Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • May 2019
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Archive for May, 2019

Avoiding a July ’83 pogrom against Muslims

Posted by harimpeiris on May 22, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island Online on 16th May 2019)

Opposition leader Mahinda Rajapakse has gone on record, advising people in general and his supporters in particular one presumes, to avoid a repetition of the black July’83 pogrom and this time against the Muslim community. Excellent advice indeed from the former President and current leader of the opposition, one which unfortunately seems to have been observed in the breech by events which had been occurring the past few days in the North Western Province and the Gampaha District in particular. Just when Sri Lanka was seemingly slowly recovering from the Easter bombings and both the commander in chief and the army commander claimed the situation was under control and that people could and should resume their day to day lives again. That schools could reopen and life can go on, violence against Muslims very similar to that which happened in Digana last year, Ampara before that and in Durga Town in 2014 broke out.

Christian leaders call for forgiveness

The Christian community who were the primary targets of the Easter Sunday attacks through the bombing of their places of worship, were in the aftermath of the attacks, very clear, through unequivocal statements by their leaders both spiritual and temporal, that the Christian community response would be to forgive, not take revenge and actually reach out to the Muslim community with the love of Jesus Christ. That after all was the essence of the message of Easter, of the risen Christ. This surely calmed things down for several weeks or at least did not provide an excuse for an attack.

Mahason Balakaya and Namal Kumara arrested

The police authorities have been rather coy about releasing information about the ongoing investigations into the Easter carnage, claiming with considerable merit that premature disclose would compromise the ongoing investigations. However, to their credit it was revealed that with regards the anti-Muslim violence of the last few days that the leader of the Mahason Balakaya and Namal Kumara of assassination plot fame were taken into custody on suspicion of instigating and involvement in the mob attacks. Now the leader of the Mahason Balakaya was in custody on charges of instigating similar attacks against the Muslims in the Digana violence, last year. It is noteworthy that one of the first events to occur during the abortive 52 day, Rajapakse constitutional coup regime of October / November last year, was that the Mahason Balakaya leader was released on bail due to the police and the Attorney General’s Department not objecting to bail. Clearly, he saw his release as a license to ply his trade again. Perhaps the newly appointed Attorney General can investigate why his department or the Police did not object to bail for the prime suspect in the Digana violence. The reality with all political violence in this country is that it is organized and instigated, with political patronage which provides the impunity. The attacks against Muslims in Duragha Town in 2014, Ampara and Digana last year or the North Western Province, after Easter, is that it is instigated and organized, not spontaneous.

Dealing with radicalization within the Muslim Community

As discourse and details emerge from within the Muslim community and its leaders themselves about radical elements and radicalization within the Muslim community, it is worth breaking up the real challenges in this regard faced by Sri Lankans in general and the Muslim community in particular, which are three-fold. Firstly, there is a need to avoid extremist violence or violent extremism. This is the kind of murderous hate which seeks to blow up people. With a theological or ideological cover for their murderous hate. This is primarily a security issue and is on par with ensuring that for whatever reason, there is no terrorism in Sri Lanka. Secondly there is the need to engage in processes and dialogue with and within the Muslim community on the changing nature by some of their number, of their interpretation of their faith and scriptures, clearly more influenced now by Arab and specifically Saudi Arabian Wahabism and Saudi funds. There isn’t a problem per se with any interpretation of scriptures, just that it cannot instigate violence. Though the opposition is gunning for Minster Rishard Bathurdeen and a no confidence motion against him has been handed over, the current locus of violent extremism has been Kathankudy, which is the pocket borough of Eastern Province Governor Hizbulla. There is a call for the Governor to step down or be removed, though neither seems likely. Thirdly there is the need to continue to have Sri Lanka’s Muslim community to be the integrated and peacefully coexisting community, which makes up an integral part of Sri Lanka’s multi ethnic and multi religious society. This would require some marginalization of extremism by the Muslim community and a differentiation of terrorism and the Islamic faith in the public discourse.

Over thirty years ago, in July 1983, there was a pogrom against the Tamil community, a clear failure of the state to prevent violence a minority community, amidst accusations of senior state actors, including Cabinet ministers involved in instigating and organizing the attacks and covering up for the attackers. State security stood idly by. Fortunately, the Sinhala community dominated Sri Lankan state structures and the polity realized the folly of organized political violence and the likes of July ’83 was never repeated. We should hope the lessons have not been forgotten. Unfortunately, Durga Town and Digana in the past and the North Western Province in the past few days have provided a new model of violence, namely carefully calibrated attacks on Muslim property, while avoiding persons. The problem with violence, even carefully calibrated, is that it breeds retaliation and is often escalated by perpetrators. Frist it was burning the Jaffna Public library, when that didn’t achieve the desired result, we had July ’83. Clearly Digana had not satiated the appetite for anti-Muslim violence. The political patrons behind anti-Muslim violence may never be publicly revealed but it is a little more evident as to who is seeking to claim political advantage from the situation. Social media is rife as to who the savior should be.


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Moving Beyond the Easter Carnage

Posted by harimpeiris on May 11, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island Online on 09th May 2019)

As this article is being penned, the Parliament of Sri Lanka is engaging in a two-day adjournment debate on the devastating massacres launched against innocents on Easter Sunday in Colombo, Negombo and Batticala. In the course of the debate, President Sirisena, as Minister of Defense and Minister of Law and Order expressed confidence, that the security forces have got on top of the situation, arresting not only the conspirators but also negating the capacity for terrorism of the remaining culprits. The Commander of the Army echoed similar sentiments calling on the civil population to resume their normal day to day activities and that security has been reestablished. A relatively quick return to normalcy after the devastating terrorist massacres.

A legal framework and oversight of intelligence operations

We could only hope that parliamentary debate would reveal why intelligence information from India, was not acted upon, why as alleged by no less than government ministers our own intelligence services was allegedly paying off, the accused leaders and some members of the National Thowheed Jamath besides other unsavory organizations such as the Bodu Bala Sena. Making the accused persons, actually assets of our intelligence agencies. It is clear that unlike the uniformed security services, there is insufficient oversight of the intelligence services and an inadequate legal framework for their work. The United States for instance as a global superpower has serious congressional oversight of intelligence operations, besides the executive, ensuring that intelligence services, whose work is secretive and covert by nature, is not unaccountable to civilian authority in a structured and legal manner. In a highly politicized society like ours, good oversight and accountability prevents or manages politicization of the intelligence services.

Deradicalization of extremists

In the wake of the deadly Easter Sunday massacres, Muslim leaders themselves have been complaining that they have for over a decade been informing and seeking to get remedial action by the relevant authorities regarding the extremist elements in their midst and their potential for violence. Particularly the most recent call to arms and violence by National Thowheed Jamath leader Zaharan, now freely available on social media, had previously been brought to the notice of the authorities, but to no avail. The reason one suspects, is political. The extremist elements were seen as political opponents of their more moderate political leaders and therefore nurtured, including through intelligence service payoffs, as alternate leaders and given the space to grow and operate. Sri Lanka’s unfinished nation building exercise means, that the focus of the state establishment, is to weaken and keep at bay, the political leadership of minority communities, where Tamil or Muslim and this has meant that potential alternative leaders, though more extreme, are nurtured. For instance, In the case of the Tamil community, the LTTE remnants in Sri Lanka, KP, Karuna and Piliyan are not with the moderate ITAK dominated TNA, who will have nothing to do with them, but with the so called national parties, dominated by the majority community, particularly its more nationalist ones, who are the most keen to keep the minorities divided. A dubious policy with potentially disastrous consequences.

But the deradicalizing of those Sri Lankans who claim to kill in the name of Islam, whether identified with ISIS, another foreign terrorist group or not, is something that has to come from within the Sri Lankan Muslim community itself and their leadership, especially their religious leadership. Within any faith community the interpretation of scripture will always have a degree of diversity, otherwise there would be no need for institutions of religious study and scholarship. However, what cannot and is not allowed in any civilized society, is the law of the jungle with murderous random violence against innocents. Preventing the violence, is a state security responsibility. Challenging any understanding or articulation of theology which provides a cover for that violence, is the responsibility of that religion’s scholars and religious leaders. A challenge with considerable work to do in the future.

The debate on the Counter Terrorism Bill (CTA) vs the PT

Dragged into the debate following the Easter Sunday attacks has been the proposal to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), with the Counter Terrorism Act (CTA). The government is rather keen to see the enactment of the CTA, committed as it is to fight terrorism within international best practice and in cooperation with the international community of nations. This undertaking has also been given in terms of the UNHRC process. There are however valid concerns regarding the proposed CTA, including the definition of terrorism which is so broad as to make any political dissent, a terrorist offence and these need to be amended. But it is a big improvement on the existing PTA.

The SLPP and Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse has been attacking the proposed CTA, which rather like many of their other attacks on policy matters, seems high on rhetoric, low on specifics and designed to inflame passions, especially in an election year. Fishing in troubled waters, may be the rather uncharitable way to describe it. The rather obvious objective of seeking to prevent the enactment of the CTA, is to retain the PTA, which in the past has been a tool of political repression, like in the imprisonment of journalist Tissanayagam. The PTA when introduced was meant to be temporary. Sri Lanka requires a new legal framework for anti-terror security and the Easter Sunday massacres should not be allowed to derail much needed and long overdue legal reforms.

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