By Sumanasiri Liyanage –
The Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has realized some damage control operations are needed to repair its tarred image as a result of the recent anti-Muslim riots in the island. Minister Senarathna gave an open apology to Muslims in his electorate, Beruwala, where ugly riots took place. GoSL promised it would rebuild houses and properties destroyed by the mob. Rev Kirama Wimalajothi resigned from the leadership of the Bodu Bala Sena (Army of the Buddhist Power). President reiterated his banal statement that his government stands for every Sri Lankan irrespective of her/ his nationality or religion. Nonetheless, like in 1983, the blame was placed on the so-called extremism of minorities.
Responding to his mother’s more realistic observation –“I don’t expect I will see peace in my life time”- Shivan, the main character of Shyam Selvadurai’s recent novel –The Hungry Ghosts– anticipated “I hope one side wins and ends all this, for the sake of the poor people caught in between”. Shivan’s surrealistic image in fact materialized in the dawn of May 18, 2009 at a narrow sea belt in Mullivaikkal. It seems that both the mother and the son were partly correct since they appeared to have two different things in mind. For Shivan it was the end of armed conflict and for the mother it was peace writ large. The recent events unfolded in Aluthgama, Dharga Town and Beruwala have time and again showed that peace had not yet arrived in Sri Lanka, not definitely to poor and marginalized people. Muslims inhabited in those South Western towns were subjected to vicious and inhumane attacks by ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ mobs instigated by Bodu Bala Sena (army of Buddhist power) that receives both open and tacit blessings of Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. Can the events in these three south-western towns be explicated as isolated and exceptional incidents as the government had been trying to paint them? Are both parties (Sinhala Buddhists and Muslims) to be blamed equally as some government ministers had openly claimed and the country’s defense establishment had indicated?
Any careful observer would conclude that the events in Aluthgama, Dharga Town and Beruwala was just a single point on the upward curve delineating the process that had been unleashed since the end of the armed conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). I must confess. My simplified dialectics had led me wrong in developing possible of post-war scenario. I projected that the comprehensive defeat of the Tamil extremism in 2009 would lead to weaken its ‘other’, the Sinhala extreme nationalism. I thought President Mahinda Rajapaksa would follow Winston Churchil’s dictum: the party victorious should be magnanimous. While Tamil extremism was taken over by Tamil diaspora, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) have projected that the UPFA can stay in power through electoral victories by continually igniting Sinhala Buddhist nationalist feelings and making Sinhala Buddhist nationalism the unwritten state ideology. Parallel to this trend, the executive presidential system was further strengthened by enacting the 18th Amendment to the constitution. The constitutional authoritarianism and over-securitization of the state have been given legitimacy by referring to two goals, namely, economic development and peace and security both defined in its own discursive terms. In order to keep the flames alive and prove that the state has been under constant threat, any protests and resistance by Tamils had been painted as an attempt by the LTTE to reemerge as a military force. It was in this context, we witness the emergence of many types of extreme Buddhists groups even competing with the Sinhala Buddhist political parties in the ruling UPFA. Hence, President Mahinda Rajapaksa can use these groups whenever necessary to restrict and contain the demands and influence of Jathika Hela Urumaya and United Freedom Party, the two coalition partners, in making important governmental decisions.
Subterranean activities of Buddhist extreme organizations began first at small scale and in the periphery. A small mosque in Dambulla where extremely poor Muslims used to worship was attacked claiming that it was built on a land owned by Dambulla temple. Christian and Muslim religious places and shops and department stores owned by Muslims were attacked. The map shows the attacks had been widespread and all over the island. The GoSL and its police refused to take preventive actions and also legal actions against the perpetrators. Perpetrator organizations were given the impression that the rule of law would not be applied against them. It was in this context, the BBS began its nation-wide anti-Halal campaign that instigated mobs to attack property owned by Muslims. Muslims religious pleaded that Halal was a purely religion specific cultural marker and it had no relevance to Buddhist consumers. Having felt that it would lose its monopoly over Sinhala Buddhism, Hela Urumaya also came forward in support of anti-Halal campaign. Once again the government was virtually dumb when Muslims property and religious places were under mob attack. In a way the situation has been essentially similar to the situation prior to 1983 pogrom against Tamils. The difference is that this time it is a campaign against Muslims and Christians. The argument that both Sinhala Buddhists and Muslims were equally responsible for what had happened in Aluthgama, Dharga town and Beruwala has had no validity. Take the balance sheet: four people were killed; 150 houses and 90 shops were destroyed; 15 mosques were attacked and 2000 families were made refugees. About three-fourths of the affected were Muslims. It is interesting to note that many incidents happened during the curfew time. What was GoSL post-event response? Police arrested a monk who was well known for his courageous stand against BBS defending Muslims. The UNP Muslim PC member was questioned for four hours. All the vehicles to the residence of another Mulsim PC member were subjected to check. The high rank Tamil police officer who tried his best to maintain law and order in the troubled area was transferred. More Muslim property were attacked even police knew that those places were vulnerable for mob attack. The government project is clear. It wants to paint the victims as the perpetrators and the real perpetrators as victims.
The attacks and the government response show that this is an inseparable element of a political project. Armed conflict came to a conclusion in 2009; but the politics of war remains unchanged. In 2005 and 2009, Mahinda Rajapaksa won two presidential elections on Sinhala hegemonic agenda so he and his family and the party must be thinking that this would be the political project that would work in the next presidential election that may be held in early next year. If Gujarat did not stop BJP victory in neighboring India, how would Aluthgama and Beruwala make a difference in Sri Lanka? Will Sri Lankan demographic statistics produce different results?
*Prof Sumanasiri Liyanage is a co-ordinator of the Marx School.