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23 June 2014
The government appears to have
woken up to the gravity of the problem posed by repeated attacks on the Muslim
community The police have announced that they will not permit meetings that cause
ethnic or religious hatred to be generated This new policy is to be welcomed to the
degree that it is implemented in fact! and is not simply restricted to rhetoric The police
have become a scapegoat for permitting the ""# to hold the public rally that ended up
in anti Muslim violence $owever! there is a doubt whether the government will instruct
the police to go ahead and arrest and prosecute those who instigated the violence and
that this will be done on the ground %lthough &resident Mahinda 'a(apaksa himself
has denounced those who engage in violence! the indications are that the momentum
in favour of continuation of sporadic violence that keeps the country on tenterhooks
will be hard to reverse in these circumstances
The latest victim of anti Muslim carnage has been the large )*o +imit, -epartment
#tore in &anadura! a town that is close to the scene of the large scale anti Muslim
violence the previous week in %luthgama %lthough the preliminary police reports
stated that it was possibly due to an electrical fault in the middle of the night! the timing
of the fire suggests a connection with the previous violence The &olice #pokesman
has been reported as saying that a group had asked all Muslim shops to be closed on
Thursday but *o +imit stores in .ellawatte and -ehiwela had remained open #i/
persons! four in a three wheeler and two on a motorbicycle had met the managers at
the two shops and demanded to know why they remained open while other shops
were closed This suggests a pre0planned operation! (ust as much as the way in which
the %luthgama violence took place suggests another pre0planned operation
$owever! there is an effort to downplay the significance and the seriousness of the
anti0Muslim violence by both those who are public spirited and those who are narrowly
nationalist There are public spirited citi1ens who believe that the violence must not be
given prominence as it is detrimental to the country2s national interests %lready some
countries have put #ri +anka on their travel advisories due to the violence! which
would negatively impact on the tourist industry 3t would also lead to prospective
foreign investors deciding to invest in other countries rather than take the risk of
seeing their investments go up in flames due to an eruption of communal violence
There are also some who would wish to downplay the violence by saying that the
violent acts of a few tarnish the good name of the ma(ority of #inhala "uddhist people
who do not agree with what is being done in their name
&4+3T35%+ "6*673T
The anti Muslim violence in %luthgama has once again highlighted the vulnerability of
#ri +ankan society to ethnic and religious polari1ation The attack on Muslim0owned
shops and houses in the town was by people who came from outside for the most
part $owever! previous such attacks were on individual targets! including mos8ues
and shops 3n most of those previous incidents the responses by the police and
security forces was slow or ineffective with the miscreants going free! which created a
climate of impunity for the attackers The costs have been high with at least four
persons being reported killed! more than 90 in(ured and many shops and houses
destroyed or damaged The actual casualty figures may be more
The government failed in its duty on more than one count The immediate failure was
to permit a public rally in %luthgama that led to the mob violence The rally was held in
the aftermath of an altercation between a small group of Muslim men and a "uddhist
monk over a traffic dispute on the road The version that appeared in the media was
that three Muslim men assaulted a "uddhist monk after getting into an altercation with
his driver %nother version is that it was the driver who got assaulted and not the
monk .hatever be the truth of the matter! it is totally unacceptable that there should
have been any sort of attack on shops and homes of others merely because they
belonged to the same ethnic or religious community of the persons with whom a
private dispute had arisen #uch acts of collective vengeance are what racism is
about 3t would be necessary for the government to compensate those who lost their
lives and properties in the communal attacks in which the government failed in its duty
to protect them
4n the other hand! the political benefits that accrue to those who are instigating or
(ustifying the violence remain high The #inhalese nationalist parties within the
government which appeared to be on collision course with the government a few
weeks ago! on issues such as corruption and devolution of power to the Tamils! now
have emerged as its strongest defenders They are claiming that the violence was
actually started by the Muslims and that they too should be blamed! which is
comforting to the #inhalese ma(ority who are unsure of the facts of the case The
government has therefore been able to rally together the #inhalese and able to claim
even an international conspiracy to discredit the country and put it further into trouble
The political benefits that therefore accrue to the government can tend to perpetuate
the violence that has been continuing now for over two years
:4;6'*M6*T 7%3+<'6#
The danger in permitting the situation to drift is that it can lead to radicali1ation 3nter
community relations between #inhalese and Muslims are currently not based on fear
of each other <ndoubtedly there are misapprehensions and pre(udices that members
of different communities have with each other "ut even though some of them might
look down or in askance at the others cultural and religious practices! there is no fear
of each other This can change if the present sporadic violence engaged in
organi1ations such as ""# are permitted to grow #ections of the media that valori1e
those who have been at the forefront of attacking the other community can create role
models for youth which will lead to violence in the future 3f the situation deteriorates
the ne/t step in the downward spiral will be fear of the other #ri +anka will move in the
direction of further entrenched conflict .e only recently got out of one! now we are
heading towards another
Thus far the Muslims have chosen the path of engagement as their way of conflict
resolution They have stayed within the framework of overall government policy even
while asserting their rights This is because the Muslims have decided that they are
going to live side by side with the other communities in #ri +anka and there is no
desire for separation on their part %lthough the #+M5 presented a document to the
<* $uman 'ights 5ommissioner giving details of incidents of harassment of Muslims!
it continues to remain a partner of the government %lthough Minister 'ishard
"athiudeen filed legal action against the ""# for marching into his ministry and
defaming him! he remains committed to the government This is evidence of both
pragmatism and also the desire to solve problems within the e/isting framework This
needs to be appreciated by the larger community of #ri +ankans! cherished and built
#ri +anka2s own history and international e/perience shows that inter0community
relations are fragile! and there is a need for eternal vigilance! which is the price of
democracy The deeper failure of the government has been its unwillingness to come
out and affirm to the country at large that the Muslims and other ethnic minorities are
part and parcel of #ri +anka2s plural society and hate campaigns against them are
impermissible 3nstead for two or more years the ""# has been permitted to
propagate the view that #ri +anka is a #inhala "uddhist country! and that the Muslims
in particular are a threat to its uni8ue identity The sustained hate campaign against
the Muslim community in the %luthgama area and elsewhere in the country has not
been countered by either legal or political means 3t is tragic that five years after the
end of an ethnic0based civil war! another dimension of communal violence is opening
up to cause immense suffering to innocent people % policy of 1ero tolerance to those
who promote communal hatred needs to be implemented