel. There is a need to provide a new regime of Police training directed towards maintaining neutrality in matters relating to racial, ethnic and religious conflicts. Every policeman must be put through a mandatory reorientation programme in batches. They have to be prepared to handle such sensitive and potentially explosive matters with caution, empathy and justice. Educate and share with them the values of equality, diversity and human rights which are expected of them in honour of the uniform they are wearing.
The law enforcement authorities must bring to justice all miscreants of the Gintota incident irrespective of their ethnicity or religious stature including members of the Police. The Police Media Spokesperson Ruwan Gunasekara during a media briefing said, “The measures we are taking against these disruptive and extremist groups are in accordance to the provisions of Act No. 56 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” According to the Act’s provisions, the arrested can be given bail only through the High Court only upon presenting extraordinary reasons to court. Well done, Sir! Would you also seriously investigate the allegation of Police involvement?
A parting question to the Police: Why were not the so many suspects which also include monks, who had blatantly violated the provisions of the ICCPR in the recent past, not booked under this law? It is a fundamental principle of a progressive society to establish the rule of law. This has to be done without the influence of institutional racism, political opportunism and soft peddling on monks who breach the law.