I believe that the Muslim factor in our politics is entering a new era because in the last few days developments of an epochal nature have been taking place. Suddenly, and totally unexpectedly, the following banner headline appeared in The Island of January 25; ‘Special PSC to look into racial, religious extremism”. The item stated that Minister Nimal Siripala de Siva had told Parliament on the previous day that a special Parliamentary Select Committee would be set up to address growing concern about the rise in racial intolerance and religious fundamentalism in the country.
He was quoted as stating: “This is a very important question. We cannot take party lines when we address these issues. We have to get together to tackle problems that can arise and cost our country its hard-won peace.”
There followed on January 28 another front page news item in The Island under the heading “President Rajapakse stresses need for respecting rights of all communities”. It was about his meeting on the previous day with members of the Bodu Bala Sena, which reportedly lasted for two hours. The President had raised the issue of the ongoing campaign against Muslims by certain Buddhist organizations. The BBS had denied its involvement in any such campaign. The President had stressed that members of all communities had a right to live as equal citizens in this country, since it is theirs too, and that he would not tolerate any acts of terrorism. All peace-loving Sri Lankans should be mindful of the efforts being made in certain quarters to tarnish the image of this country. I have seen another report also, which goes into some detail about disclaimers made at the meeting to the effect that the BBS was not behind the extremist acts in Sri Lanka.
Now what on earth is there in all this to justify my speaking so grandiloquently about a new era and developments of an epochal nature? Surely talk about equal rights of the minorities and so on and so forth is no more than windy rhetoric, no more than part of majoritarian racist discourse, which in the view of many minority members signify little or nothing, not much more meaningful really than the inane quacking of ducks. As for the Parliamentary Select Committee, how many mature adults are there in Sri Lanka who believe that anything useful will come of it? Surely practically everyone is aware of the stupendous record of this Government and previous Governments in ignoring Commission reports. Surely everyone knows that the LLRC Report would have been totally ignored if not for pressure from abroad. I believe that such views are mistaken and that indeed we are witnessing developments of an epochal nature.
To establish my argument I will have to go back to developments since 1975, that is thirty eight years ago. That year inaugurated a new phase in Sinhalese-Muslim relations, in which Muslims were subjected to physical harm, sometimes killings, and Muslim property was destroyed. The start was given by Muslims being killed within Puttalam mosque – possibly the first anti-Muslim riot since 1915 – the consequence of Sinhalese misperceptions that our Muslims were economically privileged, which remains a major motivation for anti- Muslim hatred. The economic motivation behind the Puttalam riot was clearly indicated by the initial act which caused the unrest culminating in the riot: the shifting of a bus stand from an area where Muslim business establishments predominated to one where the Sinhalese business establishments predominated. Since then, practically every year witnessed anti-Muslim violence ranging from minor ructions of no great significance to major rioting as in Hulftsdorp in December 1993. The anti-Muslim violence mysteriously stopped around 2002.
I am probably well-situated – possibly even uniquely situated – to write on anti-Muslim violence from 1975 to 2002. After leaving the Foreign Ministry In 1988 I took to writing articles, mostly in the Lanka Guardian of Mervyn de Silva, in the course of which I covered the more important episodes in the anti-Muslim violence. As far as I am aware no one else did so, not at least in the mainstream media. The Muslim fear psychosis forbade other Muslims from doing so – a fear psychosis that led to the mistaken belief that writing on the Muslim plight would only make it worse. As for the Sinhalese the (idiotic) conventional wisdom of the time held that all the episodes of anti-Muslim violence were no more than fracas between thugs, with no ethnic dimension to them at all. Probably no mainstream newspaper of that time would have published any of my articles, all of which Mervyn gladly published. I am mentioning these and other details of how things were in the past as they are useful for bringing out the epochal nature of developments in the last few days.
The most important of the anti-Muslim riots between 1975 and 2002 were the Hulftsdorp riots of 1993, about which I wrote in some detail in a lengthy article published in the Lanka Guardian. I could go into some detail because I had as my neighbour a reliable informant, a Muslim doctor who practised in Hulftsdorp and played an important role in restoring normalcy through dialogue in the aftermath of the riots. The riots followed an established pattern. A Muslim had lent money to a Sinhalese, which led to a misunderstanding and an altercation in which the Sinhalese poured petrol over the Muslim and threatened to burn him alive. That was the initial “fracas between thugs” that ignited the rioting that followed, with much destruction of Muslim property and some deaths. The police played the usual role as spectators. Some Muslim politicians made their appearance after the riots, but of course did nothing thereafter that might embarrass the Government. The Government promised to pay compensation.
The usual perfunctory action was taken against those responsible for the riots. Some degree of normalcy was restored by the Sinhalese and the Muslims of the area getting together. And thereafter Sinhalese-Muslim relations were allowed to continue to deteriorate. I must add that the civil society, as distinct from the NGOs, was in a comatose condition those days. I must acknowledge, however, that the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) wrote, sometime around the beginning of this century, an excellent well-researched paper on the violent anti-Muslim activity that had been going on. Otherwise all that was ignored by the Government, the Opposition, Muslim politicians and organizations, and the civil society.
I recall making an important point in my article. I asked what Lee Kuan Yew would have done if something comparable to the Hulftsdorp riots had occurred in Singapore. A clue to the appropriate answer was given in his memoirs. He wrote that Singapore had a violent crime-ridden society until the Japanese Occupation, but it became practically crime-free soon afterwards, the reason for which was that the Japanese took extremely brutal action against crime. Lee would have followed the same strategy, and all anti-minority activity would have stopped forthwith. In Sri-Lanka on the other hand action against communal rioters has always been perfunctory. The reason for the contrary responses was not apparent to me at that time. It is this: in Singapore Lee was very much in earnest about building a multi-ethnic nation with equal rights and opportunities for all citizens irrespective of ethnicity, while in Sri Lanka the Sinhalese power elite has always had a tribal conception of the nation, since in their view this land has belonged to the Sinhalese, and only the Sinhalese, from ancient times. Therefore there has been no authentic drive to build a multi-ethnic nation. Instead there has been much inane duck like quacking.
As I have remarked above, the anti-Muslims ructions and riots stopped mysteriously around 2002. It might seem therefore that I had been uniquely fussy in writing about all that, while those who viewed that violence as really no more than fracases between thugs were quite right. But what really happened was that the pattern of anti-Muslim action changed. There was a monk who some years ago expressed what was widely regarded as anti-Muslim hatred on a Government-owned TV channel. That was stopped after protests by Lucien Rajakarunanayake. There was the Grease Devil phenomenon, the targets of which were mainly Muslim females. There was an epidemic of kidnappings, the main targets of which were Muslim businessmen. Some, probably many, would argue that all that was sporadic ant-Muslim activity to which no great importance should be attached, and which in no way changed the underlying reality of solid first-class pukkah Sinhalese-Muslim amity. That view has been confounded, and confounded utterly, by recent developments.
Over several months an outstandingly moronic anti-Muslim hate campaign has been going on, with nineteen websites devoted to that ignoble task. Latheef Farook, veteran Muslim journalist, Hamid Kareem and others have done their splendid best to bring the relevant facts to public notice. I myself wrote an article on the Dambulla mosque outrage. Subsequently mosques and Muslim business establishments have come under attack on a wide scale. Udaya Gammanpila of the JHU recently wrote an article in which he declared that a repetition of the anti-Muslim riots of 1915 was imminent. Many Muslims feared that their long-standing expectation that the Muslims would be the next target of another 1983 pogrom was about to come true. The anti-Muslim campaign mounted to a horrible crescendo at Kuliyapitiya in the North Western province of Wayamba where demonstrators carried posters with the drawing of a pig together with Arabic letters reading “Allah”. It was probably meant to provoke the Muslims into violence, providing a pretext for unleashing a pogrom on a grand scale, another 1983.
But the Government has this time unexpectedly reacted with the President’s meeting with the BBS, the declaration of intent to appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee, and more than one statement against racism by Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva which to my mind had about them a clear note of authenticity. I have provided above an outline historical narrative showing the Sri Lankan State’s total indifference and near-total inactivity in the face of anti-Muslim action over a period of thirty eight years. In that perspective it does not seem grandiloquent at all to speak now about changes of an epochal order taking place and our ethnopolitics entering a new era. But what really does that signify? Before answering that question it is important to ask why the Government has reacted at long last in what seems to be a positive way.
The meeting of the UN Human Rights Council is under way in Geneva, and a grand-scale anti-Muslim pogrom just now would provide excellent material for the anti-Lankan lobby. The Muslim vote there could be prejudiced.
A high-level US delegation is here right now and the thought echoing in their minds over the anti-Muslim hate campaign would probably be this: Are these fellows completely mad? That will certainly be reflected in their talks with the Government. But I believe most important is the economic factor. For many years Sri Lanka has been what might be justly called “a housemaid republic” because crucial for our economy is the foreign exchange sent home by our housemaid in the Middle East. After the Rizana Nafeek horror the Government has the idea of concentrating on providing skilled labour for the M-East market. Will all that be jeopardized if there is a 1983-type pogrom against the Muslims?
The best way for minorities to get fair and equal treatment from recalcitrant majorities is to establish that that will be in the interest of the majorities themselves. In Sri Lanka certainly the appeal to the self-interest of the majority will be far more potent than the appeal to principles. It seems probable therefore that recent statements by Chambers of Commerce that ultra nationalism will deter foreign investment and be harmful to the economy has played an important role in bringing about what looks like an attitudinal change in the Government towards anti-Muslim activity. Does it mean that we are entering a new era in our ethnopolitics? It all depends, in my view, on whether the Government can be persuaded that ethnic discord will be harmful to the interests of the Sinhalese themselves.