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The Fashion Bug case: A turning point for Muslim rights in Sri Lanka

Buddhist monks on the rampage at Fashion Bug as Police just look

The judicial case related to the violent attack on Muslim owned Fashion Bug head office and warehouse in Pepiliyana, 10 km away from Colombo, is destined to be a turning point in Muslim Rights in Sri Lanka.

Following is a brief recap of the incident in order to get the context right.

As the darkness descends around 8.00 p.m. on 28th March, the mob, which has been there for some time, came out form the Sunetradevi Pirivana Temple nearby. The mob was led by Buddhist monks. Their first target was the Emerald Trading, a Muslim owned heavy vehicle yard. According to its owner Mursi Ahamad Sadoon, all the vehicles and equipment in the yard were stoned and the office was set on fire by the mob.  He estimates the damage to exceed 10 million Rupees.

Then the mob turned their wrath against the Fashion Bug warehouse and its outlet.  By this time the mob has grown to a few hundred, estimates vary from 200 to 500. Led by monks, the mob was shouting anti-Muslim slogans and had become very aggressive. They assaulted the workers of the Fashion Bug, injured a   journalist and harassed number of media personal. The mob caused extensive damages to the building, merchandise and vehicles.

The BBC’s Charles Haviland reported to the world that ‘the police reportedly stood by as Buddhist monks attacked a Muslim shop’. AFP story said that ‘eyewitnesses said the police stood and watched although after the trouble spread they brought it under control’.

The police took few hours to bring the situation under control but did not make any arrests on the spot. No one was baton charged or tear gassed.  Behaviour of the police showed great contrast to its proven ability to use batons, tear gas, water cannons and even live bullets to suppress legitimate protest of workers, fisherman and students in the recent past.

Within hours, videos depicting the mob violence led by monks against Fashion Bug, while the police was standing still went viral on the Internet. One local TV station too ran the footage.  Online media started to post inflammatory speeches of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS): “We have all the proof about the Fashion Bug and No Limit outlets and what they are doing to your girl children! Harems are being created. Are we to sit back and allow this to happen? Hereafter we will only send our boys to work in these shops. They will no longer get our women!  We are not asking anyone to go and stone these places and attack them.” (WSWS). Evan the Chinese government owned news agency Xinhua filed a long story under the caption “Sri Lankan Muslims fear reprisals as monks vent anger”. Quickly extremist Buddhist groups on the receiving end of multiplying social media reporting on how the attack was premeditated.

Minster of Justice, Rauf Hakeem, leader of the main Muslim political party, a ruling coalition partner, called for justice and requested an immediate Cabinet meeting to discuss the matter. He tried to make a collective effort with other Muslim political leaders in the ruling coalition. In both endeavors, he miserably failed.

Police went on damage control. Next day Daily Mirror quoted the Police to tell its readers that ‘Fashion Bug clothing outlet which suffered damages was not the main focus of the mob attack’. And the BBS issued a statement denying its involvement in the attack and urged the authorities to take action against the attackers.

The miracle 01 happened the same day. The suspects started to surrender, including 3 Buddhist monks who were on the videos.

The Miracle 02 happened on the next day; the 30th March 2013. When the case was taken up in Court, Fashion Bug, informed Court that ”it was not necessary to detain the suspects, particularly the clergy, in remand for the purpose of holding an identification parade, as such a situation could further erode national harmony and cause serious damage and prejudice locally as well as internationally. Therefore with the intention to maintain peace, it was informed to Court that Fashion Bug will not continue with the action any further” (FT).

Approving the Fashion Bug’s submission the police informed the Court that ‘because of the responsible civic conscious attitude of Fashion Bug they were able avert a national issue.’ (FT)  DIG Anura Senanayaka, a known policeman of the regime, told reporters gathered at the Gangodavila magistrate court premises “To withdraw their claims in the name of national peace despite being the victims of an attack of this magnitude is truly exemplary” (DM).

The magistrate who initially  refused to accept the position taken by the police to release the suspects, later discharged all of them without any charges being framed against them.

Fashion Bug owners, issuing a statement, thanked both the media and the President: Media for covering the issue accurately (i.e. providing the video and photo evidence of the perpetrators!) and the President for his vehement pursuit of truth and justice with regard to the matter!. They thanked DIG Anura Senanayaka and not the IGP for ‘establishing swift law and order’. (after few hours, of course!)

Minister for Justice and SLMC leader told BBC Sinhala service that ‘he had a conversation with the owner of Fashion Bug and he was convinced that the so called settlement was forced upon him and the rule of the law had been challenged. He further added that releasing the suspects within 24 hours stating that the two parties involved in the incident reached a settlement cannot be accepted.’ (SLM). This was Minster of Justice speaking on Rule of Law!

Now we can make some observations:

  1. Rauf Hakeem and SLMC have  lost any leverage with regard to ongoing anti Muslim campaign by the Buddhist extremists. His appeal for an urgent cabinet meeting was thrown to the dustbin. It was only few weeks ago that N.M. Ameen, Head of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, appealed directly to the President by passing  the SLMC leader.
  2.  Muslim Business leaders like the Fashion Bug owner think that if they file charges against Buddhist extremists for violent vandalism directed against their business it may ‘further erode national harmony and cause serious damage…’: It justifies the Xinhua story that  ‘Sri Lankan Muslims fear reprisals as monks vent anger’
  3.  The Police indirectly warns/advices Muslims that in such situations, they better behave with a ‘responsible civic conscious attitude’ and not to complain against extremist mobs because it may course ‘a national issue’.  (It seems as the attack on Emerald Trading causing 10 M damage didn’t reach the law enforcement agencies at all. Another ‘responsible civic conscious attitude indeed’!)
  4.  The Police praise the releasing of violent mob ” is truly exemplary in the name of national peace”.
  5.  According to Minster of Justice Rauf Hakeem the owners of the Fashion Bug were forced to withdraw the charges, and the police action in releasing the mob suspects is not acceptable. So the so-called civic conscious  and truly exemplary  attitude was not voluntary.

From these observations a few conclusions can be drawn.

Muslims in Sri Lanka should not complain and seek judicial redress against Buddhist extremist violence directed against them because it may cause national issues and further damages. They should behave like responsible civic conscious citizens (read as keep your heads down) in the face of anti-Muslim hatred and assaults.  In case they dare to seek judicial redress, this so called exemplary responsible civic consciousness will be forced upon them by the state. And the Muslim businessmen will accept it and praise the perpetrator.

These conclusions point to  the turning point.

As shown by the Fashion Bug case Muslim rights cannot be protected by relying on business or political leaders. They will be forced to compromise on political and economical privileges. Muslims’ right to equality needs to be part and parcel of larger movement for democratic reforms in Sri Lanka. Muslim civil society needs to get the struggle out of ethnic straight jacket and start mainstreaming it.

If not unfortunately remaining alternative will be to look at Myanmar and sigh.

( WSWS- World Socialist Web Site; FT- Financial Times; DM – Daily Mirror; SLM – Sri Lanka Mirror)