In the aftermath of the violence unleashed against Muslims in Aluthgama someone said, in an interview published in a mainstream daily: “We strongly feel some extreme groups were behind this and there was a plan to cause trouble.” While this would seem to be a fair assessment of the situation, it was not a Muslim [...]


Aluthgama aftermath – the official game of smoke and mirrors


In the aftermath of the violence unleashed against Muslims in Aluthgama someone said, in an interview published in a mainstream daily: “We strongly feel some extreme groups were behind this and there was a plan to cause trouble.” While this would seem to be a fair assessment of the situation, it was not a Muslim resident of Aluthgama who said it, not the police, or any rights group or civil society representative or Member of Parliament. It was the Bodu Bala Sena.

“We know nothing about this. All we know is that there was a clash between Muslims and Sinhalese,” the BBS spokesman is quoted as saying. Considering that BBS chief Gnanasara’s incendiary, venomous anti-Muslim speech at a rally preceding the incidents is freely accessible on Youtube for anyone to see and hear, the ‘butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-the-mouth’ coolness of the organisations’s shopfront style would seem to merit closer study. The LTTE too was given to making deadpan statements, usually to foreign media, in the wake of its atrocities.

Within days of the violence in Aluthgama it was reported that Ven. Watareka Wijitha Thera who has been previously publicly attacked by BBS, accused by them of being pro-Muslim, was found assaulted, bound and dumped on a roadside in Panadura. In hospital he told media that he was assaulted and ‘cut’ by a group of men in robes. BBS has denied knowledge of the incident and is on record saying it ‘condemned the act.’

Official response
How did officialdom respond to the anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama last Sunday that spread to surrounding areas, leading to predictable retaliatory attacks? The police spokesman has repeatedly said that the law will be enforced, and has been announcing rising number of arrests each day. But strangely the single individual whose utterances are widely believed to have instigated the trouble remains free. If those utterances do not constitute ‘hate speech,’ then what does, one is tempted to ask.

It may be recalled that not so long ago a tourist was arrested for no greater offence than sporting a Buddha tattoo, under a law that forbade ‘deliberately and maliciously outraging the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.’ How is it that this law was not applicable in the case of Aluthgama? Justice Minister and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauf Hakeem, and Bar Association President Upul Jayasuriya have separately called for action against ‘the person responsible’ for having instigated trouble. Jayasuriya has said there is provision in existing laws to do so.

The other question repeatedly asked is why the police permitted the rally to take place at all, knowing that there had been an altercation involving a Buddhist monk and a Muslim youth a few days earlier, as a result of which sectarian tensions were already in the air. The meeting was allowed in spite of appeals to the police to stop it in view of the prevailing tensions. The response of the IGP to this question was that he had assurances from the parties concerned that it would be a peaceful religious rally and he never expected disturbances to follow. It would seem ironic that the IGP could not make an accurate assessment of a situation that almost any member of the public could have done, knowing the extremist credentials of the listed speaker.

Was it the case that the IGP and his officers were for some reason compromised, and could not act on the basis of their better judgment? Certainly this seems to be what Minister Hakeem has been hinting at in media briefings where he said the police spokesman is ‘unable to say certain things.’ He questioned how it was possible for incidents to occur during the curfew.

International repercussions
News on the Aluthgama incidents has been circulated in the international media and has featured in statements at the UN as well. A local rights organisation making submissions at the 26th session of the Human Rights Council has reportedly accused the Defence Secretary, who is the president’s brother, of being “directly involved in supporting the BBS through participating in their public events.”

In the absence of any condemnation by the government of the BBS’s ongoing hate mongering against religious minorities, it is inevitable that the outfit will be seen to have patronage in very high places. It has become difficult to ignore the finger-pointing in the direction of government insiders for their perceived sympathies with the BBS — a group that has been profiled by political analysts as having the elements of a fascist organisation.

The events of the past week have resonated through the country, as the widespread observance of Friday’s hartal in several districts shows. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has expressed “serious concern” over attacks by Buddhist hardliners in Sri Lanka on Muslims, IANS reported. This is bad news for the government since Sri Lanka has always counted on the support of the Islamic states in the UN, and now more than ever needs to keep its friends in the HRC.

Government’s ambivalence
While the Muslim communities of Aluthgama and surrounding areas struggle to restore normalcy to their lives following attacks on their persons and property by Sinhala Buddhist thugs, JHU Minister Champika Ranawake’s allegation that ‘Jihadists’ were responsible for the incidents strikes a surreal note. It would appear that the government’s strangely ambivalent stance is influenced by Buddhist nationalist hardliners within the ruling coalition. A situation has been created where, when a government representative issues a warning about ‘extremist elements’ and pledges to ‘deal with them,’ it is no longer possible to know who they are referring to. There appear to be two kinds of extremists now — ‘ours’ and ‘theirs.’

The Government needs to come clean about its stance in relation to the BBS, whose impunity is encouraged by the official silence. Making anodyne statements on religious harmony and issuing ambiguous warnings about unspecified ‘extremists,’ doesn’t help the cause of national reconciliation any more than it is likely to help the regime to stay in power.

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