Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for May 22nd, 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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