Photo by Thyagi Ruwanpathirana

The 15th of June 2017 marks the 3rd anniversary of the orchestrated anti-Muslim violence in Dharga Town, Aluthgama and several other areas in the south. After a steady buildup of hate sentiment in the public domain over several months in both 2013 and 2014, an inflammatory meeting chaired by the Venerable Galabodathe Gnanasara, Aluthgama descended into violence on June 15th.  The events resulted in three deaths and the widespread and selective destruction of Muslim property. Hundreds of persons including children were traumatized, Muslim businesses were destroyed, Muslim and Sinhala families lost their livelihoods, and relations among neighbors were severely strained.

While the military was mobilized to rebuild the damaged and destroyed homes as a result of Civil Society lobbying, no proper investigation into the event or the murders has been conducted to date and no perpetrators have been prosecuted..  Activist lawyers working on the cases are alleging that the Police are deliberately delaying taking the cases forward.

The incitement of ethnic tensions for political gain is an age-old and time-tested mechanism in Sri Lankan politics that contributed towards three decades of war. The “riot” was part of the repertoire of methods used in such politics. Today it seems as if some sections of our political elite are resorting once again to the same strategy—this time with the Muslims as the chosen target. Aluthgama, while a huge shock to the affected community, seemed an inevitability to many when taking Sri Lanka’s long history of “riots” into account. Conflagrations accompanied political hard times throughout our independent history. Gal Oya 1958, Puttalam 1976, Countrywide 1977, Galle 1982, Countrywide July 1983, Eastern Province 1985, Mawanella 2001, and Aluthgama 2014 are just some pivotal moments of political difficulty where “riots” came in to play. Today, Muslims are forced once again to live in fear of another such conflagration.

January 2015 saw the electoral defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa whose regime fostered anti-minority sentiment and fear mongering in the country.  The Sirisena-Wickremasinghe Yahapalanaya Government promised much in its early days. While the public impetus for reform was mostly against the rampant corruption and excesses of the Rajapaksa regime, the wave of goodwill in the wake of the election suggested the possibility of better ethnic relations as well. Reconciliation and even accountability was on the agenda at the time. For most Muslims it felt like the time of hate mongering monks was past. Sri Lanka seemed to be on a new path and poised to move away from the legacy of politics that mobilized destructive ethnic animosities. (It is worth noting, however, that the violence against Evangelical Christians continued throughout the glory days of Yahapalanaya as  well. )

Features of the Yahapalanaya promise included the rhetoric of inclusivity from the leadership, setting up of the many ministries and mechanisms dealing with unity, coexistence and reconciliation and the Government’s commitment to an accountability process mediated by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

The reemergence of organized and well funded anti Muslim sentiment with acts of arson against Muslim businesses reported almost everyday remains the greatest indication of the disintegration of this promise. The many delays by the Police to arrest and prosecute those responsible for both the incitement and the acts of arson speak volumes about the state of law and order in the country.

The rhetoric of inclusivity and all citizens’ common humanity that we saw in the early days of the regime is no longer heard as loudly from most politicians. The recognition that we needed to recoup and move forward from a time of war where ethnic animosity was the norm, no longer resonates from public platforms. Our leaders are not articulating the crying need of the hour- that we must come together as a country that recognizes the humanity of all its peoples. Those in charge of law and order are dragging their feet and political manipulation of anti minority sentiment is being permitted to flourish.

The government today looks and acts as if in disarray on a variety of fronts. And the lack of direction, commitment and firm leadership that characterizes most government actions is evident in its dealings with this anti Muslim problem as well. For several weeks there were no strong statements against the acts from either the Prime Minister or the President, no clear action against either the crimes committed against Muslim property or the monk spewing hate rhetoric.  Closed-door meetings with Muslim community representatives and promises to do something ultimately went nowhere. The 13th June statement by the cabinet of ministers and the 14th June statement by the Prime minister, however are on-point in reaffirming the government’s recognition of the horrors of war and its refusal of a politics of ethno religious incitement. It is imperative that the statements are followed up with the necessary actions.

The roots of the anti Muslim issue and the politicization of ethnic animosity run deep and without decisive action by the regime at this point in time we are going to have to live with the reality of politicized anti-minority hate for the foreseeable future.  The spreading of hate sentiment and rhetoric was done with such masterful skill and planning by the BBS under the Rajapaksa regime that the groundwork was laid for its easy mobilization. And that is what we are seeing today. The regime, while arguably committed to a politics that rejects ethno-religious incitement seemed initially at a loss as to what to do with it when it emerged.  The phenomenon remains a test for the government and its future might arguably be decided on how it handles things now.

There is a strong link between what is happening to Muslims and the moribund reconciliation and accountability process in the country. While there seems to be some work carried out by the many government institutions tasked with reconciliation, the UNHRC process that the Government committed to, is at a standstill. We see no progress in relation to the four mechanisms that the government committed to establish. Sri Lanka is in the unenviable position of being the country with the 2nd largest number of disappearances as recorded by United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances. The ICRC has a record of 16075 missing persons. The Paranagama Commission recorded 23,000 cases. In August 2016 the Government passed legislation to establish an Office of Missing Persons. The office however, is still to be set up; and we see no progress at all in relation to the Accountability Mechanism.

The above processes are necessary in order that the rule of law is established once again in the country and the equal access to justice for all of the country’s citizens is assured and we finally come to terms with the brutal legacy of the war.  In addition, the Government must take the responsibility of informing and guiding the citizenry towards recognizing the need for such mechanisms.  And most importantly, the manipulation of ethnic sentiment for short-term political gain must be condemned and those engaging in such politics immediately dealt with to the fullest extent of the law. If not we will be compelled to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Today, we are urgently in need of forward thinking and visionary leadership in a difficult global and local context. National political leaders must recognize urgency of this challenge and take decisive action for the sake of all our futures.