By Mohamed Harees –
The terrible Titanic disaster over a century ago, today stands as a memorial to mankind’s over-confidence in technology and a reminder of how weak we are compared with the forces of nature. Captain Smith, the man directly responsible for the loss of Titanic, failed to heed timely warnings. Metaphorically, after the end of the war in May 2009, euphoric Sri Lankans built a Titanic filled and decked with immense hope and aspirations for a united, peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka, to take them to their dream destination. Not even two years in voyage, Rajapaksa too, like Captain Smith, made many serious mistakes, ignoring distress signals. Throwing all caution to the winds, he allowed many corrupt and the racist elements to virtually hijack his engine control room and have their hands on his steering wheel. Titanic thus gradually began to sink, leaving the people of Sri Lanka in dire straits in mid sea ,isolating their country in the international arena. Then in 2015, the passengers commenced another Titanic voyage under new Captains, to travel to their dream destination. Four years in voyage, Titanic once again is rocking, sending distress signals and Maithri/RW are proving themselves to be another set of Captain Smiths, if not worse. Will we take heed?
The measure of a country’s stature and quality is gauged by the quality of its’ leaders. Our present narcissist Head of State and the bunch of clueless and pointless public representatives from the PM downwards, representing the people of this so- called Dharma Dweepa in the House by the Lake, however provides no positive credence that Sri Lanka presently enjoys a credible image among the community of nations. Fish rots from the top, and unruly and undemocratic events which followed after the constitutional coup in October 2018, engineered by Maithri was just a prime example of the decaying political culture. The country rightly recoiled in shame when this head crackpot, in the aftermath of that political coup,divulged with admirable candour what had gone awry with his Plan A with Rajapaksa: how offers of millions and ministerial posts did not appear to engineer prospective “crossovers”. Sri Lanka has thus become a diseased nation with its’ moral fibre being corrupted to the core, ably facilitated by a losing credibility of a political and also a religious leadership. In this grim scenario, it is thus an open secret that mass dissatisfaction and frustration about the way the country being ruled and governed, has been growing at an alarming rate. However, sadly this mass dissatisfaction has not given rise to more articulate expression within the country and public activism to hold their rulers to account has also not been to the expected levels. The people are still seeking alternatives along the widely despised two party continuum, despite bitter lessons learnt. How ironic!
There seem to be no shortage of political drama and spectacles in the corridors of power. Even parents cover their children’s eyes when footage from the Parliament, appear on TV or teachers do so when kids unwittingly watch the proceedings of this ‘House of Hell by the Lake’, from the public gallery. Proceedings are regularly disrupted by MPs’ disgusting unruly behaviour and MP’s free flowing filthy verbosity compels the Speaker to regularly expunge them from the Hansard. Their contributions during debates are mostly ‘out of point’ and not relevant to the subject under discussion, when compared to the quality of debating during NM Perera/Felix DB/Colvin days (which we followed with much enthusiasm). The worse possible scenes were witnessed by the nation during the constitutional crisis in October 2018 when the ‘law makers’ ( law breakers) were engaged in fistfights, flinging furniture, drawing knives, and throwing chili pepper at ostensible opponents in the chamber.
Ironically, Maithri preached about moral values to the world, when he made a candid statement at the UNGA in New York in 2016. He then pointed out that ‘in many parts of the world we see the unfortunate proliferation of anger, hatred, and brutality. The contemporary society is experiencing a crisis of morality. I believe that all States should pay heed to the cry for moral values. I believe that every society must dedicate itself to raise its share of positive moral values”. Perhaps, those words were not meant to be translated into action domestically! Moral compass has been declining since Independence, with this country being driven along a divisive path, with Tamils and Muslims made to feel like second class citizens while the grievances of the Sinhala people also on the increase. Thus, the entire feels cheated by this corrupt political class.
One of the most unfortunate crises of our time is how hate and bigotry, consciously used as a political tool have divided communities which have lived in amity for centuries. Hate is not inherited; but learnt as the world digested this reality since WWII. Whether it was Hitler’s holocaust, Ruwandan genocide, the massacre in Norway in 2011 or this year in Christchurch, New Zealand, or in Sri Lanka, the 1983 anti-Tamil program, Aluthgama/Digana anti Muslim communal violence in 2014/2018, the hate mayhem and killings did not just happen. It arose from the feeding of hate, irresponsible language and the demonising of people based on differences – colour, race and religious. The real cause was the build-up of prejudice, hate, and a passion for violent action, aided and abetted by self-centered political and religious leaders as well as some sections of the Media, who exploit fear and ignorance for their narrow gains.
Today, sadly, in Sri Lanka, the bitter lessons of 1983, Aluthgama and Digana communal violence have not been learnt and therefore once again the nation can see racist sparks emerging out of the mouths of politicians in and out of Parliament and some sections of the Media as well as hate peddlers in the social media, as in the case of Wilpattu deforestation issue. This Wilpattu issue crops from time to time in public discourses when there are narrow political objectives to be achieved. No one in the right senses will object to any individual belonging to any community being punished for destruction of valuable forest resources. However, it is shameful that these public discourses seem to be having racist undertones and harp on the nationality of the Minister and the community he hails from, more than debating on the real issue of deforestation. Then again, problem of deforestation is not confined to Wilpattu, but even in Sinharaja, and in other forest reserves too. Many other forest lands have also been reclaimed for several development projects as well (Moragahakanda, Kalu Ganga, Uma Oya, Maduru Oya for example) which are conveniently ignored. This deforestation issue hence, is a very critical issue which should be taken as a holistic issue rather than a selective one. Thus, there are ulterior motives in bringing only this Wilpattu issue with racist undertones at this time. Besides, when the Sinhala and Tamil New Year draws closer, many hate posters have begun to appear on city walls in many areas asking the people to buy only from Sinhala shops, indirectly launching a boycott on Muslim shops. The culprits can be easily identified and punished; but this does not happen due to lack of political will and indifference of the law enforcement authorities.
The maturity of a country is reflected in the way the rule of law and the administration of justice operates therein, without any discrimination or favourable treatment based on the offenders’ race or religion. For that matter, it is imperative that any offender or miscreant charged for any crime be brought to Justice. In fact, impunity for crimes committed is a general problem and Sri Lanka has a dubious record of allowing impunity to go unpunished, as in the case of racist and communal violence from 1983 to Digana. Whether drug or alcohol, those involved whether mafias or individual dealers should be punished with the full force of the law, irrespective of his/her race or religion and users should be rehabilitated. Further, Media should also act responsibly without demonising or branding entire communities and without naming and shaming members of communities on a selected basis. Both Madhushas or Noors should stand before the law on an equal footing and there is no need to involve their nationality. It should also be noted that there should be equal concern about alcohol addiction / smoking as well as ADIC figures are alarming too to say the least. (Rs 970 Mn daily being spent on them by Sri Lankans). It is a sad sight how people flock around wine stores daily around the country (there are many stores around the Dalada Maligawa too) and many politicians have lavishly helped themselves to liquor licences too including Maithri’s daughter.
There are double standard attitudes in approaching issues relating to religious extremism too. There is an unfavourable trend among the so-called ‘religious’ folks and men of religion of all faith groups to resort to extremism; not within just one community. Fortunately extremist groups are still in the fringes whereas the mainstream among the communities by and large has been acting responsibly. It is a scourge for all communities and therefore there should be a joint community based course of action to monitor and address this issue both at the Pirivena/Madrasa/ Sunday school levels as well as at the society levels and also promote inter faith ‘live and let live’ initiatives among the younger generation. Further, public activism should be focussed in pressurising the government to use the available legal avenues to punish those promoting hate speech (of course without impinging on the right of free expression) and violent action against the ‘other’ without allowing impunity to be routine, as it happened in the case of many instances of communal violence in the past. This is a top national priority.
In the post-war period under the last government, it was a well-known fact that there was State patronage for many hate groups branding Buddhist names to launch a well-orchestrated hate campaign against the Muslims , borrowing hate messages from the powerful global Islamopohbia industry. Many misconceptions and hate messages floated around in the Media- including social media, surrounding many misleading themes – Halal, Muslim women dress, Muslim expansionism, destruction of Buddhist heritage. The latest misconception happened in Ampara just before Digana communal violence when hate groups accused Muslims of introducing sterilization tablets to foods served to them(which subsequently was proved to be scientifically false). Then, as it was seen, both Aluthgama violence and Digana violence were instigated on false pretexts (the courts held that the initial assault charge which led to the Aluthgama mayhem could not be proved whereas in the case of Digana, it was only a normal road rage incident). The built up of hate against the Muslims led to irreversible repercussions as was seen in Aluthgama. However, this divisive hate campaign continued during this regime too, proving the fact that racism and majoritarianism have been political tools used by both Blues and Greens.
In this context, it was refreshing to note that popular Sinhala ‘Derana’ TV recently invited a Muslim scholar Moulavi Ashsheikh Amhar Hakamdeen, to its’ signature talk show – Chathura Talk, to engage in some hard talk regarding many popular misconceptions regarding the Muslims. He is an Imam and Director of Academic affairs of Zam Zam Academy (which has started training groups of Muslim scholars in the Sinhala language on multi-disciplinary fields with emphasis on local culture, beyond mere Islamic Jurisprudence), who in an inimitable tactful style, and with confidence set about, in clearing the many popular misconceptions prevailing among the majority community as echoed by Chathura. The program was overall well-received judging by the significant number of favourable comments made in the Social media about this program and the scholar’s performance. However, while this program also helped Muslims sensitize more to the perceptions about them among the majority community, it should also serve as an eye opener for the nation too, as many pointed out in the social media. They said that four fingers are pointed at the wider community, when an accusing finger was pointed out at the Muslims. It meant that the nation in general should take heed of the many social evils in their midst. Alcoholism, drug menace, extremism, breakdown of law and order, rule of law being observed in the breach, despicable political culture, corruption as well as hate and bigotry among many other areas are all social evils which have affected the wider community, and should raise alarm bells in the decision making rooms. Our country alas!is on the path towards a ‘pariah status’ and the train has already left the station, and will reach the destination soon, if timely action is not taken even now.
In this context, there is a growing realization that politics is a ‘too serious’ matter to be left in the hands of politicians alone. Time has come for the intellectuals of all hues to guide the political class to create a policy-based political system instead of the present person/party-based system which has led to corrupt and inefficient governance styles. Already initiatives have already begun with like-minded intellectuals and professionals of all hues and races, realizing the imperative need to take hold of the steering wheels of the Titanic on the verge of breakdown, which is a very positive development. As poet Alice Walker once said: “Activism is my rent for living on this planet”. Therefore, act now, we must! although belated, at least in the interest of our future progeny. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once warned: “A time comes when silence is betrayal … We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak…. There is no such a thing as being too late”.