By Aboobacker Rameez –
Much has been written about what had happened in Aluthgama a few days ago. In short, a personal altercation involving a driver of monk and two Muslim youth did not cause for the Aluthgama riot. However, such a personal altercation politically and racially exploited by BBS and its thugs metamorphosed into a communal riot between Sinhalese and Muslims, following a rally and protest march going through the Muslim majority area. Much of the discourses on Aluthgama riot pinpoint the fact that irreparable damage caused not only to the innocent lives of Muslims, but to their properties worth millions and billions, places of worship-mosques, and houses could have been thwarted had law enforcement authorities acted swiftly or stymied the protest march held by the BBS marching through the Muslim majority area, chanting slogans against Muslims and inviting troubles. In fact, the speech made by Ven Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thero at the rally was full of venom arousing the sentiments of Sinhala Buddhists against the Muslims. It is also reported that the curfew that was enforced to contain the violence had only confined the Muslims indoors while BBS thugs were seen looting and torching the houses and business establishments of Muslims in Aluthgama and Beruwala area. This suggests that the government and law enforcement authorities are complicit in what turned out to be a crisply outrageous pogrom against Muslims in Aluthgama. This point was further proven yesterday as even the most powerful in the country, His Excellency The President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa was not able to utter a word against or for that matter even condemn the actions of the ‘Bodu Bala Sena’ or the vitriolic speech made by its General Secretary Ven Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thero at the meeting organised at the Beruwela Divisional Secretary office with the participation of both Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders.
It is also pertinent to note that the President and the Defence Secretary were both outside the country when these incidents took place including Ministers who had previously been outspoken against BBS especially Rajitha Senaratne, elected from Kalutara District who had been reported to have accompanied the President on his Bolivian tour. The Defence Secretary was a notable absentee at yesterday’s event where the President assured an impartial inquiry while pledging to “rebuild homes and businesses destroyed in Aluthgama, Beruwela and Dharga Town”. President has also said that compensation for the victims will be by way of security forces rebuilding damaged property. Given that the President has given several false promises to both minority communities in the past, it will be interesting to see whether he would keep up to his word in ensuring justice.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of all this, the Bodu Bala Sena, in its usual form is now making serious efforts to wash its hands in the whole episode with their main man Gnanasara Thero declining to speak to the media putting up an excuse that he is undergoing treatment for vocal difficulty! Its spokesperson Dilanthe Withanage has also told Al Jazeera Television that the BBS did not organise the particular rally in Aluthgama but it was their leaders who were invited to speak on the forum. As such, this seems to be a clearly orchestrated pogrom against Muslims waiting to unfold in the aftermath of the war.
Muslim politicians and their dilemma
It is pathetic that the so-called Muslim politicians, mainly in the ruling party, are politically fragmented even at a time where the security and existence of the Muslim society in Sri Lanka is seriously questioned and challenged, given the vitriolic anti-Muslim campaign undertaken by BBS and Sihala Ravaya with a tacit approval of the government. SLMC leader, the Minister of Justice, Rauf Hakeem expressed serious concern over the incident in Aluthgama and told Al-Jazeera that he was ashamed to be a Minister of Justice in a government that was impotent in ensuring the law and order in the country as well as safety and security of an ethnic group-Muslims. He is reported to have met some of the Ambassadors of Muslim countries in Colombo recently to brief them on the Alutgama riot. Minister Rishad Bathiudeen has also registered his serious concern over the incident, despite being away on a foreign trip. It is also intriguing that requests have been made from various sections of the people, mainly the Muslims, upon the Muslims politicians in the ruling party, to leave the government forthwith that is instrumental in aiding and abetting a pogrom in Aluthgama and Beruwela. Particularly, a pressure is being mounted upon SLMC leader, the Minister of Justice, Rauff Hakeem as he holds much clout in the Muslim electorates. It is reasonable that the Muslims with utter frustration asking Minister Hakeem to resign his ministerial portfolio from the government, which is deemed by many, is complicit in the pogrom against Muslims. Even certain politicians in the present government including Sinhalese and Muslims are not comfortable with Rauff Hakeem occupying the ministerial portfolio and embarrassing the government in the cabinet and other forums. The government also found it, at times, odds with Minister Hakeem as he acted in the interests of his community. For instance, the government became incensed when Hakeem and his party submitted a document to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanetham Pillay detailing the attacks on mosques and business establishments of Muslims by the Sinhala Buddhist hardliners. Thus, certain politicians in the government would be at ease if Hakeem whose support was crucial to the passage of the 18th amendment to the constitution were to leave the government, given the status quo on Muslims.
Let us analyse what would happen if he were to leave the government at this crucial juncture.
1) Unlike the TNA that enjoys the support of India and powerful Tamil diaspora around the world, it is a fact that Muslims in Sri Lanka do not have too much of authority outside Sri Lanka
2) Despite the SLMC Leader explaining the situation to Ambassadors of few Muslim countries in Sri Lanka, it is still too early to project whether they would make sufficient calls to pressurise the government given the dent it might cause in terms of maintaining foreign relations
3) Again, despite The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation representing 57 Muslim countries issuing a statement condemning the attacks in Aluthgama, it is doubtful that the matter will even be raised at the on-going Foreign Ministers conference
4) Thus, leaving the government and sitting with the opposition will not necessarily mean that Hakeem and his team of members may be able to influence either the government or the international community on the plight of the Muslims
5) Hakeem is also not sure if all members of SLMC would leave the government if he were to decide to do so, because of some their members are still day dreaming for deputy ministerial portfolios
6) Hakeem is also in fear that if he decides to leave the government and support the TNA at the Eastern Provincial Council, the Muslims of Sri Lanka will be projected as traitors similar to what TNA is now being portrayed
7) This projection could further increase the division between the Buddhists and the Muslims and strengthen the hands of the forces that are against Muslims such as the BBS at a time where it is more important to promote coexistence
8) Meanwhile, Muslims in Aluthgama and Beruwela suffered physically, mentally and financially in an unprecedented way due to the riot. Thus, they need to be compensated, let alone the precious lives lost there that can not be compensated what so ever, by the government and it is the responsibility of the SLMC as a partner of coalition of the government to ensure that the victims are compensated fairly.
9) Who would guarantee that the present dilemma that Muslims are subjected to and the pogrom that has begun against Muslims in Alutgama would cease if Hakeem were to leave the government?
What can Muslim politicians do?
Although Muslim politicians are part of the coalition government, they have unanimously articulated that BBS are the cause of Alutgama riots against Muslims. Ministers Hakeem, Rishard and even Athaullah have plainly subscribed to the view that BBS are cause of the Aluthgama riot. However, they are not prepared to be united in confronting and countering the BBS and its patrons. It is indeed significant to note that their petty political ideologies, regardless of their religious affiliation, that drive them apart from being united even at a time of difficulty that the Muslim society is subject to at the hands of Sinhala Buddhist hardliners. However, the TNA constituted with many different political parties with various political ideologies come together under a common platform during elections and other occasions to raise the legitimate concerns of the Tamil community in various political spaces, in and out of the country. This phenomenon is conspicuously missing on the part of Muslim politicians in the country. It should be noted that the unity among Muslim politicians, regardless of whether they are in the ruling, opposition or any other smaller parties, will definitely make the difference in countering the BBS and its ideology tacitly backed by the rulers in the country.
In my view, the wise decision that Ministers Hakeem and Rishard who are vehemently opposed to the BBS can do, as of now, is that they should stay with the government and at the same time create a new unity front (coalition) among Muslim MPs representing the ruling and opposition political parties who are against BBS and counter them with a full force. In this way, those politicians from the Muslim community who do not cooperate with this new unity front will be exposed among the masses.
Moreover, there are politicians from the majority and minority communities opposing the ideology of BBS and its patrons. These are the politicians who are at the receiving end of virulent rhetoric of BBS in its rallies. This unity front may be able to garner the support of those majority and minority politicians from the ruling, opposition and other political parties who are against the ideology of BBS and thereby counter the ideology of BBS and its patrons in and outside of the country.
Despite the fact that the rhetoric of BBS against Muslims targeting their dietary practices, attire, population, economy, cattle slaughter, and so on has not grabbed the attention of mainstream Sinhala Buddhist community as yet, however, their sustained propaganda campaign against Muslims, if not checked, has all the potential of reaching to the vast majority of Sinhalese Buddhist community in times to come and turning Sri Lanka into another killing field. Thus, it is also imperative on the part of Muslim civil society organizations, intellectuals, religious leaders and others to engage with the mainstream Sinhala Buddhist community and its civil society organizations to dispel fears, apprehensions and misconceptions of Muslims in Sri Lanka that the BBS and their ilk are beginning to cultivate in the minds of mainstream Sinhala Buddhist community.
Finally I would like to add a message sent by a Muslim to the President yesterday on Twitter.
“You can rebuild HOUSES, not HOMES. You can rebuild SHOPS, not BUSINESSES. You can rebuild LAW & ORDER, not TRUST!”
*The author is a PhD scholar at the National University of Singapore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org