A dangerously fraught chapter in post-war Sri Lanka by Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
The atrocity that is Aluthgama 2014 happened at the instigation of outsiders brought into the area. That much is clear. As said by stricken Sinhala and Muslim residents, ‘this had no involvement with our communities, we live next to each other; but when outsiders came and attacked, everyone was attacking each other.’
Put baldly, a simple altercation between two local groups, a Buddhist monk with his driver and a few Muslim youths, spiraled out of control due to carefully strategised tensions which had been simmering long before. The catalyst for the communal violence in Aluthgama and Beruwala soon after this minor altercation was an unabashedly racist speech spewed by the BBS’s Galagoda-atte Gnanasara Thero on Sunday.
Repeatedly raising his arm in militant gestures and pushing yellow robes which were falling off his shoulders in a sight that any genuine Buddhist would have repudiated in shuddering distaste, he urged the annihilation of ‘Marakkalayos’ (Muslims) in Sri Lanka, exhorting that the Sinhalese should not stay silent anymore but collectively organize against Muslims.
Sinhala and Muslim factions clashed thereafter while the police and the Special Task Force (STF) stayed silent. This has been affirmed not only by Muslim victims but also opposition members of parliament, one of whom had got personally attacked while trying to help Muslim women and children escape. What shame is this?
Why is the BBS permitted to be at large?
Amidst the chaos, there are a few clear truths that can be extracted. First and foremost, this government’s promises of action to be taken against the perpetrators are scarcely to be believed. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s twitter message and his meeting up with victims and community leaders after return to Sri Lanka were punctuated by an undertaking that the instigators would be dealt with. Few have indeed been arrested, including Muslims accused of rising up against the Sinhalese.
But the BBS remains at large, free to engage in their repulsive politics of race hatred. After months of cowering under BBS death threats, the moderate Mahiyangana monk Ven Watareka Thero was found bound, gagged and badly assaulted on Thursday. Reportedly his police security had been withdrawn a month ago. Ven Watareka Thero had complained against the BBS, most recently after a press conference in a Colombo hotel was broken up by the BBS. These complaints have been to no avail.
That government protection is afforded to the BBS is a reasonable presumption therefore. Video recordings and individual testimonies afford sufficient reason for arrests. But there is a magic veil drawn over associated political party ideologues of the BBS. These ideologues protest vehemently now that they had nothing to do with the Aluthgama violence. These incredulous denials should be treated with suitable contempt.
Silence of law enforcement agencies
Second, we return to the culpability of Sri Lanka’s law enforcement agencies as an underlying point to this critique. On Tuesday, mainstream newspapers which had earlier marginalized reports of the communal violence while the social media went ablaze, featured reports of the STF protecting the town of Aluthgama in the ‘aftermath’ of the violence. The question is as to why such protection was not manifested ‘during’ and not only in the ‘aftermath’ of the riots? Why was the BBS allowed to hold a public meeting in Aluthgama during a tense time? Why was this monumentally racist Thero, whose very claim to a religious title comes as an affront to the Sangha, permitted to speak publicly?
The Inspector General of Police (IGP) explained lamely that a stay order was not obtained because they ‘hoped’ that good sense would prevail. Apparently these optimistic presumptions were discarded soon after the Aluthgama riots when the police obtained a stay order against a similar rally being organized by a supposedly BBS affiliated group in Mawanella. The BBS itself, in the precise traditions of barefaced lying by Sri Lanka’s politicians in this Dhammadweepa, (land of the Buddha Dhamma), stoutly denied that it had links to this particular group.
Commonalities of communal violence
We are grievously familiar with the commonalities of communal violence in this country. Unsubstantiated rumors, agent provocateurs and the inaction of law enforcement agencies are general features. Even after decades of violence which tore us asunder and blackened Sri Lanka’s name across the world, this government cynically allowed and even encouraged the breeding of religious racist groups to gather strength post-war. This is not to say that the fault lies purely with extremists who scream hatred while wrapping Buddhist robes around them or indeed to deny that Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise. On the contrary, the responsibility for the rise of fundamentalists due to the unscrupulous use of religious extremism for pure political motives is vested with the Rajapaksa government, none other.
Muslim Ministers should be ashamed to profess continuing allegiance to this administration. The shedding of tears by the Justice Minister this week is a particularly ironic joke. Instead of typical prevarications, resignations from ministerial positions must be immediately evidenced. But given the nature of politics, principled positions cannot be expected.
And with the honourable exception of the Amarapura Mahanayake Thero, the silence of the Mahanayakes of the Buddhist Chapters on the Aluhtgama violence is unsettling. Apparently the only matter to perturb the Chief Incumbent of the Asgiriya Chapter this week was the planned holding of night races in Kandy which he appealed publicly against. Are the consciences of the Prelates yet to be awakened on these most disgraceful incidents?
A perilous new chapter unfolds
Aluthgama 2014 signals the start of a dangerous new chapter in post-war Sri Lanka. This is not an isolated incident. The issue has become far more complex for simplistic reactions to prevail. There is little doubt that emotions are inflamed on both sides of this fundamentalist divide and more significant organisation will be evidenced in the future.
Sri Lanka needs a change in political leadership to break this destructive and toxic cycle. This much is now beyond a shadow of a doubt.