Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • June 2019
    M T W T F S S

De-radicalization of extremists is not achieved through alienating moderates

Posted by harimpeiris on June 6, 2019

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island Online on 04th June 2019)

(This column was written before Rathana Thera ended his fast)

As this article is being written Member of Parliament and presidential advisor, the Ven. Ratna Thera’s fast in Kandy, has entered its fourth day and consequently resulted in his key demand being met, that of the governors of the Eastern and Western provinces, M.L.A.M Hizbulla and Azath Salley, handing in their resignations to President Sirisena, their appointing authority. It is rather ironic that a presidential advisor, takes up a fast in protest against two of the President’s key Muslim allies. One hopes the Thera, will give up his fast, considering that he has succeeded in having two of his key demands met and not least because as a Member of Parliament and a presidential advisor he has access to the powers that be and can advocate his views in private rather than in public.

Whether the resignation of the two governors would eliminate the tension that had been building up in the Kandy area through the fast and aided by the ultimatum to the President issued by the newly pardoned head of the BBS yesterday, remains to be seen. Memories have not healed and victims not entirely compensated for the damage and destruction in Digana and there are genuine fears among the Muslim community of fresh violence against their properties. Their persons, generally being spared in the new calibrated violence against the community.

Sri Lanka, as indeed many other countries of the world, clearly face the challenge of dealing with a stream of political violence aided by international terror networks and influenced by a particular understanding and interpretation of the Islamic scriptures, finding its origins in Saudi Arabia. This deradicalization endeavor however requires the support of the Muslim community in general, which support they have been providing both before and after the Easter bomb attacks. In fact, with regard to the NTJ ring leader, evidence surfacing through the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on the attacks, is that there was ample information of violent attacks made available to the State, but no action was taken. The general response by all senior Muslim community leaders, is that the community itself was giving information and altering the government to the existence and the rise of an extremist, violent small group in their midst, but no action was taken. That no action was taken is fairly self-evident. That information was available, both from domestic Muslim sources and also reportedly from the India authorities is also established. The only argument being as to who knew what and who should shoulder the responsibility for the failure to act. Perhaps we should collectively take responsibility for this failure. After all it was a failure on the part of the state and by state institutions. Ensuring that violent extremism holds little attraction for the Muslim community in general and Muslim youth in particular is certainly not achieved by ostracizing the community, making it impossible for them to engage in their livelihoods, especially trade and other generalized assaults on their community life, schools, mosques, businesses and way of life.

Sri Lanka’s past experience with violent extremism

Sri Lanka’s past experience with violent extremism, is that moderate leadership is the best panacea for mitigating and managing such extremism. When largely Sinhala youth took up arms under the banner of the JVP in the early 1970s and again in the late 1980s, it was the lack of support for such views and activities by the vast majority of the Sinhala people, their academics, religious leaders and others, which ensured that the violent expression JVP politics would not gain traction in Sinhala society. Conversely the LTTE, when it sought domination of the Tamil community engaged in killing off all its political opponents ranging from the TULF to the TELO and EPRLF to ensure that they were the last and only one standing to ensure being the “sole representatives” of the Tamil people. Today the re-emergence and leadership of the Tamil community by the staunchly non-violent and moderate Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) under the leadership of the Sambanthan, Senathirajaha and Sumanthiran trinity (no pun intended) is the best bulwark and defense against a reemergence of a violent expression of ethnic Tamil nationalism. Similarly, the moderate political leadership of the Muslim community, led by Minister Rauf Hakeem and the SLMC, is an essential ally in the common endeavour to ensure that the Muslim community continues in the same, socially integrated and politically moderate path they have trod for centuries and certainly in post independent Sri Lanka. Attacking the moderates, the symbols of their community and ordinary Muslims is certainly no recipe for dealing with extremism.

Representing the Sinhala Buddhist voice

The majority Sinhala voice of whom the vast majority are Buddhist, though a significant Sinhala Catholic community exists, need to also examine who and how their interests are represented. It was interestingly after the Digana violence that the Mahanayake of the Malwatta Chapter, famously stated in a barely disguised allusion to the chief suspect perpetrator organization, that there was no need for “Balakayas” in Sri Lanka, because we have a state with adequate armed forces and law enforcement for national security. There is absolutely no need for the law of the jungle or for majoritarian groups to take to calibrated communal violence against a minority.

It is regrettable that as the security situation becomes increasing under control, as confirmed to us by both the Commander-in-Chief and the Army commander, that communal disharmony and tensions continue to boil and simmer. The onset of the election cycle may well mean that political actors are not particularly incentivized to defuse tensions and increase social harmony. Accordingly, it may well then be the responsibility of other social actors-from civil society, religious leaders, opinion makers and business leaders-to seek to defuse tensions and heal the wounds of a yet again polarizing Sri Lankan society.


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