At a recent press briefing the new Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya reportedly warned of attempts by the Tamil diaspora to tarnish the country’s image ahead of several important events — the impending visit of Human Rights chief Navi Pillay, the upcoming Northern PC elections, the UNHRC session and CHOGM. In view of [...]


Grandpass, and the tolerance of religious intolerance


At a recent press briefing the new Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya reportedly warned of attempts by the Tamil diaspora to tarnish the country’s image ahead of several important events — the impending visit of Human Rights chief Navi Pillay, the upcoming Northern PC elections, the UNHRC session and CHOGM.

In view of recent developments, however, it’s hard not to conclude that the Tamil diaspora (and for that matter the NGOs, the Opposition, the human rights crowd and all the usual suspects) won’t have to work very hard at their usual pastime of tarnishing Sri Lanka’s reputation. Perhaps they can all take a rest, seeing that the Government of Sri Lanka is doing such a good job of it itself.

The tensions whipped up at the Grandpass mosque over the last weekend have thankfully been defused peacefully, through a rational discussion among community leaders, members of the clergy and political representatives. The old mosque that had been marked for demolition was restored to the Muslim community for their religious activities.

The removal of the bo-tree that was obstructing any expansion the mosque began with the blessings of the Buddhist clergy in the area. They even went so far as to invite the Muslims to use the temple’s ‘dharma salaawa’ in case they ran short of space to conduct their prayers. This generous gesture of the monks is symbolic of the reserve of goodwill at the people-to-people level that enables communities to live together for generations, in central Colombo as in other parts of this multi-ethnic, multi-religious country.

As far as the ‘country’s image’ was concerned, the damage was already done. The agency reports, the TV news flashes, the online videoclips of CCTV footage showing a stone-throwing Buddhist mob attacking a mosque in Sri Lanka had circled the globe. Where did that mob come from? Who led them? Why were they not apprehended, in spite of the police having been at the site? Were they politically affiliated, and politically protected? What has happened to the country’s law enforcement apparatus, that such acts of impunity take place unchecked, with such monotonous regularity? If the GoSL is not responsible for this state of affairs, then who is?

The spate of attacks on Muslim places of worship and business establishments has been going on for over a year now, and a clear pattern has emerged in what is undoubtedly a hate campaign targeting Muslims. Mosques have been attacked and/or removed in several places including Anuradhapura, Dambulla, Mahiyangana and now Grandpass. Muslim-owned business establishments have been attacked in Colombo suburbs. These crimes are committed in full public view and in the presence of police who are seen doing nothing to apprehend the culprits.

In the case of Grandpass, a Reuters report said “CCTV footage taken from a nearby house, and seen by Reuters, showed people attacking the mosque despite the presence of police.” The Sri Lanka Muslim Council in a media release said the attack took place “in the presence of a large number of police personnel including some senior police officials.” Minister Rishad Bathiudeen is reported to have handed over a DVD with this evidence on record to the IGP, and to have demanded a high level investigation into the police failure to disperse the mob.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of these developments is the apparent governmental tolerance of these acts of religious intolerance. There has been no statement of condemnation as might be expected from the highest level of government. This, combined with the apparent police inaction, rightly or wrongly, gives the impression of state complicity in these crimes. The question needs to be asked as to why the police behave in this manner, and who has instructed them to do so.

Meanwhile hardline Buddhist organisations continue to make vitriolic and inflammatory speeches targeting other religions at public meetings. These same groups immediately come forward when an ‘incident’ takes place, to make denials of having had anything to do with it. The incidents and the denials invariably appear together like pepper and salt. Are these denials made in the safe knowledge that there will be no questioning by law enforcement authorities in order to ascertain their truthfulness?

Another habit of the hardline Buddhist organisations and their fellow travelers in political parties is to make oblique references to Sri Lanka’s peaceable Muslims as if they were militant Islamic fundamentalists, biding their time to destabilise the state. Now, if Sri Lanka’s Muslims harboured militant fundamentalist elements, one can be sure the United States would be the first to track them down. But US embassy cables disclosed by Wikileaks in fact say just the opposite. For instance a cable written on 17 Sept 2007 by US ambassador to Colombo Robert O Blake said:

“In Sri Lanka there is no intelligence to indicate that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are interested in conducting attacks against western targets inside or outside of Sri Lanka and there is little to suggest that Sri Lanka’s Muslim population harbors extremist elements.”

Another dated 9 April 2006 signed by US ambassador Jeffrey J. Lunstead said:

“There was general agreement that the possibility of increased radicalization of the Muslim population in Sri Lanka, especially on the east coast, exists given that the community is marginalized in many ways and has suffered during the twenty-five years of fighting between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). That said, there was also general agreement that there are no concrete signs that “jihadis” are gaining ground in any systematic way and that the government tended to overplay the possibility in the knowledge that it is an issue more likely to catch the eye of G8 after 9/11. ”

The ongoing attempts by Buddhist hardliners to ‘demonise’ Muslims through hate speech and acts of violence are akin to spreading the diesel before tossing the match. The Muslim community has demonstrated admirable restraint in the face of provocations. In Grandpass last Saturday it may have only taken one small retaliatory act on the part of area residents, in the heat of the moment, to have ignited another July 1983. One can be sure that in this age of instant communication the repercussions of such a conflagaration today would be very different from three decades ago, with the world community watching.

A recent opinion piece in the ‘Saudi Gazette’ observed that “It is becoming increasingly obvious that following the 30-year war with the Tamil minority, the Sri Lankan rulers have not learned their lesson,”

Today, they are busily spreading the seeds of discord against another minority; the island’s Muslim Sri Lankans. They are clever enough not to openly support a reign of terror directly. Instead, they quietly look the other way while terrorist Buddhist groups like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) do their dirty work.”

If the government does not act swiftly and decisively to curb the new scourge of ethno religious fascism that has reared its head in this country, it will have much more to worry about than just an ‘image’ problem.

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