And Now The Mi­nori­ties

Hate crimes against the mi­nor­ity Mus­lims and Chris­tians are grow­ing in Sri Lanka. Could the govern­ment have an­other dilemma on its hands?

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By R. Har­i­ha­ran

With hate crimes against mi­nori­ties in­creas­ing, the Sri Lankan govern­ment may have an­other dilemma on its hands.

Ever since Sri Lanka wiped out the dreaded Tamil ter­ror­ist group, the LTTE, in May 2009, pro­test­ers op­po­site the Sri Lanka High Com­mis­sion in Lon­don are not an un­usual sight. But those who gath­ered there last month were not the usual Tamil-Ee­lam sup­port­ers, shout­ing hoarse for ac­tion against Sri Lankan Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa for al­leged war crimes against the Tamils.

They were Sri Lankan Mus­lim ex­pa­tri­ates de­mand­ing strict ac­tion to stop the un­end­ing at­tacks by the Sin­hala Bud­dhist fringe groups on Mus­lims and, to a lesser ex­tent, Chris­tians. The tar­get of Bud­dhist chau­vin­ists in­cluded Mus­lim cul­tural and re­li­gious places such as mosques and madras­sahs. Even so­cio-cul­tural prac­tices like wear­ing of burqa and sell­ing of ha­lal meat did not es­cape their ad­verse at­ten­tion. Churches have also come un­der such at­tacks. Even a few Hindu tem­ples have been de­mol­ished in the Tamil-ma­jor­ity ar­eas.

The spill over of protests be­yond the shores of Sri Lanka shows the grow­ing sense of des­per­a­tion in the Mus­lim com­mu­nity in Sri Lanka as the state has seem­ingly failed to take strin­gent ac­tion to curb the ac­tivists. Bud­dhist chau­vin­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions in­volved in the anti-Mus­lim cam­paign in­clude the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), the Si­hala Ravaya and the Ravana Balaya – all led by Bud­dhist monks. The BBS – the strong­est among them – was founded by Bud­dhist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, known for his vi­cious an­tiMus­lim state­ments.

Po­lit­i­cal par­ties such as the Jathika Hela Urur­maya (JHU) and the Sin­hala Marx­ist out­fit, the Na­tional Free­dom Front (NFF), which are part­ners of the rul­ing UPFA coali­tion, have en­cour­aged the ac­tiv­i­ties of these fringe groups. Even the pres­i­dent’s

brother and De­fence Sec­re­tary, Gotabaya Ra­japaksa, has shown a soft cor­ner for the BBS ide­ol­ogy.

This is sur­pris­ing as the Mus­lim com­mu­nity in Sri Lanka is small – barely two mil­lion strong – just 10 per­cent of the is­land’s pop­u­la­tion. Most of them speak Tamil and, like Sri Lankan Tamils, have links with their brethren across the Palk Strait in Tamil Nadu. In spite of their lim­i­ta­tions, they have been great sur­vivors – both po­lit­i­cally and so­cially – dur­ing the dif­fi­cult years of the LTTE-led in­sur­gency. They man­aged to sur­vive po­lit­i­cally by us­ing the an­tag­o­nism be­tween the two ma­jor na­tional par­ties – the United Na­tional Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Free­dom Party (SLFP).

Mus­lims were ac­tive sup­port­ers of the mil­i­tary cam­paigns against the LTTE. They were use­fully em­ployed by the mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence to gather in­for­ma­tion about the ter­ror­ists. As a re­sult, they in­vited the wrath of the LTTE which hounded out a large num­ber of Mus­lims from their homes in the north­ern prov­ince on hardly a day’s no­tice.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­port sub­mit­ted to the UN High Com­mis­sioner for Hu­man Rights, Nave­neetham Pil­lay, by the Sri Lankan Mus­lim Congress (SLMC), there were about 231 at­tacks against Mus­lims in 2013. Chris­tians were also tar­geted in 61 such cases dur­ing the year. Iron­i­cally, Sri Lanka’s Min­is­ter of Jus­tice, Rauf Ha­keem, who is also a leader of the SLMC, handed over the re­port to Pil­lay which came in handy for Pil­lay to strengthen her case against Sri Lanka on its fail­ure to im­ple­ment the UN Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion (UNHRC) res­o­lu­tion. This pro­voked the wrath of Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa against the SLMC leader with no im­prove­ment in the sit­u­a­tion.

Sin­hala Bud­dhist ac­tivism started in the wake of the Kandyan re­bel­lion by Sin­hala chief­tains which was ruth­lessly crushed by the colo­nial forces in 1817-18. Ana­garika Dharmapala (1864-1933), a Bud­dhist lay preacher, mar­shalled the la­tent anti-Bri­tish sen­ti­ments and cam­paigned for the re­vival and re­asser­tion of the Sin­hala Bud­dhist iden­tity. He was against the con­ver­sion of Bud­dhists by Chris­tians and Mus­lims.

From time to time, this phe­nom­e­non had mor­phed into an­timi­nor­ity cam­paigns. In June 1915, 35 Mus­lims were killed and 198 in­jured in hate at­tacks by Sin­halese in the cen­tral, western and north-western prov­inces. As many as 86 mosques were dam­aged and 4,075 shops looted. Seven­teen churches were also burnt down.

But with the rise of lib­eral pol­i­tics, such ex­trem­ist sen­ti­ment had cooled down. How­ever, it did not die down. Even as late as 2002 and 2004, the places of wor­ship of both Mus­lims and Chris­tian were the tar­gets of hate at­tacks. But what is in­trigu­ing is the fail­ure of the Ra­japaksa govern­ment to curb them, par­tic­u­larly when Sri Lanka was be­ing pil­lo­ried in the UNHRC for its poor hu­man rights record.

The only tan­gi­ble ac­tion from Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa came af­ter a BBS mob, led by monks, in­vaded the of­fice of the Min­is­ter of In­dus­try and Com­merce, Rishad Bathi­udeen, shout­ing slo­gans against him for re­lo­cat­ing the in­ter­nally dis­placed Mus­lims within the Wil­pattu for­est land. For­tu­nately, the min­is­ter was not in of­fice at that time. Bathi­udeen, leader of the All Cey­lon Makkal Congress (ACMC), has been a loyal sup­porter of Pres­i­dent Ra­japaksa. The raid was the fi­nal straw for him as he openly crit­i­cized the po­lice for in­ac­tion.

The pres­i­dent has now cre­ated a spe­cial po­lice unit un­der the Min­istry of Buddha Sasana to deal with such anti-re­li­gious ac­tiv­i­ties. Ap­par­ently, the govern­ment is re­luc­tant to treat re­li­gious hate crimes un­der nor­mal crim­i­nal laws. This has caused a lot of sus­pi­cion in the minds of not only mi­nori­ties but civil so­ci­ety and other po­lit­i­cal par­ties as well about the govern­ment’s in­ten­tions. Al­most the en­tire op­po­si­tion, the left­ist po­lit­i­cal par­ties and even the JHU have crit­i­cized the govern­ment’s move.

It is a moot point how non-Bud­dhists can ex­pect jus­tice for their grievances against Bud­dhist zealots from the Min­istry of Buddha Sasana whose aim is the “pro­tec­tion, prop­a­ga­tion and ex­pan­sion of Ther­avada Bud­dhism”.

In an ar­ti­cle, crit­i­ciz­ing the cre­ation of the spe­cial po­lice unit, Bishop Duleep de Chick­era wrote, “The govern­ment's re­luc­tance to achieve this very aim through the ex­ist­ing and ad­e­quately man­dated and de­ployed force is puz­zling." The Bishop said it was "for rea­son­able people to be­lieve that the au­thor­i­ties are un­able to bring the sit­u­a­tion un­der con­trol. This in­ac­tion must con­se­quently point to some elec­toral ex­pec­ta­tion and soon, if not al­ready, the people will re­al­ize that if some are al­lowed to be ha­rassed for elec­toral gain to­day, oth­ers will sim­i­larly be al­lowed to be ha­rassed for elec­toral gain, to­mor­row."

In a re­cent in­ter­view, the Min­is­ter for Na­tional Lan­guages and So­cial In­te­gra­tion, Va­sudeva Nanayakara was even more di­rect. He said that the BBS was “en­joy­ing sup­port from a high-rank­ing state of­fi­cial. That is why its mem­bers are be­hav­ing in such a man­ner. Even the po­lice are le­nient to­wards them ow­ing to this. There is some­one im­ped­ing the po­lice from car­ry­ing out in­ves­ti­ga­tions against the BBS."

If this is cor­rect, who is the leader at the top en­cour­ag­ing these ac­tivists?

There is a po­lit­i­cal con­text to such sus­pi­cions. The rul­ing coali­tion is hav­ing in­ter­nal prob­lems, giv­ing rise to the spec­u­la­tion that the pres­i­dent may call for early elec­tions. So the pos­si­bil­ity of mi­nori­ties be­ing the fall guys to garner con­ser­va­tive south­ern Sin­hala sup­port for Ra­japaksa is there. Such pos­si­bil­i­ties get stronger as the ac­tivist at­tacks are cen­tred mostly in Ham­ban­tota district, the home turf of the Ra­japak­sas.

If this is true, it would be a very short-sighted move as it could dis­rupt peace and har­mony among var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing in the coun­try.

On May 19, Sri Lanka cel­e­brated the fifth an­niver­sary of the well-mer­ited vic­tory over the LTTE sep­a­ratists af­ter fight­ing them for two and a half decades. But the hope of the mi­nori­ties that the hard-earned vic­tory would bring in per­ma­nent peace still ap­pears to be be­lied by the rise of Sin­hala chau­vin­ist at­tacks against mi­nori­ties.

With two na­tions – In­dia and Pak­istan – hav­ing large Mus­lim pop­u­la­tions in the close vicin­ity of Sri Lanka, it can lead to se­ri­ous in­ter­na­tional reper­cus­sions. It is hoped that bet­ter sense will pre­vail among the power in­ter­ests be­hind this dan­ger­ous game.

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