Stop blaming the victims

Photo by Thyagi Ruwanpathirana

In the weeks that have passed since 6-15 (15th June) when Sri Lanka witnessed one of the worst outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence, the official narrative has been as chilling as the events.

The government initially dismissed the violence that has so far claimed at least four lives directly, displaced over 370 families and damaged property worth about Rs. 5.8 billion[1] as a “minor incident”.

Blaming the Victims

The Sri Lanka Government’s first formal statement on the events was delivered at the 26th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, four days after the riots. In a shocking omission of facts, the statement makes no reference to the pre-planned rally held that day in Aluthgama where prominent members of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) addressed a gathering of over 7,000 people, declaring the end of all those who laid a finger on a Sinhalese.[2] Instead the government statement narrated two other incidents, both of which positioned Buddhist monks as victims and Muslims as culprits. The first was an alleged assault on a Buddhist monk by three Muslim youth. The second, described as the ‘incident that led to the violence’ alleged the stoning of monks and other individuals as they were ‘passing a Mosque in Dharga Town’.

The official stance currently formulated is that nebulous and unnamed Muslim extremists are to blame. Following widespread condemnation of the violence, both at home and internationally, Buddhist extremist groups and political parties represented in the ruling alliance were quick to shift the blame to unseen Muslim extremists.

Manipulation through Media

The contortion of facts was not limited to the international fora. A narrative that over-looked the obvious agency of the BBS and placed a spotlight on the bugbear of Muslim extremism was widely reproduced in the state media. In recent years, ample room has been given for propagation of anti-Muslim hate speech and violence, which have been nurtured with alarming frequency. In this context, the mainstreaming of such a misleading narrative is a further disturbing development.

The government blames the eruption of violence on conspirators who have designs to discredit Buddhists and tarnish Sri Lanka’s image internationally. This explanation is now as tired as it is ridiculous. The government has been rolling it out for over five years – especially when journalists and oppositional figures are killed/disappeared. The only difference now is that the conspirators seem to have converted to Islam.

Blamed though they have been, when pushed, military spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya admitted that the military intelligence, maintaining a presence that covers the entire country, has not found any evidence to back claims of Muslim extremist groups operating in Sri Lanka.[3]

Telling the Truth about the Government

The truth has always been different to what the government has said. Today, the truth is that the government of Sri Lanka is the chief incubator and facilitator of extremist Buddhist groups responsible for orchestrating a vitriolic hate campaign against the Muslim community, and whose actions in Aluthgama on the day of the riots were a direct incendiary to the mayhem and violence.

Any attempt to re-write the story of Aluthgama by tracing the source of trauma to non-existent Muslim extremists must be called out for its falsehood. The people in Sri Lanka today, and especially the Muslims should recognise the true face that they have to fear. It is the face that masquerades as the solution, when in fact it is the problem. It is the face that controls the monopoly on violence. Sri Lankans, no matter their ethnicity or religion, who forget this or fail to see it will do so at their own future peril. 

Members of Parliament Must Move on the Matter

MPs who have spoken straight and called a spade a spade have invariably suffered vilification and pushback from the government. Minister Rauf Hakeem too has been attacked for voicing opposition to what has happened. Yet, he will need to do more to establish the credibility of the SLMC, win back the confidence of the Muslim people and recover at least a modicum of dignity to the Ministry of Justice which he heads for the government.

Others with self-respect in parliament who also now know that what happened, and the way it has been covered up, simply cannot allow these events to be glossed-over or forgotten. If they do, it will happen again. High officials have trotted out illogical and false explanations, and since the government will not, at least members of parliament must move to hold them to account.

The Government is Accountable

Events of 6-15 in Aluthgama, Beruwala, and the surrounding areas, and their aftermath, should leave no further doubts that the only way to salvage from the current malaise is for all citizens, Muslims included, to steadfastly insist that the political establishment and the institutions of government in Sri Lanka be subject to democracy and be accountable to the citizens.

The non-accountability of the state is today’s most critical problem. It is this problem that makes international attention on Sri Lanka a relief to the citizens of Sri Lanka and victims of this government. The wisdom of the SLMC in drawing international attention to information on past violence is now evident. Perhaps the SLMC has not done it enough. The religious entities, particularly the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, having experienced on earlier occasions in allowing it’s outreach and credibility amongst the Muslim community to be used would do well to refrain from areas that are strictly not their expertise.

The government will not change its ways until those who call the shots and the high officials who dance to their tunes are made to face the force of accountability. Accountability to the public, accountability to justice, and accountability to universal human values that we all share, irrespective of our ethnicities and religions.

A.M.Faaiz, LL.M, Attorney-at-law

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[1] http://parliament.lk/uploads/documents/hansard/1403758521021898.pdf (Speech by MP Mohamed Aslam, 20 June 2014)

[2] D.B.S.Jeyaraj, ‘Anatomy of Anti-Muslim Violence: How “Bodhu Bala Sena” Mobs Caused Mayhem in Aluthgama and Beruwela’ on 29 June 2014, at http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/30652

[3] http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2014/06/22/no-jihadists-in-sri-lanka/ and http://www.ceylontoday.lk/51-67253-news-detail-pak-roundup-began-after-mrs-return-from-delhi.html

  • srivanamoth

    SL’s image is well known and demonstrated through actions in the country. It is as bad as the object.

  • Jack Point

    An excellent article that raises all the important issues. It should be sent to all members of parliament along with note telling them to examine their conscience and for once act in the interests of the people.

    • Fitzpatrick

      That would be worth while if they had a conscience !

    • zaa4

      Agreed, an excellent article that summarises the key issues in the govt’s response. Only point missing is a critique of the way in which the govt has/ has not provided redress to the victims, and the concerns expressed by the Muslim community that quick deployment of police / army personnel in the clean-up efforts was to “hide the evidence.”

  • Dev

    “With friends like these who needs enemies?”

    Similarly with monks like these who needs “international conspirators” to tarnish the image of this triply blessed land !