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Monday, February 26, 2024

Sri Lanka: Eradication of anti Muslim violence needs deeds instead of words – NfR

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.


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