|Gota: Denying responsibility
Addressing members of the national advisory committee to the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara gave substance to the conviction of those who believe in the prospects for peaceful coexistence and harmony within Sri Lanka’s multi ethnic and multi religious society. He said that a majority of MPs of the government were opposed of the actions of the extremist groups that had engaged in anti-Muslim activities.
The position of those MPs reflected the broad sentiments of their electorates. Minister Nanayakkara himself has been at the forefront of the government urging that strong action be taken to deter hate speech and extremist violence.
In this context the denial by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa that he had a relationship with the BBS who stand accused of being the instigators of the violence is reflective of the widespread revulsion, both locally and internationally, over the spike in anti-Muslim violence that was seen in Alutgama last month. This denial of any connection or involvement with the BBS is a welcome disassociation even if it comes late. The Defence spokesperson also refuted the allegation that the Defence Secretary, who is counted as among the most powerful in the country, has any special relationship with the BBS. He clarified that the Defence Secretary’s attendance at a public ceremony at which the BBS was also present, and which has generated much controversy, had nothing to do with any association with it.
Government members, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa no less, have seen a conspiracy in the anti Muslim riots that took place last month in Alutgama. They also see an international dimension to it that can harm the government’s economic development potential and also make it more difficult to face international human rights challenges. The damaging view has been presented abroad that Sinhalese have rioted against Muslims. This has created an incorrect impression abroad of a Sinhalese-Muslim polarization. But Alutgama was the exception, not the norm. Outside of Alutgama, relations between Sinhalese and Muslims are largely amicable and peaceful coexistence is the norm. It is not just these two communities, but also Tamils, Christians, Buddhists and Hindus who are all eager to be friends, and not permit communalism to enter between them.
Some months ago, I was passing through Darga Town, which borders Alutgama, and where there has been a history of Sinhalese-Muslim tension. There have been communal clashes there in the past. We stopped at a grocery store to buy some bottles of water. The Muslim shop owner was serving a Muslim customer. But when he saw us, a Sinhalese family, enter his shop, he excused himself to serve us first. This action made an impression on us then, but now in retrospect, I can surmise that he did this because he was conscious of the need to have good relations with the Sinhalese. I see this same sentiment in the inter-religious groups I work with. Those belonging to one religious persuasion go out of their way to please the other. Their desire is for amity, not for confrontation.
After the Alutgama riots, I was at a meeting where a Buddhist monk exclaimed in anguish, that an entirely wrong picture of the Buddhists was being given to the world. He was not denying that the Alutgama riots had taken place and that innocent Muslims had even been killed and their properties burnt. He was merely trying to say that those who attacked the Muslims were not doing this with the consent of the Sinhalese masses. These were small groups acting without the blessings of the larger society. Their seeming impunity to attack targets at their will is what has created the impression that they enjoy the blessings of a part of the government, which is what has given them their seemingly vast power. There has been widespread condemnation of the police for failing to nip the riot in the bud, and for having permitted a public rally to be held by the BBS despite appeals by local community leaders not to permit it.
Those who live outside of Sri Lanka, and those who are victims, are not interested in the nuances of the situation. They tend to see only the broadest of outlines. The international costs are getting to be high. It is evident that the government is feeling the pressure on itself from both the affected Muslims and the larger international community. The 53 members of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation based in Saudi Arabia have in a public statement expressed their serious concern and said that “the recent attacks appear to follow a rising trend of violence instigated by extremists which is spreading fear and mistrust among the population.” It is reported that they have also written privately to the government communicating their serious concerns.
The government’s denials of its involvement with the BBS will be taken more seriously if two matters are addressed speedily. The first is that an independent inquiry be held into what transpired in Alutgama. Such an inquiry panel may be selected with the participation of the Minister of Justice who is himself a Muslim and who has complained of misrepresentation of the causes of death of some of the victims of the riots. The Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) who submitted the postmortem report on one of the victims killed during the Alutgama violence has been summoned to court after his report was disputed. The Bar Association has also expressed its concerns in the strongest of terms. In these circumstances only a credible fact finding body will be able to dispel the doubts as to what really happened at Alutgama, and who paid the price.
The second requirement concerns the strength of the preventive action that is taken. The violence in Alutgama followed a sustained hate campaign against the Muslim community in the Alutgama area and elsewhere in the country in which there had been incidents of violence, though not a large scale. The police have questioned the BBS leaders with regard to the speeches made prior to the riots. They have also taken 117 persons into custody, with 85 of them being produced before courts and 25 being released on bail. But these steps are unlikely to reassure the Muslims and other potential targets, so long as extremist groups and their leaders are given a free hand to instigate their members for action, at the time and place they choose.
Small groups of extremists can create disturbances even though the ethos of the larger majority is to live in peace and harmony. In these circumstances the application of the law would suffice to quell any disturbance. It is the non-application of the law due to political interference that has made inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations within the country a potential point of conflict. The government today is highly centralized and has a very strong national security apparatus. They are well positioned to take preventive action against those who foment hatred in word and deed that leads to violence. The stakes are high as the international consequences that follow more violence can be severely damaging to the country’s interests. Therefore any continuing failure on the part of the government to curb the violent actions and propaganda of extremists would be a cause for great concern.