As multi-coloured Buddhist flags fluttered in the breeze and perennially catchy tunes on the nobleness of the Gautama Buddha wafted in the air, rows of houses and shops belonging mainly to Muslims in Minuwangoda, Gampaha, Chilaw and Kuliyapitiya lay in ruins in the light of the Wesak Full Moon. For a seasoned photographer the images of those damaged structures creating a backdrop to the fluttering flags would have been a mouth-watering prospect for a headline-making photograph. Yet since I am not a photographer, the poignance was lost, at least in terms of capturing it through a lens.
One month after the dastardly attacks on Easter Sunday, the entire country is now facing political, social historical and economic, uncertainty that has been absent since the end of the war exactly ten years ago. The ease with which the country slid back to the ethos of a police state in the immediate aftermath of the attacks was quite startling. The ‘citizen committees’ bolted into action, suspecting all those who are not like the majority; invading the privacy and dignity of individuals; people travelling in public transport not being allowed to keep their bags on the overhead racks; being questioned purely on the basis of their ethno-religious background, worse still, based on the garments they wore or facial hair they sported; all these invoked images from the thirty year civil war, although it was a ‘different’ type of ‘suspicious character’ they were wary of then. The respite and the solace of peace, of normalcy and civil life seem luxuries for citizens of this island, after all.
Despite earnest requests by the Cardinal, who after a history of shouting himself hoarse that no ‘churches’ had been under attack – when in reality mobs stoned, burned and damaged smaller churches – was finally compelled to witness a different type of attack on his churches. The attacks were carried out by the Sinhala polity, a few acting riotously and the majority giving way to suspicion aimed generally at the Muslim community, giving tacit justification for such dastardly acts carried out by the unruly few. Due to violence against ordinary Muslims spreading in certain areas, the security forces are now burdened with the task of guarding innocent people from falling prey to Sinhala Buddhist extremists. These groups likely enjoy political patronage, through the involvement of politicos from the Joint Opposition as well as some leaders of far right Sinhala fringe groups such as Mahason Balakaya, Sinhale Api, Ravana Balaya etc. This suggests; that there is a well-orchestrated effort by some elements to make political mileage out of the situation.
From yet another perspective, with the re-appearance of these Sinhala extremist groups associated with the Aluthgama and Digana incidents, the entire aftermath of the Easter Sunday attack has taken a different complexion. It has shifted public attention from the brutality and barbarity of the suicide attacks targeting innocent civilians to the anti-Muslim violence. The headlines are beginning to look different now.
Government clearly to blame
The government is responsible for the absolutely inefficient manner in which it handled the bomb attacks, given reports that Indian intelligence services repeatedly informed their Sri Lankan counterparts that an attack was imminent – weeks and even a few minutes before the attacks on Easter Sunday. No whitewashing could absolve the government from their culpability in the deaths of those innocent civilians.
There is a subscript that runs parallel to this immediate picture, with some prominent Muslim politicians coming under a cloud of suspicion, in some cases with more than sufficient information to suggest that they need to be seriously examined. It is here that the rub lies; facts related to these politicians might run years back and in all probability well beyond January 2015. With some of the fanatics being in the payroll of the authorities at the time, the privileges and the funding for their universities and madrasas all seem to predate the supposedly ‘good governance’ government.
The spectre of Black July
It is against such a backdrop that one has to have incisive skills of observation to realise as to who would benefit most from the riots that ensued after the Easter Sunday bombings. Three weeks went by without much incident, with the kith and the kin of the deceased somehow managing their grief, frustration and anguish, and not allowing it to become a catalyst for another Black July.
Black July for its part is a classic example of how a fringe group could ascend to be the sole representative of a given community based on the sympathy it receives from those who are indiscriminately victimised. It served as a launching pad for a guerrilla organization which consisted of only 15 members at that time, skyrocketing to become the most formidable militant group in Sri Lankan Northern politics, and eventually one of the most feared guerrilla outfits in the world. Black July only convinced Prabhakaran and those who followed him that there could be safety for them only if they bore arms in the short term and through a separate state, for which they were to dedicate themselves in the long term.
History has a tendency to repeat itself, unless society learns and averts ignorant and erratic behaviour, which repeatedly invites calamities of similar nature. Most of the suicide cadres or ‘hardcore’ Tigers were those who either suffered or witnessed atrocities committed against their kith and kin during the 1983 July pogrom, or were at least indirect victims of it. They hardly would have been in need of a carefully-programmed brainwashing campaign to turn them into militants.
As much as Zaharan Hashim, the mastermind behind the Easter attacks, managed to brainwash his followers, nothing could make the process more accelarated in his absence than demonising the ordinary Muslim community and clubbing them together with fanatics. That is what is transpiring in the form of indiscriminate attacks on and vilification of all Muslims; Zaharan and the jihadists, who were apparently without a cause, now seem directly applicable to the ordinary local Muslim, addressing a grievance now attributed to them that can be seen in a more acceptable light.
Muslim Leaders in hot water
Among the various immediate beneficiaries of the riots are the Muslim politicians who seem to have been hand in glove, if not directly in terms of attacks orchestrated by the NTJ, at least indirectly by patronising, covering up, financing and facilitating their activities. The finger that is being directed at them cannot be shrugged off as over-zealous actions of the majority who visualise themselves as being under attack. They are based on many instances of their interference and intervention to make the fanatics’ work easy. From having relatives closely connected to the bombers, suspicious business relationships, influence on releasing those suspects when they were apprehended by authorities are too serious to be ignored as coincidence. As long as peace was maintained, as was the case during the first three weeks after the attacks, ground-breaking revelations made by the security and intelligence agencies were incisive, deep and damning. Had they continued in the same vein, it would have led to exposing the real power dealers who were behind these acts of mass murder. Now, the emphasis of the security forces have been deflected to safeguarding law and order and scrutinising the innocent Muslim; at least from the public perspective, the focus has shifted elsewhere.
Fishing in murky waters
There are also the Sinhala politicos of the former regime, who, it is revealed now, have been sponsoring extremist elements within the Muslim polity with the intention of dividing the Muslim voter base which had not been unanimously in their favour. Investigations have revealed that some of the bombers have been in contact, at least indirectly, with the former power-wielders. Their activities were not completely hidden from the security apparatus during the Rajapaksa regime, to such an extent that a finger is being pointed in their direction as well. Any further revelations in this regard would certainly have been damning on the image that the Rajapaksas have been projecting to the Sinhala majority, as the saviours of Sinhala Buddhist aspirations. It would have not gone down well with the prospective presidential candidacy of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, to have been seen as a benefactor of some of the members of these terror groups, although not directly related to the attacks. Diverting attention from the real issue of digging deep into how Zaharan and his aides grew into such a powerful position, of being able to carry out coordinated attacks on six places in a matter of minutes, might shed unexpected light on such shady deals of the former regime as well.
The current government, with its glaring incompetence, while reeling from the unprecedented nature of the attack, would certainly not want a pogrom of this nature under their watch. The last strand of legitimacy this ‘good governance’ government might have left intact could be that it is not given to overtly racist or Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism as a political weapon as the Rajapaksa regime did.
The question again arises as to whether the security apparatus, including the intelligence wing, is truly and really under the political authority of the present regime. Even if the answer is a tentative ‘yes’, then which group of the governing coalition controls it, is the million dollar question. With the hybrid government at odds with each other to the extent that the Prime Minister has not been attendant at Security Council meetings, it should not come as a surprise that they are not fully in control of the security apparatus.
Could it be more outrageous than for a President to say that he only came to hear about arguably the most devastating attack by ISIS affiliated terrorists outside the Middle East, through a Facebook post of a friend of his and that too, hours later? Could it be more criminal than for a Prime Minister’s claim that he came to know of it through WhatsApp while holidaying? At the moment the operations and investigations carried out by the security forces seem to be on their own volition, rather than through a resolute political decree of the government in power.
Impact on the economic front
Although the IMF has downplayed the impact of the attacks on the country’s economy – including Sri Lanka’s ability to meet another Billion Dollar debt instalment deadline of foreign debt repayment due in October this year, repercussions in vital sectors such as tourism and foreign direct investment would be telling in the immediate future. All remedial measures the government contemplates in grappling with the economic fallout that it sure to take place will test the competence of the UNP component of the government. Yet in the eyes of the general public, who seem to have gone into a frenzy of fear and paralysis in terms of their day to day activities, the economic ramifications do not seem to figure that large, at least at this particular moment of time.
The government needs to show the populace that it is in control of the situation, restore law and order and bring back communal consensus, which seems to be in tatters at present. The constitutional amendments that have been in the offing need to be revamped, irrespective of the immediate needs of security and governance, requiring the attention and effort of a concerted nature. The country simply cannot relapse into a post-Black July syndrome with ethno-racial tensions reaching boiling point and suspicions around one community dominating the socio political discourse. Although it is premature and infantile to believe that all will be well once the remaining few jihadists are apprehended – as the President claims – it should not be used to turn Sri Lanka back into a security state, the type we have grown used to during the civil war. It should also not be an occasion to facilitate draconian laws that deprive people of their constitutionally guaranteed rights by subjecting them to emergency laws and harsh security measures.
History does repeat itself, unless we are wary and vigilant citizens.