By Jehan Perera –
The bombai-mutai seller said that sales were poor. People who once bought his sweets were today treating him differently because he was Muslim. He was a poor man trying to make his living while carrying candy floss on the streets of Colombo. My wife bought three packets, asked him to keep the change, and told our children that he too would have a family at home waiting for his return.
The panic of the first three weeks after the Easter Sunday bombings has reduced significantly. There is a visible restoration of normalcy. This is at it should be. I was happy to attend one of the reconciliation events organized last week. This was an Ifthar, or breaking fast event, organized by the Muslim Civil Society committee which took place at the grounds of the Colombo Municipal Council. There was large participation from the Muslim community. There were fewer from the other communities perhaps reflecting the polarization within society, each imbibing the fears, concerns and suspicions within their own communities. There was remembrance of the tragedy of Easter Sunday. Youth from all communities each gave their message of reconciliation drawn from their religions.
Coming a little late to the event, I had to locate myself near to the entrance to the Ifthar event. It was difficult for me to find a place to sit as I was in the most crowded place near the entrance. However, there were a few vacant spaces where members of the security forces were seated as participants at the Ifthar ceremony. I felt a bit out of place sitting with uniformed personnel. Fortunately, one of the officers had been with me in one of the university classes I had taken on peacebuilding. He introduced himself to me. He also reminded me of our last meeting where the security forces personnel present had cautioned that there was a problem of radicalization growing in the Muslim community of the east. The east is also the place from which the leader of the suicide bomb squad came from.
However, the point that this military officer made was that those who took to violence were not necessarily known to the larger Muslim community. At best they knew that these were radicals and behaved like thugs towards them. But they would not know that they planned to kill others outside of their own community. My mind went back to 1971 when violence on a much larger and more organized scale was launched against the government. The JVP insurrection of 1971 caught the government so much by surprise that in a matter of two weeks, over 90 police stations had fallen to the rebels. It is therefore, neither fair nor constructive to blame the larger Muslim community for keeping the secret to themselves and conniving with the suicide bombers. On the other hand, they did warn the government and civil society several times, from 2012 onwards, about the radicalization of sections of the community.
Despite the improvement on the ground, there is a lag effect with regard to the restoration of relations between the communities. There continues to be suspicion and prejudice towards the Muslim community. The propaganda barrage to make it seem that many if not most Muslims are acting in a way adverse to the other communities contributes to this phenomenon. Most recently there is the news story of a Muslim doctor who is reported to have sterilized over 4000 women with the figure now upped to 8000 while delivering babies. Those who work in the area say it is impossible that one man can do this unknown to the several-member teams who are present when such surgeries take place. Another example that did much damage was the issue of swords found in mosques which has had a tremendous negative impact on the psychology of members of the Sinhala community in particular.
During the first three weeks of panic, the media contributed substantially to the consternation of people by repeatedly showing pictures of piles of swords in mosques, which created an impression that swords were being found in a large number of mosques. This generated a fear in people of an assault on them by sword-wielding Muslims. One such news item stated, that “UPFA MP Mahinda Amaraweera questioned as to why a single Muslim MP has not come forward in voicing their objections against the many swords discovered from mosques and the reason behind keeping them. UPFA MP Thenuka Vidanagamage said that with around 5.2 million houses in the country that if a sword is found from each house that it will amount up to a total of 5.2 million swords.”
The same news item went on to say that “Meanwhile convening a media briefing Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha Thero said that it is normal for a nation who is afraid of the recent terror attacks to contemplate on the accuracy of the statements made by the Muslim leaders. He continued to say that the statements made on swords being kept at homes to protect women or to cut shrubs are complete lies because it is discovered in hundreds everywhere.” More sober reflection is that keeping swords in homes is not an uncommon practice in households of all communities. The impression was created that mosques had become the collecting point for swords for a likely Muslim attack on their fellow citizens. But the fact was that swords were only found in two out of over 2000 mosques in the country.
There has also been a deliberate fostering of fear amongst the people of further bomb attacks. The discovery last week of a parcel of bombs inside a school could have created another wave of panic, just as children are returning to their schools after staying away for fear of being subjected to violent attacks. In this case, it was fortunate that the school security guard had noticed a man running away in a suspicious manner who has subsequently been taken into police custody. He is reported to be a political activist belonging to the opposition. If this bomb had exploded by some chance and caused injury to the school children this would have set off another wave of panic and perhaps even have led to another round of organised rioting as occurred in the North West Province two weeks ago.
There is a campaign by opposition politicians to exploit the current fears in society to keep the uncertainty going. They may believe that this is advantageous to them as it will lead people to want to reject a government that cannot restore stability and law and order. The anti-Muslim riots that spread through the Northwest Province provide ample evidence to show that the riots were organized. Many of those arrested were affiliated to the opposition political parties. Opposition politicians were seen fearlessly mingling with the mobs even as they took the law into their own hand. It is common knowledge since the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983 that riots in Sri Lanka are organized. But the government leaders appear to be balking at pointing the finger up the chain of command.
The government’s commitment to giving free rein to the freedom of expression is commendable as one important aspect of democracy. However, the government’s failure to take action against those who are spreading rumours and misinformation, and deliberately doing things that foster fear amongst the people is a failure of leadership. As the present is a state of national emergency, the government needs to consider adopting a media and communication strategy in which a segment of news regularly counters the false propaganda and disinformation put out by politically motivated actors on the media. There is also a need for leadership that can transcend the barriers of mistrust, suspicion and prejudice while reassuring the people about their commitment to the national interest and to the wellbeing of all.