Photo: Paula Bronstein for The Global Mail

It is almost five years since the military victory of May 2009 brought an end to three decades of armed conflict. Yet, the prospects for securing a stable and inclusive peace in Sri Lanka appear bleak. The first victim of “peace” was the APRC. This long and important process for developing a consensus-based political solution was marginalised and shelved. The second victim is ethnic and religious relations. Emergent Buddhist extremist groups have been allowed to target and attack both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike with relative impunity – to the point where religious minorities are experiencing a distinct sense of being under siege.

The war’s end was heralded as giving birth to a new era of freedom. However, instead of freedom, our country is gripped with fear. Over the last three years, systems of law and order protecting our basic rights and liberties have been dismantled, the already beaten and bruised press has been further muzzled and constitutional checks and balances – so essential to preventing abuse of power – have been significantly compromised.

Sri Lanka’s Muslims: from frying pan to the fire

The plight of Muslims is a case in point of these broader trends. The Muslim community endured great hardship during the war. Violence against Muslims, including brutal massacres of worshippers engaged in prayer in mosques, left hundreds dead. Attacks against Muslims culminated in the mass eviction of the Northern Muslim population by the LTTE in October 1990. Thousands were left destitute overnight, having been forced to leave behind homes, lands and property worth billions. The abuse of Muslims by Tamil militants, and the events of 1990 in particular, had broader ramifications in that it contributed significantly to the erosion of the legitimacy of the Tamil armed struggle.

Yet today, besides its use as a means of highlighting LTTE brutalities, the plight of these evicted Muslims is rarely recalled, let alone addressed. The defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 was widely hailed as the end of an oppressive era. However, historic indifference to the Muslim community’s grievances marks an all too familiar continuity, perhaps one of many identifiable continuities, between the war years and post-war Sri Lanka.

Recent years have seen an alarming rise in anti-Muslim violence, fuelled by organised campaigns of hate-speech and propaganda. Mosques have been attacked, businesses and establishments run by Muslims have been boycotted, Muslim dress codes have been mocked and Muslims have been harassed and branded as aliens and subversives.  These incidents still continue, even in 2014. Impunity for attackers and purveyors of hate has meant that widespread fear-mongering has gone unchecked. Intimidation, harassment and outright discrimination against Muslims and those of other religions in Sri Lanka have become increasingly commonplace. Over 300 such incidents have been reported, from all parts of the country, against Muslims in 2013. These have often been accompanied with official inaction. Arson, vandalism and physical violence have taken place with Police officers standing idly by.

Patriotism demands Protection

These grave violations of the supreme law of Sri Lanka – the constitution – make a mockery of its solemn protection of fundamental rights. It is certainly not patriotic to sow strife, preach hate and promote intolerance, and doing so does disservice to our country and our heritage. Those who set fire to places of worship, bully school children and destroy property and livelihoods should never be hailed as patriots. They are not. The patriot protects his fellow citizens when they are being harmed. The patriot resists when hate and violence threatens to divide us and the patriot guards institutions when they are slowly twisted to become instruments of personal power.  Theodore Roosevelt’s words are appropriate for us all to think about in this context:

“Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”

Why shouldn’t the people of Sri Lanka have the same protection to which all human beings are entitled? After all, these protections are articulated and enshrined by all the people of the world in multiple international treaties. Sri Lanka has not only ratified these treaties, but it has also actively participated in international mechanisms designed to protect communities that have become vulnerable to oppressive states – for instance: Palitha Kohona, the Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations was the Chairman of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories. He reported to the UN General Assembly on the ill-treatment of Palestinian prisoners and the dispossession of Palestinians from their agricultural land.[1] We should not short-sell the people of Sri Lanka.

The Patriot’s response to an Unpatriotic State

The State’s response to discriminatory practices against Muslims and those of other religions has ranged from disinterest and lethargy to tacit collusion. In other words the State has been both unpatriotic and immoral. Attempts at negotiation and mediation to iron out differences have come to dead ends. Pursuing legal remedies has proven futile, given the collapse in the rule of law. For example, several families lost their homes and land due to military land expropriations in Ashraff Nagar. Appeals on this issue have been made to the highest authorities, but to no avail.

Precisely such a crisis existed for Sinhala people in the South in the late 1980s. The actions of the State had become unpatriotic and immoral, and domestic institutions and authorities were simply refusing to stem the injustice.

It was in this parallel predicament facing the Sinhala people that Mahinda Rajapaksa, now the President of the country, set his eyes on remedying the problem through an appeal to the international community. On 11 September 1990, Mahinda Rajapaksa set out to take the case to the 31st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in Geneva. On this journey he carried with him 533 documents containing information about missing persons and 19 pages of photographs (including of dead bodies), which he admitted he was taking to Geneva to “promote the protection of human rights in Sri Lanka.”

No one doubts the patriotism of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The action he took then as a response and remedy against the betrayal of its people by the Sri Lankan State was the right response. It is a testimony to the public recognition of his patriotism, that Mahinda Rajapaksa was later elected President in 2005.

The Response of the Rogue State

At that time, the only challenge to that patriotic action by Mahinda Rajapaksa came from the venal and vice ridden agents of the state. As he attempted to board a flight to Geneva at the Katunayake airport, an Assistant Superintendent of Police stopped him with a fabricated excuse. Mahinda Rajapaksa was informed that his baggage needed to be checked for “fabricated documents”. The ASP claimed that these documents were likely to compromise national security interests and promote feelings of hatred or contempt towards the government, which had been deemed an offence under Regulation 33 of the Emergency (Miscellaneous Provisions and Powers) Regulations of the time – an unpatriotic State tends to pass regulations that criminalise patriotic actions.

The documents that President Rajapaksa was carrying were confiscated unjustly and arbitrarily. Rightfully taking umbrage at this action, Mahinda Rajapaksa later filed a fundamental rights application (Rajapaksa v Kudahetti) on the constitutional basis that his freedom from arbitrary arrest and freedom of expression had been violated.[2]

Patriotism should not be silenced by Extremism

The media has been agog recently with statements that the Leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Rauff Hakeem, has been unpatriotic. But what is this all about? It is about the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress informing the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights of the factual situation with regard to the violence and harassment faced by Muslim people in Sri Lanka in recent times. As far as allegations against the government go, these facts on religious intolerance are a great deal milder than what President Rajapaksa was carrying with him to Geneva.

That the President might have forgotten his patriotic commitments is not a reason for the SLMC to abandon them as well. In the present context, whoever takes steps to push back against the unpatriotic functioning of the Sri Lankan State, is doing a service to the country and its people and should be hailed as such, just as President Rajapaksa was hailed when he first ran for Presidency in 2005.

It is simply unacceptable to think that only Sinhalese are allowed to file complaints with the UN Human Rights Office in Geneva. It is also unacceptable to think that such complaints can be filed only when Sinhalese are the victims of the Sri Lankan government. Such limiting attitudes are a form of rank extremism, which unfortunately might be prevalent in some circles.

Muslims, Malays, Tamils, Christians and all such communities, just as the Sinhala Buddhists, in Sri Lanka should consider making proper use of international mechanisms, the evolution to which Sri Lanka has actively contributed; and they should not be prevented from doing so.

Informing the UN Human Rights Council of the factual situation regarding religious violence and harassment is an act of truth telling and is no less an expression of patriotism than Mahinda Rajapaksa’s action in 1990. To vilify and condemn this action is not just unpatriotic folly, but is also an expression of underlying extremism and all right-thinking people of Sri Lanka should desist from it.

[1] See Report of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories, Sixty-eighth General Assembly, Fourth Committee, 23rd Meeting, General Assembly, GA/SPD/548.

[2] See Mahinda Rajapaksa v. Kudahetti and Others [1992] 2 Sri.L.R. 223.