One of the biggest failures of the previous Government was its inability to convert the opportunity created by the end of the armed conflict to rebuild the trust between the Sinhala and Tamil communities. What was worse since around 2012 a new front was opened up with the Muslim community being targeted by groups like [...]


Urgent Government action needed to arrest hate speech


One of the biggest failures of the previous Government was its inability to convert the opportunity created by the end of the armed conflict to rebuild the trust between the Sinhala and Tamil communities. What was worse since around 2012 a new front was opened up with the Muslim community being targeted by groups like the Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya, creating unease and insecurity in a community that had been peacefully coexisting with other communities for centuries.

This failure on the part of the previous Government greatly contributed to its downfall at the presidential election of 2015 with the minorities lining up to give President Maithripala Sirisena massive electoral support resulting in a change of Government.

The question that needs to be asked three years into the Yahapalana Government’s rule is whether the situation has since changed and whether the minorities and in particular the Muslims feel more secure and safe.

In examining the situation, one observes that at the highest levels of Government the leadership repeatedly affirms the need to build National Unity and Reconciliation and that all communities should enjoy equal rights and that mistakes of the past should not be repeated in creating an inclusive society.

It is not only President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who publicly extoll the virtues of communal harmony but even several Ministers time and again echo the sentiments of the Government leadership. The importance the Yahapalana Government places on National Reconciliation is underscored by the creation of a new Ministry of National Integration and National Reconciliation under the President himself together with the Ministry of Co-existence and National Dialogue under Mano Ganeshan as well as the setting up of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation under the chairmanship of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

While all these institutions are doing a great deal of work to rebuild understanding between the communities, parallel and in direct opposition to these efforts there is a unrelenting hate campaign being carried out which has the effect of dividing the communities and driving them further apart.

While there are many self-styled ‘patriots’ who cry themselves hoarse about fighting separation and agitating against a new Constitution on the grounds that it will divide the country, the same faces that are both now and in the past working to keep the communities apart and thereby divide and weaken the country are seen on these ‘patriotic’ platforms. It is, therefore, not difficult to conclude that both these forces see a political advantage in using hate speech to destabilise the country and achieve their ends.

What has to be noted, however, is that these destructive forces are using the post January 8, 2015 democratic space to undermine the goal of National Reconciliation that the Yahapalana Government has set out for itself.

In addition to organisations like the Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya, new purveyors of hate speech like Mahason Balakaya, Api Sinhale and Sinhala Jathika Balamuluwa keep springing up like mushrooms and actively pursue a hate agenda. These new organisations while resorting to conventional methods of propaganda are using social media to carry out a hate campaign against Muslims in particular.

It was a well known phenomenon in the past that people would believe anything that appeared in print in the newspapers. People would swear to the veracity of any story with the “why it was in the newspapers” affirmation. Today the social media has superceded the newspaper and people are bombarded with images and stories which are accepted without verification as almost gospel truth. When these messages convey hate speech prejudices and misgivings are created which in turn create changes in attitudes which tend to become deep seated.

During the past few weeks Social Media has been full of brazen hate speech announcing a rally to be held in Alawwa in the Kurunegala District ostensibly against “Muslim extremism”.

A few of the slogans circulated in these messages on social media are as follows:

  •  17 Sinhalese shops have been taken on lease by Muslims in Alawwa
  •  They are also planning to build a mosque in Alawwa
  •  If Mawanella, which was the home of Sura Saradiel, became Muslim, there is nothing to prevent Alawwa also becoming a Muslim township

All these messages are intended to create doubts and suspicions among the Sinhala Buddhists against the Muslims. The surprising fact is that the Police have failed to act against the dissemination of such hate speech nor against the organisers of these hate rallies despite several complaints being made. In fact, the Police should be alert enough to act even without complaints being made to prevent anything untoward from happening. It is this kind of buildup that created the environment for the incidents in Dharga Town in 2014 and in Gintota in recent weeks.

While the efforts of civil society and Government to build trust between communities and bring about national reconciliation are continuing, the efforts of law enforcement authorities in ensuring that no one undermines such efforts in contravention of the law of the land are critical. While the laws on the statute books may be sufficient to bring to book offenders and purveyors of hate speech, it is more important for Government to act proactively and prevent the recurrence of such acts. This is as important as bringing any offenders to book after such acts have been committed.

The Gintota incidents were a reflection of the environment that has been created in the country by purveyors of hate speech. Such an environment enabled a private incident (an accident) between a Sinhalese and a Muslim to be converted into an opportunity to unleash communal violence. There are reports that the incident was used to fuel further clashes between the Muslims and Sinhalese by ‘outside reinforcements” from the Sinhalese community. This was the same pattern that transpired in Dharga Town and Alutgama in 2014.

The Government needs to prepare itself for pro-active action to face the challenge of destabilisation caused by hate crimes. The Police have to be given an orientation and training to deal with situations that arise from hate campaigns in an impartial yet decisive manner. In the pre-January 8 days the Police were under a Government with a different focus while the Yahapalana Government is committed to a reconciliation focus.

It is not sufficient for government leaders to spell out their goals on platforms. They need to ensure that systems are put in place which will ensure a realization of such goals efficaciously.

The forthcoming local council elections should be used to drive home the Government’s commitment to reconciliation. The SLFP and the UNP in particular, but other parties as well, should take great pains to field candidates who are committed to national unity and communal harmony in addition to other qualities like integrity and desire to genuinely serve the public.

Such politicians at local government level will be invaluable assets in building and strengthening relationships between communities at the grass root level
The Government’s good intentions alone will not achieve results. It will have to shed some of its customary indecisiveness and immediately put in place systems that can deal with the phenomenon of hate speech and its consequences.

Failure to do so can be disastrous and prove fatal to the task of building national unity and reconciliation. ( )

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