Photo by Christina Coombe

The recent attack by a group of hoodlums led by Buddhist monks on a safe house sheltering Rohingya refugees in Colombo has once again exposed the ugly face of Sinhala chauvinism in Sri Lanka.  The incident which occurred with the complicity of the police is only the latest in a series of such monk-led thuggery in Sri Lanka aimed at intimidating minorities, especially the Muslims. While outraging many in Sri Lanka and abroad it has also raised concerns of such actions getting out of hand with the streets of the island being completely surrendered to the rowdy monks and their goons.

Following the event the question has been raised, especially in some social media circles, as to the role of the Left in combating such intimidation and violence. Where were the much vaunted revolutionaries of the Left when you needed them? seem to be the question doing the rounds on Facebook and other social media. The question, posed mockingly, is not a rhetorical one. The Left had traditionally been the ally of the minorities and despite the older Marxist parties’ alliance with the Rajapaksa regime and the JVP’s support for the war this image has remained strong in the minds of many people in the South. This has been particularly so since the end of the war and on social media where individuals with Leftist leanings have maintained a courageous stand against aggressive and often virulent Sinhala Buddhist activists, giving back as good as they receive. It is in that context, that the continued domination of the streets by the chauvinistic goons naturally raises the question: where are all the forthright, courageous defenders of human rights on social media when you really need them?

One may think that the answer is obvious. Perhaps it is. The strident defenders of the minorities and ridiculers of Sinhala chauvinists on social media are not the kind that would normally take their feelings to the streets. Their world is the world of debate and argument, strongly worded press releases and press conferences. Many would believe that it is beneath them to tangle on the street with goons who are no better than rabid dogs. If they take to the streets at all that is to stand outside the Fort railway station and to shout slogans for a couple of hours.

But such attitudes only surrender the streets to the goons who continue to enjoy the freedom to roam about freely and intimidate rivals and minorities at will. While it is important to counter the Sinhala Right on social media and expose the absurdity of their ideas and the hollowness of their logic, it is also important that they are dealt with on the street where their ideas find brutal, physical expression.

In this regard, I believe the recent struggles between the emerging neo Fascist groupings and Leftist anti-Fascist groups in Australia, particularly Melbourne, can offer some insights and guidance. The ‘fascists’ in Australia are a motley collection of groups and individuals brought together by their hatred of minorities especially Muslims and their desire to safeguard ‘Australian values’, a euphemism for White supremacy. Emboldened and encouraged by the vilification of minorities by the Murdoch press and the successive LNP governments, they have been attempting to form an aggressive street movement aimed at recruiting impressionable Australian youth and intimidating minorities. In terms of numbers and appeal they are nowhere as strong as their counterparts in the US or Europe but they are trying hard to emulate their allies in other Western countries. One of the reasons why they have remained small is the aggressive counter rallying by the Anti-fascists. These are a loose coalition of Left-wing parties and groups, leavened by the anarchists and the ‘Antifa’, the sworn enemies of the Nazis. The counter-rallying consists of aggressive and noisy protests at the venues where the Fascists attempt to stage their rallies, the aim being to outnumber the enemy and drown out their speeches.

At a glance there is an element of the theatre to it. The two sides are widely separated by the police who keep a watchful eye on any attempt to ‘cross the line’. Any transgressions are severely dealt with, capsicum spray being liberally employed to subdue any attempts at violence or even an attempt to close up with the opposing side. Even though in the past there had been scuffles and a few broken noses the police have now got things well under control. All that now happens is that the two sides yell and scream at each other and disperse after a couple of hours.

However, overall, the Left’s tactics seem to be working. The Fascists numbers have been rapidly dwindling. True, their ranks have been riven by factionalism and the blunders and egos of their leaders but the Left’s counter rallying has also played a significant part. There may not be much threat of violence but having to attend a rally under the threat of an aggressive counter rally by the Left is not a good feeling. Usually roads are closed in the general area of the rally and the venue of the rally is cordoned off to prevent the Left wingers from confronting them. Those who come to the rally are escorted to the venue by the police.  In fear of violence shops in the vicinity close down and what the fascists usually have is an open area away from public gaze and surrounded by the media and police. It is a public rally only insofar as the media is there to report it to the public. There is little or no opportunity for marching as the Left is always hovering around prepared to block any attempt at movement creating the potential for confrontation.

This is enough to put off many of the ‘patriots’ as the fascists call themselves. Many of them live outside Melbourne and cannot be bothered making the trip only to find themselves corralled by the police and threatened by the Left. May of them have never attended demonstrations before and know next to nothing about rallying. The stress of having to face counter rallies each time they try to gather is too much for many of them, particularly the ‘soft’ sections of their following: the women and the youth. The few scuffles they have had have received widespread media coverage and that is a deterrent for many parents to send their boys to a rowdy rally in Melbourne. It’s a war of attrition the Left seems to be winning.

Of course there are subjective conditions that make the situation in Australia very different from Sri Lanka. The Fascists in Australia are far smaller in numbers than the monk-led hooligans in Sri Lanka. And they are also poorly organised. The police in Australia are far more neutral and professional than the police in Sri Lanka. Whatever the private feelings of the policemen maybe, they are circumscribed by their professional obligations. The Sri Lankan police have no such restraints. They will readily take the side of the fascists out of genuine sympathy or due to intimidation. The presence of an aggressive Buddhist clergy with tremendous political and moral clout is completely missing from the Australian scene. In Sri Lanka this makes even those police officers who wish to enforce the law and their handlers wary of the consequences if they restrain and arrest the miscreants. Needless to say it emboldens the Sinhala fascists and demoralises their opponents.

But we must remember that the Australian anti-fascists are also working under limitations. The fact that despite their vile, vituperative views the fascists are allowed to assemble and sometimes march under police protection itself is a setback in a country which prides itself on its tolerance and acceptance of diversity. The law will come down severely on anyone trying to break it. And there are many ways in which you can break the law at a demonstration here. Last year an anti-fascist activist was arrested for punching a horse at a counter rally and charged with animal cruelty! Such possibilities constrain the anti fascists and offer them limited options for harassing and intimidating their enemy. But so far, despite some setbacks, they have generally held the upper hand. The trick has been to remain within the law, push and prod the boundaries without breaching them but all the time maintaining an aggressive and defiant pose that sends the message that the streets do not belong to the Fascists. Very importantly, the same law that constraints the anti fascists also keep the fascists in check as the mere presence of counter demonstrators creates the potential for confrontation and the need for the police to enforce restrictions. It keeps the fascists more or less corralled and frustrated.

This is the point. There are always limitations and constraints but the anti fascists will need to adapt to them and find creative ways to deal with them and maybe even use the limitations to their advantage. The anti fascist forces need to organise, taking into consideration the special circumstances that govern the struggle in Sri Lanka and map a creative and effective counter strategy that will challenge the Sinhala fascists during their demonstrations. Taking to the streets against hardened street thugs led by monks no better than the thugs may be a daunting prospect for many who are used to making sedate speeches in indoor venues but I believe it will have the potential to change the game. More than anything else it will place the police in a difficult situation. When confronted by counter demonstrators do they take the side of the monks and their hooligan followers and allow them to assault the counter demonstrators? No doubt some of them would be tempted to do so. But what if the counter demonstrators also include monks? How complicated would it make for the police to decide between two groups of monks? What if the counter demonstrators also include popular political figures, artistes, civil society personalities etc? The likelihood is that the police will be sooner or later forced to play a role similar to that of the police in Australia where they stand between the groups rather than with one group. That alone will be a victory for the Left under the current circumstances and make the Sinhala fascists feel that they no longer have the control of the streets. At present they feel this way on social media where the Left has managed to mount a strong counter attack. The chauvinists should be made to feel the same insecurity and vulnerability on the streets too. A well-organised, creative, assertive and aggressive street movement can do that.

But first the decision to confront the Fascists on the streets needs to be made. And once the fight is taken to the street, in whatever minor way, the dynamics will change.