Networking for Rights cautiously welcomes President Mahinda Rajapakse’s recent statement that his government will not tolerate racism and religious intolerance.
According to a report in The Hindu newspaper of March 31 this statement had been made by him at a religious gathering in Werehena. He had added “This is a democratic country with non-Buddhists having equal rights and freedoms. While we safeguard the rights of Buddhists, it is the responsibility of the Buddhists to be exemplary and protect the rights of others.”
While it is admirable that the country’s President has expressed these sentiments in public and recognizes equal rights for all, NfR hopes that these expressions do not suffer the same fate as several other statements of the President relating to the rights of people, which remain mere words and had never been put into practice in a sincere manner.
Over the years several political leaders have made grandiose statements about the rights of all communities living in Sri Lanka and have spoken of the need for tolerance of those from other communities and following other religions. Such statements had been made whenever tensions arose between different communities or religious groups. However, by and large successive governments of Sri Lanka are known to turn a blind eye to most of the incidents caused by the intolerant behaviour of some of the citizen of the country.
The recent escalation of tension between the Sinhalese and Muslim communities caused by anti-Muslim sentiments roused by extremist Buddhist organisations like the Budu Bala Sena in one such example. Except for the summoning the Bodu Bala Sena a few months ago and advising them to refrain from such actions (which, interestingly was only tweeted in English) and making a statement similar to the one quoted above, the President had largely remained silent on the rising anti-Muslim rhetoric which was spear headed by the BBS and reached a climax with the attack on the stores of the business establishment called Fashion Bug in Pepiliyana.
Though the media carried many photographs and videos of the incident showing clearly identifiable images of the perpetrators, no serious action was taken against them. Three Buddhist monks were eventually formally arrested along with a few others visible in the videos and produced before the Magistrate. But the Magistrate had to admonish discharge the suspects as the complainant had indicated that he did not want to pursue with the case as there is said to have been an out of court settlement. However the upshot of this incident is that the BBS and its followers have now got emboldened and are likely to continue with their undesirable activities with impunity.
The NfR hopes that the statement made by the President was not just made to appease the Muslim business owners and the Organization of Islamic Countries, following the attack on the business establishment referred to and on other Muslims. There have been several acts of harassment of Muslim men and women during the several months. These activities have continued without any action being taken against the perpetrators
There have also been several reports of Christian pastors and places of worship being attacked recently n with hardly any action being taken against those responsible.
The need of the hour is for concrete action that would stem the spread of religious and communal intolerance. Instances of violent acts and hate speech must be addressed through stringent legislation that would deter such behaviour. Out of court settlements will not help to end hate speech which leads to violence between communities. The propagation of racial and religious disharmony would only assist those in power and corrupt to accumulate more of the same and distract Sri Lankans from the economic burden of their everyday living.
NfR also believes that there must be a cohesive discourse on the issues that have brought about this situation. Does the banning of the Halal certification adequately address the issue or has it only appeased one community? Does it matter to most Sri Lankans that Muslim women wear the hijab? Would the destruction of Churches and assaulting a pastor, stop conversions? Instead of whipping up anger and suspicion against the spread of Islam and Christianity in the country, should not the Buddhist clergy look at the reasons why religious conversions , if it is true, are taking place.
It is the responsibility of legislators and community leaders to study these issues and introduce guidelines that would protect each other’s lifestyles and ensure harmony between communities does not get disrupted.
If not, NfR fears that extremists would, as they already done, take matters into their own hands and lead Sri Lanka into yet another conflagration, which could be worse than what was endured in the past and one that the country can ill-afford now or in the future.