Mannar is said to have returned to normal following Wednesday’s violent protests, which left several police personnel injured and a court house and a police station damaged. But, let’s not lull ourselves into a false sense of complacency.
The situation is far from normal there if the frayed tempers and public resentment are any indication. Most of all, the dispute over a boat mooring beach which led to the clashes remains unsolved. It is the effect that has been tackled and not the cause, we reckon.
Judges and lawyers have registered their strong protest against what they call an attempt by Minister Rishad Bathiudeen to influence the judiciary over the Mannar dispute. He is alleged to have exerted influence to change a judicial order, albeit in vain. The Judges’ Association of Sri Lanka (JASL) is contemplating legal action against the minister and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) pulled out of courts yesterday in protest. Their consternation is understandable. One cannot but pledge solidarity with the protesting judges and lawyers as they must be able to work in an environment free from interference, political or otherwise, and threats. The judiciary is one of the pillars of democracy and any attempt to chip away at its base or simply pull it down must be resisted and defeated at any cost. Wednesday’s attacks on the Mannar court must be condemned unreservedly and the perpetrators brought to justice.
However, Minister Bathiudeen’s version of what happened on Wednesday as well as his intervention to bring the situation under control is different. He has denied any attempt to interfere in judicial matters and offered to cooperate fully in the event of an investigation into the allegations against him. The principle of natural justice demands that he be given an opportunity to be heard. The government, in our view, ought to have the allegations against him probed urgently.
The causes of Wednesday’s violence must also be probed and action taken to eliminate them. What triggered the unfortunate clashes was the resentment of some Muslim fishers who have failed to regain the disputed mooring place they were compelled to abandon years ago owing to LTTE terror. They believe that the place is rightfully theirs and want it returned to them in peace time. This is a legitimate grievance which needs to be looked into as they bore the brunt of terrorism. They claim that an invisible hand is preventing a peaceful settlement and has given an ethno-religious twist to the issue, which we do not intend to delve into. That is a task best left to the government and the leaders of ethnic and religious communities concerned, we believe.
Suffice it to say that Mannar has all the trappings of a flashpoint. Although the riot police have managed to restore order temporarily in that part of the country through the use of force another round of clashes is very likely to erupt unless preventive measures are adopted immediately. Tempers are frayed and tensions palpable. The only way to forestall disaster waiting to happen is to investigate the dispute thoroughly and find a solution acceptable to all parties to it. The protesting fisher folk should be listened to and reassured.
As for the claims that someone is trying to fish in troubled waters in Mannar by aggravating the dispute, nothing short of a direct presidential intervention to summon a high level powwow with the participation of the religious leaders in the area will help evolve a solution. Let them put their heads together and figure out what has really gone wrong and find ways and means of settling the dispute, which is getting out of hand.