|Aluthgama after the riots|
If precautions are not taken to prevent religious tension and to bring perpetrators to book, the incidents of such nature will dampen the economy and social fabric of this country, says Deputy Minister of Investment Promotion Faiszer Musthapha. The Minister stresses that if the procession on 15 June had been prevented, the present developments in the country would have not occurred. “I wrote a letter to the IGP asking to take steps to prevent that march. I was assured that there would be peace and tranquillity. I believe that there was an error in that judgment,” points out the Minister, further adding, “What happened was inhumane and barbaric. As a Government Minister, I feel ashamed that this incident has occurred.”
Following are excerpts of the interview with the Daily FT:
Q: How would you describe the incidents that took place in Aluthgama and Beruwala?
A: I don’t want to say who is right or who is wrong at this point of time. But I don’t accept lives of innocent people being lost and their property being destroyed due to mob violence. That is wrong. What happened was inhumane and barbaric. For anybody who incites religious hatred, there are sanctions in the Penal Code and there is law to deal with it. But what happened was very unfortunate. As a Government Minister, I feel ashamed that this incident has occurred. It takes our memories back to the ’83 July, the darkest era of our history. It is unfortunate that it happened, irrespective of race, religion and creed. Beneficiaries of all these acts are basically looters who are engaged in mob violence.
I was there on both days. I was working with the IGP and the DIG to reduce the damage and take precautions. I was in Japan and as I came back I got calls saying people in these areas were living in fear. People wanted protection. Once the violence started people in the surrounding areas gathered at a mosque, which was also an educational centre. I went there. I informed the Police to provide them protection. Then we heard a mob was trying to enter the mosque. However, the police use teargas gassed and dispersed that mob.
After this incident I went to many places where violence took place irrespective of religion and tried to calm down the people and give assurance that there is nothing to fear. Everybody was running for their lives. People in bordering villages were scared and they were moving to areas where density of one population was higher. This is why I said what happened was inhumane and barbaric. And as a Sri Lankan, I am ashamed of what happened.
“As a Government Minister, I feel ashamed that this incident has occurred. It takes our memories back to the ’83 July, the darkest era of our history. It is unfortunate that it happened, irrespective of race, religion and creed
When you incite hatred towards a particular community, it may spark at any time and take a different dimension. I think this is very unfortunate
I don’t want to be identified as a Muslim. I am a Sri Lankan. I expect the Sri Lankan community also to articulate the same view. I didn’t go to Aluthgama because I was a Muslim. I went because there was injustice caused to a certain quarter. I feel sad that sometimes we go backward rather than forward after the war when dealing with secularism
I strongly believe that civil society has to act. Pointing fingers at politicians will not solve the problem. If the media does not give coverage to those who propagate religious hatred, they will go into the wilderness. Once people continuously hear and echo the sentiments of religious hatred, they also start to think it’s a norm”
Q: Who should be held responsible for this?
A: People who incite religious hatred are responsible for this. Obviously supposing there is an incident and a certain party has engaged in some wrongdoing, then we restrict it to the parties who were involved in that incident. You don’t point your finger at a race or a religion. Similarly, in this incident I think the blame should only go to people who were engaged in actions of religious hatred. When you incite hatred towards a particular community, it may spark at any time and take a different dimension. I think this is very unfortunate.
Q: Following the Aluthgama and Beruwala incidents, similar cases were reported from other parts of the country. What are your views about these present developments in the country?
A: The Muslim community in our country has not asked for an inch of soil in this country. We live in isolated pockets all over the country. That is because we have cohabitated with Sinhala community from the time of the Kandyan kings and fought for the sovereignty of this country. Even during the 30-year-long war, there were military intelligence officers contributing massively to bring peace to this country. What is happening in this country at present is not acceptable.
Q: People openly the accuse Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) of inciting religious hatred. But the Government has failed to take any action against this organisation. As a member of the Government, what are your views?
A: When mob violence occurs, the first question they ask is why it was not controlled or prevented at an earlier stage. From the Government point of view, we did everything possible to curtail it at that stage. But when you look at the lost lives, destruction of property and suffering of the people, even we wonder why couldn’t this stopped at a earlier stage. People will always feel there should have been more expeditious actions so that lives and property could be saved.
As a member of the Government I too feel sad for the lost lives and property. My thinking now is not to point the finger at anybody, but to see how we all can get together and bring this situation to normalcy. I hope we can initiate ethnic reconciliation. Rather than pointing fingers at others, everybody should get together to bring peace and normalcy.
In fact, a day before this unfortunate incident happened, I wrote a letter to the IGP asking to take steps to prevent that march. I was assured that there will be peace and tranquillity. I believe that there was an error in that judgment. I yet believe if that procession did not take place this situation would have not resulted.
Q: Why did the Government allow that demonstration to take place?
A: Don’t point the finger at the Government.
Q: The Government that deploys thousands of Police personnel to prevent protests by university students and trade unions allows a demonstration that harms religious harmony. How do you justify this?
A: I asked the same question from the IGP. He said they did their maximum. He said even the Army was brought in the next day to control mob violence. But I feel expeditious action from the Government would have saved lives and property. That sentiment is continuously being echoed by all quarters and I believe that there should be an internal mechanism to investigate into this and bring those who are responsible to book and also to compensate those who have lost lives and property.
Like I mentioned before, I sent a letter to the DIG one day before this incident happened. In my mind I feared that this might result in such a situation. I requested the DIG to prevent this demonstration taking place. In my opinion the BBS is carrying out a hate campaign against the Muslims. If you listen to the speech that was made by Galaboda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, anyone would understand this. However, there is a legal mechanism to deal with it. Not only with the BBs, but if there are Muslims, Tamils or any person inciting religious hatred, there is a legal mechanism in the country to deal with it.
Q: Are you satisfied with the investigations carried out by the Government?
A: I have requested the Government to carry out an independent inquiry, which would go into investigating this incident and bringing those to book. At this point of time, this mechanism is warranted and it further strengthens credibility of all quarters. I am very hopeful that the Government will take measures to bring the perpetrators to book.
Q: You are a Government Minister who represents the Muslim community. What is the point of holding a ministerial post when the Government fails to take any action whilst your people are killed and attacked?
A: I don’t want to be identified as a Muslim. I am a Sri Lankan. I expect the Sri Lankan community also to articulate the same view. I didn’t go to Aluthgama because I was a Muslim. I went because there was injustice caused to a certain quarter. I feel sad that sometimes we go backward rather than forward after the war when dealing with secularism.
I was the only person who was there for two days. I was subject to mob attack. My vehicle was attacked. I don’t believe in being vocal in the media and doing nothing. A lot of people who went to Aluthgama had media arrive there before they reached. They were making various statements. I was there for all two days but I didn’t have a single media communiqué. I went there for a reason. My presence saved some lives.
Q: Don’t you feel these incidents prove there are human right violations and prove such accusations made by the Tamil diaspora and the United Nations?
A: We fought a war. I don’t want my country to be subject to an international probe. With regard to Aluthgama and Beruwala, I want a domestic mechanism. I will never internationalise issues that are happening inside Sri Lanka. I have the confidence that we Sri Lankans can resolve it from within. We don’t need a foreign hand to deal with it.
I am thankful to the President, the forces and all Sri Lankans who have shed blood to get us this peace. Unfortunately, a dividend of peace is not a mob attack on an innocent community, destroying lives and property. This is not what is expected by peace.
The wrongs of a few cannot be shifted to an entire community. The Sinhala community is the most friendly, compassionate race or religion in the world. At any point blame for this incident should not be placed upon the Sinhalese community.
Q: Do you feel organisations such as the BBS and Ravana Balaya should be banned?
A: Any organisation which incites religious hatred should be banned.
Q: Are there any Muslim extremist groups functioning in Sri Lanka?
A: To my knowledge there are no Muslim extremist groups. These people talk about Wahabism; Wahabism does not propagate Islamic extremism of any sort or interfere with another religions’ freedom. People who don’t know what Wahabism is should not condemn Wahabism.
Q: But the BBS has openly accused that there are Taliban and other Muslim terrorist groups operating in Sri Lanka. Your views?
A: With a sense of responsibility I am telling you that there are no Islamic groups in Sri Lanka which spread religious hatred against another. But there can be individuals who abuse other religions. These individuals can be dealt with in terms of the law.
Recently there was one Muslim brought to courts for being abusive towards Islam. The Jamiyyathul Ulama, which is our religious body, went to court and said he should be dealt with, simply because we didn’t want the finger to be pointed at us claiming his view is the view of the Muslim community. If there are religious groups which are propagating hatred against another community, please bring them to book.
Q: Minister of Justice Rauff Hakeem has said there is no law and order in this country and that the justice system cannot be trusted. Do you agree?
A: I don’t want to comment about statements made by other politicians. Every man is entitled to his view. He, being the Minister of Justice, has no ethical, moral or legal right to say so. If he feels there is no law and order in this country, he has to take a decision. If he consciously says there is no law and order in the country, as a lawyer and a politician he has to take proactive action. Even I don’t approve of what happened in Aluthgama and Beruwala. But that does not mean I have the right to generalise the issue and say there is no law and order in the country.
Q: How will the present developments in the country affect the economy, especially the tourism industry, as there are travel warnings by several countries?
A: I was the former Deputy Minister of Tourism. Every time a country faces a similar ordeal, more sensitive countries impose travel advisories. But with time there will be changes in such advisories. We were resilient enough to survive a 30-year war, we have tangible peace in this country, and we will move forward.
I strongly believe that civil society has to act. Pointing fingers at politicians will not solve the problem. If the media does not give coverage to those who propagate religious hatred, they will go into the wilderness. Once people continuously hear and echo the sentiments of religious hatred, they also start to think it’s a norm.
But let me tell you one thing: If we don’t take precautions, incidents of this nature will dampen the economy and social fabric of this country. Unfortunately this hate campaign has resulted, filtering it to the lowest levels