Featured image courtesy Ishara Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

Former Minister, Speaker and National List nominee Parliamentarian A H M Azwer along with a few other Mahinda loyalists claim that Yahapaalanaya under President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has betrayed minorities, especially the Muslim community. I have no reason to disagree and fully subscribe to their opinion, but I also totally disagree with their proposal that the former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa is the better option for the Muslims. From 2009 to 2015 Rajapaksa was seen as not minority friendly President and unwilling to address minority grievances. His total disregard of minorities had nothing to do with the war victory, which was supported by the majority of Sri Lankans including the Muslims. Today, in the continued racist agenda, the Muslim community has become the “Girayata ahuwetchcha puwak gediya”.

Azwer claims that there are 38 complaints from Muslims about damage to their mosques, harassment and threats that have been recorded during the last two years of yahapaalanaya, (agreed), but fails to mention the 538 incidents between 2013 and January 2015 under the Mahinda Rajapaksa Presidency which has been documented by the Secretariat For Muslims, a well recognized civil society initiative, set up to provide technical assistance in research and advocacy for policy and legislative reform. Azwer highlights the shabby treatment meted out to the 21 Parliamentarians by President Sirisena when they signed a Muslim Council petition demanding action against Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero for insulting Almighty Allah, but does not remember the treatment given by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to the 18 MPs who flew to Badulla to demand action against Buddhist extremism and the Aluthgama violence. He probably doesn’t even remember that he and Abdul Cader of Kandy were the only two Muslim Parliamentarians who did not sign the petition demanding action against the Aluthgama violence. Regretfully, the Muslim political leadership have very short memories. When elections come, it is the winning wagon they board.

Mahinda is known to have used strong-arm tactics to close down mosques, the Mahiyangana and Grandpass ones being good examples. Where were these SLFP Muslim warriors from 2005 to 2015? Where were they when Aluthgama burned? Even though Fashion Bug is a commercial entity, the Buddhist extremists backed by monks burned down their main stores and warehouse.

From the time Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected in November 2005, most of the minority communities did not see him as the President of the entire nation. The population of the Northern Province was disenfranchised in 2005 with the support of LTTE fanatic Velupillai Prabaharan with a Rs. 600 million cash bribe. The majority of them would have voted for Ranil Wickremesinghe and elected him President. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s racist approach to alienate the minorities and appease the Sinhala Buddhists was evident early on during his Presidency. His Sinhala chauvinism and use of the military to end the war brought him great support amongst the Sinhala Buddhist community. He also generated considerable support from the Muslims for his efforts at ending the terror of Velupillai Prabaharan, particularly due to the LTTE harassment and eviction of the Northern Muslims. This led to the unprecedented mandate he received at the 2010 Presidential Elections. This victory probably made him believe that he did not need the minorities to get elected to the Presidency for a third term, a feat which he laid the groundwork for by changing the Constitution. It was a fatal miscalculation that sent him home to Medamulana in Weeraketiya in January 2015. Now he is attempting to appease minority voters and stage a comeback to take over as the Prime Minister. There seem to be many actors at play to this end, and there is strong suspicion that President Maithripala Sirisena may have been coaxed into believing in a fairytale ‘wedding’ where the former SLFPers could form a Government, ousting Ranil Wickremesinghe for the second time by a SLFP conspiracy. President Sirisena may become a willing stakeholder to save his skin from the humiliation of a defeat at future elections if he contested under the SLFP and Mahinda Rajapaksa takes the saddle of a new coalition.

It is true that President Sirisena has elevated the hate-mongering leader of the Bodu Bala Sena, Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero on par with the most respected Mahanayakes of Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters, a folly he was tricked into supposedly by Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa who probably did it to win over his Sinhala Buddhist Maharagama/Homagama voters.

The extreme racism of the Rajapaksa administration and the impunity offered to such extremist groups will not fade away from the minds of the Muslims for a long time. A few, who have not been able to join the yahapaalanaya bandwagon, may band together to whitewash Rajapaksa crimes, but the Muslim community is in no mood to forgive them.

The Muslims of Sri Lanka have been sandwiched between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil community. During the 30-year-old ethnic conflict, the majority of the Muslims supported the Government and paid a heavy price. Many were murdered including 147 who were gunned down while praying Isha (the late evening prayers) at the Kattankudy Jumma mosque. The entire population of the Northern Province was forcibly evicted. Some were given only 2 hours notice and the rest 24 hours. They left with a mere Rs 500 and no personal belongings apart from a few documents. They languished in refugee camps in Puttalam and other parts of the country for over 22 years. Azwer is correct when he says that he supported the IDPs when they arrived in Puttalam. It was not just him but thousands more who supported these unfortunate victims of terror. They paid this price because they refused to support the LTTE. Some Buddhist extremists and misguided environmentalists are now terrorising them. They claim that the former lands of the Muslims, which they abandoned due to their evictions, belong to the Wilpattu National Park, the boundaries of which are now being extended to include the lands of IDPs, for which they have deeds and Government permits dating back a hundred years. What a travesty of justice.

The GOTA Factor

Gotabhaya has been accused of being the creator of the monstrous Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). The labeling came because he provided impunity to racist extremists and also inaugurated the short-lived Bodu Bala Sena office in Galle. I asked the former Defense Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, as to why he went for the opening of the Galle office of Bodu Bala Sena. His answer was simple and spontaneous. He said that Venerable Kirana Vimalajothi was their family priest from Weeraketiya. One day, he had come with Milinda Moragoda and had asked him to open a Buddhist Centre in Galle. He hadn’t known that it was a BBS Centre. As a Buddhist, he did not see any harm in opening a Buddhist Centre. If I remember right, he further said, “Please listen to my speech at the opening, I made it clear that all communities will have to live together, while practicing their different religions”. Having worked with him on the “Grease Yaka” and Halal crisis, I have no reason to disbelieve him.

There are rumors that Gotabaya Rajapaksa will enter the fray at the next elections. There are also rumors that he will spend some time in China, studying International Diplomacy. Is the Chinese grooming him for the top seat by taking him away to train him to rule? Their massive investments in this country would need to be protected, and what better way than to have one of the Rajapaksas?

In the coming months, Sri Lanka is predicted to face the worst ever drought since 1948, but I see a much bigger threat to the stability of the Nation with imminent political divorces and new partners living together. President Sirisena is causing a major rift by taking unilateral decisions, an example being the reduction of the lottery tickets to 20 rupees after Ravi Karunanayake increased it to 30. If he were following good governance principles, he would have asked Ravi to review and reduce without insulting the Minister of Finance through a unilateral declaration. This is not the first time the President has been lacking in tact and statecraft. The UNP on the other hand has made enough blunders from the bond scam to the Volkswagen scandal. It is time that the political leaders sat together and decide either to continue the marriage or go for an immediate divorce before the next Local Government Elections. That would give the country an opportunity to send a strong signal as to who should continue till 2020.

Those who enjoyed this article might find “Wijedasa Rajapaksa: Unfit for the job of Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister” and “Sinha Le politics and Socio-cultural persecution” enlightening reads.