By Jehan Perera –
The government appears to have woken up to the gravity of the problem posed by repeated attacks on the Muslim community. The police have announced that they will not permit meetings that cause ethnic or religious hatred to be generated. This new policy is to be welcomed to the degree that it is implemented in fact, and is not simply restricted to rhetoric. The police have become a scapegoat for permitting the BBS to hold the public rally that ended up in anti Muslim violence. However, there is a doubt whether the government will instruct the police to go ahead and arrest and prosecute those who instigated the violence and that this will be done on the ground. Although President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself has denounced those who engage in violence, the indications are that the momentum in favour of continuation of sporadic violence that keeps the country on tenterhooks will be hard to reverse in these circumstances.
The latest victim of anti Muslim carnage has been the large “NOLIMIT” Department Store in Panadura, a town that is close to the scene of the large scale anti Muslim violence the previous week in Aluthgama. Although the preliminary police reports stated that it was possibly due to an electrical fault in the middle of the night, the timing of the fire suggests a connection with the previous violence. The Police Spokesman has been reported as saying that a group had asked all Muslim shops to be closed on Thursday but NOLIMIT stores in Wellawatte and Dehiwela had remained open. Six persons, four in a three wheeler and two on a motorbicycle had met the managers at the two shops and demanded to know why they remained open while other shops were closed. This suggests a pre-planned operation, just as much as the way in which the Aluthgama violence took place suggests another pre-planned operation.
However, there is an effort to downplay the significance and the seriousness of the anti-Muslim violence by both those who are public spirited and those who are narrowly nationalist. There are public spirited citizens who believe that the violence must not be given prominence as it is detrimental to the country’s national interests. Already some countries have put Sri Lanka on their travel advisories due to the violence, which would negatively impact on the tourist industry. It would also lead to prospective foreign investors deciding to invest in other countries rather than take the risk of seeing their investments go up in flames due to an eruption of communal violence. There are also some who would wish to downplay the violence by saying that the violent acts of a few tarnish the good name of the majority of Sinhala Buddhist people who do not agree with what is being done in their name.
The anti Muslim violence in Aluthgama has once again highlighted the vulnerability of Sri Lankan society to ethnic and religious polarization. The attack on Muslim-owned shops and houses in the town was by people who came from outside for the most part. However, previous such attacks were on individual targets, including mosques and shops. In most of those previous incidents the responses by the police and security forces was slow or ineffective with the miscreants going free, which created a climate of impunity for the attackers. The costs have been high with at least four persons being reported killed, more than 80 injured and many shops and houses destroyed or damaged. The actual casualty figures may be more.
The government failed in its duty on more than one count. The immediate failure was to permit a public rally in Aluthgama that led to the mob violence. The rally was held in the aftermath of an altercation between a small group of Muslim men and a Buddhist monk over a traffic dispute on the road. The version that appeared in the media was that three Muslim men assaulted a Buddhist monk after getting into an altercation with his driver. Another version is that it was the driver who got assaulted and not the monk. Whatever be the truth of the matter, it is totally unacceptable that there should have been any sort of attack on shops and homes of others merely because they belonged to the same ethnic or religious community of the persons with whom a private dispute had arisen. Such acts of collective vengeance are what racism is about. It would be necessary for the government to compensate those who lost their lives and properties in the communal attacks in which the government failed in its duty to protect them.
On the other hand, the political benefits that accrue to those who are instigating or justifying the violence remain high. The Sinhalese nationalist parties within the government which appeared to be on collision course with the government a few weeks ago, on issues such as corruption and devolution of power to the Tamils, now have emerged as its strongest defenders. They are claiming that the violence was actually started by the Muslims and that they too should be blamed, which is comforting to the Sinhalese majority who are unsure of the facts of the case. The government has therefore been able to rally together the Sinhalese and able to claim even an international conspiracy to discredit the country and put it further into trouble. The political benefits that therefore accrue to the government can tend to perpetuate the violence that has been continuing now for over two years.
The danger in permitting the situation to drift is that it can lead to radicalization. Inter community relations between Sinhalese and Muslims are currently not based on fear of each other. Undoubtedly there are misapprehensions and prejudices that members of different communities have with each other. But even though some of them might look down or in askance at the others cultural and religious practices, there is no fear of each other. This can change if the present sporadic violence engaged in organizations such as BBS are permitted to grow. Sections of the media that valorize those who have been at the forefront of attacking the other community can create role models for youth which will lead to violence in the future. If the situation deteriorates the next step in the downward spiral will be fear of the other. Sri Lanka will move in the direction of further entrenched conflict. We only recently got out of one, now we are heading towards another.
Thus far the Muslims have chosen the path of engagement as their way of conflict resolution. They have stayed within the framework of overall government policy even while asserting their rights. This is because the Muslims have decided that they are going to live side by side with the other communities in Sri Lanka and there is no desire for separation on their part. Although the SLMC presented a document to the UN Human Rights Commissioner giving details of incidents of harassment of Muslims, it continues to remain a partner of the government. Although Minister Rishard Bathiudeen filed legal action against the BBS for marching into his ministry and defaming him, he remains committed to the government. This is evidence of both pragmatism and also the desire to solve problems within the existing framework. This needs to be appreciated by the larger community of Sri Lankans, cherished and built upon.
Sri Lanka’s own history and international experience shows that inter-community relations are fragile, and there is a need for eternal vigilance, which is the price of democracy. The deeper failure of the government has been its unwillingness to come out and affirm to the country at large that the Muslims and other ethnic minorities are part and parcel of Sri Lanka’s plural society and hate campaigns against them are impermissible. Instead for two or more years the BBS has been permitted to propagate the view that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country, and that the Muslims in particular are a threat to its unique identity. The sustained hate campaign against the Muslim community in the Aluthgama area and elsewhere in the country has not been countered by either legal or political means. It is tragic that five years after the end of an ethnic-based civil war, another dimension of communal violence is opening up to cause immense suffering to innocent people. A policy of zero tolerance to those who promote communal hatred needs to be implemented.