Aluthgama violence: Where was Sri Lanka’s President?

Photo by Dinouk Colombage, via Al Jazeera

The horrible killings and destruction in Aluthgama on Sunday was blacked out by almost all mainstream media in Sri Lanka at the height of the violence and the morning after. However, the violence was in detail and close to real time covered extensively over social media, leading to a documentation many times greater and more detailed than what the Government of Sri Lanka would have liked.

This documentation generated an unprecedented response from the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a vote block that has staunchly supported Sri Lanka at resolutions moved at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The statement,

…expressed serious concern at the recent incidents of violence by extremist individuals against Muslims in the towns of Aluthgama, Beruwala and Draga Nagar in Sri Lanka. The reports of several fatalities and dozens injured as well as attacks on homes, businesses and mosques are deeply regrettable.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, expressing his concern about the attacks on Muslims in Sri Lanka, urged “the Government to investigate alleged attacks on members of religious minority groups” as well as “take necessary measures to prevent any deterioration of the situation and to launch an immediate investigation into the incidents”.

On 16th June, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed her deep alarm around the violence, noting that,

“I am very concerned this violence could spread to Muslim communities in other parts of the country,” Pillay continued. “The authorities must immediately bring the perpetrators of such attacks to book and make it clear to the religious leadership on both sides, and to political parties and the general public, that there is no place for inflammatory rhetoric and incitement to violence.”

The US State Department in its Daily Briefing condemned the violence in Sri Lanka and noted that,

We are concerned by inflammatory rhetoric that has incited violence in recent days, resulting in several deaths, scores of injuries, and destruction of personal property. We urge the Sri Lankan Government to fulfill its obligations to protect religious minorities, including protecting all citizens and places of worship, conducting a full investigation into the violence, and bringing those responsible to justice. We also urge all sides to refrain from violence, exercise restraint, and respect the rule of law. The United States Government continues to stand by the many millions of Sri Lankans who want a peaceful and unified country.

This echoed a statement by the US Embassy in Colombo which also condemned the violence, and urged both the “government to ensure that order is preserved and the lives of all citizens, places of worship, and property are protected” and “the authorities to investigate these attacks and bring those responsible to justice”. The statement was released in Sinhala and Tamil as well.

On 16 June, Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom in a series of tweets as well as an official statement offered “condolences to the families and friends of the deceased and wish a speedy recovery to those injured”. Condemning the violence, Amb. Bennett went on to say that,

“This is one of a number of recent and troubling attacks targeting the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. It is of the utmost importance that every person is able to practise his or her faith free from the threat of violence. We urge Sri Lankan authorities to act quickly to ensure the safety of all communities. These attacks are completely unacceptable and a clear violation of the right to religious freedom.”

Amongst others, by Tuesday, 17th June, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), National Peace Council (NPC), Ven. Davuldena Gnanissara Thera, the Chief Prelate of the Amarapura Sect (see original letter here), and Sri Lanka’s Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe had made official statements regarding the violence.

But where, one may ask, was Sri Lanka’s President in the middle of all this violence and what was he doing? He was getting an award which recognises contributions to peace and democracy from Bolivia.

One may also ask, in light of very real fears over the escalation and expansion of violence, what the official response of the President of Sri Lanka was to the worst communal riots to hit the country in years?

Seven trite tweets – two in English, two in Sinhala, three in Tamil. Plus two retweets from his son. Cute.

The tweets were published in response to the overwhelming pressure over social media, late Sunday night and the early hours of Monday morning, for the President’s Office to issue some kind of statement to quell the escalation of the violence. Incredibly, there is not a single word of condemnation, condolence, regret or concern to date around the violence in Aluthgama from the President’s office. The only official statement by Government around the violence was made by the Prime Minister to Parliament yesterday, and predictably sought to downplay the killings and destruction.

The President’s official Facebook page has nothing to date on the violence. The President’s Twitter profile has pinned a tweet of him attending the G77 summit, from 15th June. The scale of violence and its aftermath get no mention at all. The President’s official website doesn’t have anything on Aluthgama at all.

Ayeshea Perera, writing in Firstpost, captures the problem around this callousness succinctly,

By tweeting, the President was only addressing the people who actually knew of what was happening via the same social channels. Because while the news was getting out, it was only getting out to the minuscule portion of the Sri Lankan population with access to social media.

This meant that for a majority of the people – and most importantly for the people affected on the ground – their leaders had not spoken. They had chosen to turn a blind eye to the inflammatory speech made by Galagodaaththe Gnanasara, the leader of the extremist Sinhala group, the Bodu Bala Sena which started the violence.

When combined with the downright bizarre responses to the violence by Sri Lanka’s diplomatic corps, the question must be asked – how much faith can one have in the government to reign in perpetrators and high-level architects of this outrageous violence, including thugs garbed in saffron, when it can’t even issue an official statement?

As was accurately observed on Twitter,

https://twitter.com/apelankawe/status/478912813117616128

  • PV

    Everytime Mr Mahinda Rajapaksha goes out of the country… there’s an attack on the muslim coomunity.. there were rumors even before this incident happened that atrocities are planned against muslim communities. as soon as he goes to G77.. so we know now it wasn’t rumors.. it was facts.. [edited out]. for money and all the support.. but still muslims are targeted. it wont go on for like this for ever… there will be retaliations..

  • david

    Can I get a award from Bolivian Government, of course i will pay them for a nice trip.

  • disgustman

    Surely the BBS video would have been projected in Lalith/Sajin/Samarasinges discussions within hours
    of it hitting the Media, but as author of “Chaos” would want it, all was OKyed. They did have a hidden
    hand and the silence todate proves. Why did not Gotabhaya accompany the President to visit the
    scenes – guilt to the core.