Image: Digana after mob attacks. Associated Press/Pradeep Pathiran .
Even as I write these words, Kandy is burning.
Muslims, their homes and their properties are being targeted in the name of Buddhism, within shouting distance of the Temple of the Tooth. If the custodians of the Tooth Relic, the chief prelates of Malwatte and Asgiriya, look out from their windows, they’d probably see the smoke from the fires, if not the fires and the fire-makers.
There is no greater perversion of Buddhism than killing in the name of Buddhism. In the Buddha’s teachings there is no place for any kind of violence, no concept of holy war or just war, no room for revenge, whatever the crime. It the chief prelates are true followers of the Buddha, they would have walked going among the rioters, pleading for calm. But the only monks visible and audible in Kandy seem to be those who are feeding the fires. The chief prelates and other leading monks are silent, no word of condemnation, no plea for sanity and peace. If Kandy-burning symbolises the failure of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the silence of the monks indicates why that failure happened.
There is an image from Black July I will carry with me for the rest of my life: a Tamil woman being pushed into the roaring fire of a shop by a mob in Kirulapone, as the police watched. I still remember that she was thin and not tall, had salt-and-pepper hair and was wearing a sari. I couldn’t see her face and I didn’t hear her cry.
I saw the incident from a moving bus. I couldn’t have saved her even if I managed to jump out. But such logic cannot dim the memory of horror and failure I carry with me. Now the horror is happening again. Another minority is being targeted. And we, the majority community in whose name the violence is being perpetrated, are failing to stop the marauders, to protect the victims or even to condemn the horror in loud enough voices.
What began in Teldeniya, what is happening all over Kandy, is not a religious clash. A clash implies two parties fighting each other, but in Teldeniya and in Kandy – as in Ampara last week – there are just armed perpetrators and unarmed victims. Nor was the violence that began in Teldeniya on the night of March 4th an accident. There was nothing spontaneous about the timing of the violence, and its trajectory.
On February 20th, a minor traffic accident involving a three-wheeler and a lorry happened in Teldeniya. The incident ended in a brutal assault; the four passengers in the three-wheeler savagely attacked the lorry driver. The attackers were Muslims. The victim was Sinhalese, the sole breadwinner of his family. But there is no evidence whatsoever that the racial/religious identity of either party had anything to do with the assault. It was another expression of brutality pervasive in society, a legacy of the long war and two insurgencies.
The Sinhala victim was immediately hospitalised and the Muslim attackers were immediately arrested and remanded (they are still in remand). The police were not lax in performing their duties and no politician intervened to save the culprits. After almost two weeks in the ICU the lorry driver died on March 3rd. If the anti-Muslim riot in Teldeniya was a spontaneous explosion of anger, it should have happened either on the day of the assault or on the day the victim died. But up to the evening of March 4th, Teldeniya didn’t explode.
On the evening of March 4th Bhikku Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara visited the funeral house. A couple of hours later the first attacks began. Muslim properties were destroyed and burnt. Police intervened and arrested some rioters. If the government intervened at this point, ordering in additional forces or declaring a limited curfew, making it clear through fast and strict action, that further acts of mob-violence will not be tolerated, the subsequent tragedy could have been avoided. But the government did nothing, thereby leaving the field wide open to Sinhala-Buddhist extremists dreaming of a new Black July.
On the morning of the 5th, a baying mob surrounded the police station and demanded the release of arrested rioters. Bhikku Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara was there, playing the role of peacemaker, but in reality lending the mob the protection of his robe and his name. (One of the monks present, probably the controversial chief-incumbent of Mangalaramaya in Batticaloa, is heard promising the mob to get ‘ape aya’ – our people – released in an hour. He also says he will summon a senior DIG for discussions if necessary, a statement which indicates the kind of power and impunity these robed criminals continue to enjoy, despite the government’s pledges to end impunity and restore the rule of law.)
That afternoon, the second round of rioting began.
From Ampara to Teldeniya
The argument that the violence, be it in July 83 or today, is the work of a fanatical minority is true. But it is also irrelevant. The majority of Sinhalese did not take part in Black July. They didn’t have to. All they had to do was to shrug a shoulder, turn a blind eye. Indifference is neither neutral nor benign. Indifference kills and destroys. In 1983, the silence of the silent majority (together with the lenience of the government and the collusion of the police and the military) created the enabling environment in which a minority of extremists could set fire to an entire country.
That collective indifference was fed by inherited myths and fake news about encroaching Tamils ‘dominating our universities by cheating at exams, taking away our jobs and our land, planning to overrun our only country by breeding like rabbits…’ Ancient tales and false statistics were used to lend this demonisation an air of sanctity, authenticity and objectiveness. Without that seeding Black July wouldn’t have happened.
Those same lies are being repeated about Muslims now. The BBS started the madness in 2012, under the patronage of the Rajapaksas, pouring lurid stories into willing ears, turning Muslims into the next enemy, the new ‘other’. Without that seeding, Ampara and Teldeniya wouldn’t have happened and Kandy couldn’t be happening.
The mini-riot in Ampara was waged on the excuse of a sterilisation pill which a customer supposedly found in a curry (or a kottu) purchased from a Muslim-owned eatery. The Ministry of Health or the Minister of Health should have issued an immediate statement nailing the canard, explaining that no one in the world, no physician, no pharmaceutical company, no researcher has succeeded in manufacturing a sterilisation pill. The Ministry did make a statement, but almost a week later. By that time, the myth of the sterilisation pill had become an accepted fact in the larger society. .
If the police was lax and the government was inept, society was no better. The professionals best able to nail the lie about a sterilisation pill, the doctors, were mostly silent. A few brave souls spoke out but the absolute majority said nothing. The various medical associations (including the GMOA) did not bother to explain the truth to the country. Their silence fed the fires of misunderstanding. More than a week later, they are still silent.
It is a dangerous path, allowing extremists to dominate the narrative and own the initiative. The danger becomes greater when leading extremists are granted de facto impunity on the strength of a hallowed robe. These old habits and practices were supposed to end in January 2015. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration was supposed to, expected to, end the impunity enjoyed by robed thugs, adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards every kind of extremism and ensure that another Aluthgama never happened.
The government, to its credit, is not racist. But during most of its tenure, especially the last two years, it has displayed a distressing absence of political and moral courage. Instead of standing up to every form of extremism, it developed a habit of succumbing to monks, priests and mullahs. The government did not create extremists. But it pandered to extremists in the hope of rendering extremism toothless. This political weakness and moral cowardice didn’t render extremism toothless; on the contrary it helped turn the teeth into fangs. Muslims voted for the government in massive numbers, hoping for peace and security. The government failed them. Who can they trust now? Will they ever feel secure, even after the fires have died? How can they? Why should they?
Suicide at Seventy
Sri Lanka celebrated her 70th independence day just a month ago. In reality there is nothing much to celebrate. We are Sri Lankans in name only. Unity is just a word; coexistence a precarious state that can be destroyed by the most trivial of incidents. We are a country of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims who know next to nothing about each other’s religions. Most of us study in schools which are de facto segregated, live in neighbourhoods with invisible walls.
A fog of misconceptions divides the ethnic and religious groups who call this island home. Comparative religion is not a subject taught in our schools. What we read in the media strengthen the prejudices we learn at home and relearn in school. Where ignorance and fear rule, violence is never far away. Anything can ignite it – a misplaced food order (as in Dambulla last year), the myth of a sterilisation pill, a brutal crime.
One of the tasks of the new government was to carry out a systematic effort to dent this fog of misconception. Even that task, which did not require standing up to mad monks, priests or mullahs, was not done. In the absence of any counters, lies continued to flourish. For example, a website called the Lanka C News recently carried a new item claiming that the proportion of Sinhala Buddhists which had been at 72% a few decades ago has come down to 67% now. The statistics were a total fake. According to census figures since the first census of 1881, Sinhala-Buddhists never exceeded the 70% mark until 2012. 2012 was the last census and according to that census Sinhala-Buddhists comprise of 70.1% of the populace.
So the ‘news’ about a rapid decline in Sinhala-Buddhist numbers is fake news, a lie fabricated to make Sinhala-Buddhists feel insecure. More worryingly, the website attributes this incendiary canard to Hemakumara Nanayakkara, the governor of the Southern Province. The government might not know that it is nursing new Cyril Mathews in its midst, but that ignorance is no excuse, not when the fate of the country and lives of people are at stake.
If Kandy continues to burn, sooner rather than later, the contagion of anti-Muslim violence will spread to other areas, including Colombo. If that happens, Sri Lanka will not be able to escape the scourge of a religious war. Black July enabled the LTTE to gain the upper hand within the Tamil armed struggle. The triumph of violent Sinhala extremism in the South led to the triumph of violent Sinhala extremism in the North. Sri Lanka and all her people are yet to recover from the horror the competing extremisms unleashed.
Now we are about to recreate that historical crime with Muslims.
There can be no peace in a country where the extremists set the national agenda. Talking about the rule of law is a joke when robed thugs are above the law and can command senior DIGs. It is a dangerous game, allowing extremists to ply their deadly trade, irrespective of which race they belong to, which religion they espouse or which political party they claim to support.
As a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, our greatest enemy is extremism. And of the competing extremisms, the most dangerous is the extremism of the majority community. When Sinhala-Buddhist fanatics are given a free hand, they set the country on fire, endanger innocent lives and strengthen fanatics in minority communities. That is why a zero-tolerance policy towards extremism must be applied with equal vigour and firmness to monk, mullah and priest. The habit of allowing extremists to shape the national agenda and set the national course must end if Sri Lanka’s future is to be better than her past.
If the government is too timorous to do so, the demand and the pressure should from come from those Sinhala-Buddhists who retain enough sanity to see the deadliness of the future that is being made. Kandy was set in fire in our name. The perpetrators want to turn Sri Lanka into the next Myanmar. If we remain silent and inactive, shame and guilt will be our lot once again. If we, the Sinhalese, fail Muslims as we failed Tamils, history will not forgive us, and will punish us with a new and a worse war.