June 16, 2014
It is one month since violence in Aluthgama, Dharga Town, Welipanna, and Ambepitiya in Beruwela – primarily targeting the Muslim community – killed 4 persons, injured over 80 individuals, destroyed countless properties, and severely traumatized thousands. As many have pointed out this has been the most intense spate of inter-ethnic violence since the end of the war, and today, Muslims and other religious minorities fear more widespread violence in other parts of the country.
Some five years after the end of the war, this is clearly not where we want to be as a country and as a society. Thirty years after Black July, we need to ask ourselves whether we have learned any lessons from the past on how to avoid another man-made disaster? Such a disaster is by no means unavoidable, but given the lack of corrective actions over the last month it is important that the Government and society at large take stock and attempt to address this current situation.
The Secretariat For Muslims (SFM) believes that the primary responsibility in dealing with this situation lies with the Government, particularly in dealing with issues of justice for the victims and in preventing a further escalation in tensions, hatred and violence. SFM also believes that there is a critical role to be played by all members of society to renounce violence and to maintain coexistence.
At the outset it must be acknowledged that the violence did not affect the Muslim community alone. Together with the many Muslim businesses and homes that were targeted and destroyed, some Sinhala owned businesses and homes too were affected. Some of these were a result of attacks by Muslims and in some— in Welipanna for instance—was because drunken Sinhalese mobs were unable to distinguish between Sinhala and Muslim businesses. One of the four fatalities was a Tamil man guarding a Muslim owned property. In addition, the damage to the economy of the area means that persons of all religions have lost jobs, clients, suppliers and services. Beyond the damage to the property and livelihoods, the violence has had a devastating impact, particularly for those families who lost members, but also at a community level, as there is increased fear, distrust and tension that cannot be easily repaired.
While there are many narratives of who-started-what and who-cast-the-firs- stone it is imperative that the events be understood in the larger context of Sri Lanka’s troubled transition from war to peace. It is especially urgent since the country is currently becoming severely polarized around narratives of ―who -did -what and who-suffered-most‖. If there is one lesson that we need to urgently learn, it is that such ethnicised violence affects all of us not just the ethnic/religious community targeted for violence, or the community accused of perpetrating such violence.
We note with regret that the media, multiple actors within Government and prominent personalities are mobilizing just such narratives to explain away the violence as a response to a single incident. The efforts to explain widespread violence as the response to a specific trigger-incident may end up only justifying the violence without responding critically to how a localized incident sets off such large- scale mayhem. The initial incident – an assault against a Buddhist monk, if it did indeed occur as alleged, is regrettable and the perpetrators should be duly punished. Regardless, the line of legitimate action is an investigation into the incident by the law enforcement agencies and mediation at the community level; not mob violence. What is to be regretted in the incidents in Aluthgama is that an individual act was transformed into the responsibility of an entire community and continues to be used as an explanation as to why the violence occurred.
While specific local incidents leading up to the outbreak of violence must be looked at, it needs to be noted that the violence was fuelled by a larger climate of intolerance and hate. Anti-Muslim sentiment propagated particularly by the BBS has been in circulation for the past three years and have resulted in earlier incidents of violence not restricted to the attacks on the shrine in Anuradhapura, the mosque in Dambulla and on the Fashion Bug store in Papiliyana. The events in the south must be seen as a culmination of these events that made the incitement at the rally on 15th June resonate all the more powerfully.
The role of the BBS in the rally, the speech given by Galagoddatte Gnanasara Thera, and the group’s role in the organized activity of the armed mobs needs to be thoroughly investigated and follow-up action taken by the responsible authority, particularly since the violence began with the rally-march. Prior instances of hate speech and the BBS’ alleged involvement in actions promoting hate and violence also need to be thoroughly investigated. The authorities must also ensure that the BBS or other Sinhala Buddhist extremist groups do not organize rallies that could set off other riots in other places and investigate subsequent speeches where the BBS or other such groups make speeches that can incite hatred and violence.
For the Muslim communities in these areas their suffering has been compounded by the knowledge that the violence took place in what they consider to be the full view of the State – with Police and Special Task Force (STF) personnel looking on, when a government-imposed curfew was in effect. In the aftermath too, they feel that the response of the State has been inadequate at best and complicit in the violence at worst. People in the area regret President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement several days after his visit to Aluthgama, in which he referred to the loss of life and the destruction to property as minor incidents. In addition to being the President of all Sri Lankans he is also the Minister for Law and Order, yet there has been no statement made by him to acknowledge the failure of the State to prevent the violence and to protect the people and their properties.
We also would urge that the events of June 2014 not be seen simply as reactive and spontaneous violence but that there was also an orchestrated attack on lives and property that accompanied a well planned program of incitement. As such we call for a thorough investigation in this regard. There are a number of vital questions, not limited to who organized the mobs; who provided them the weaponry, powerful flashlights and fuel for the burning and in some cases the intoxicants; who provided them who provided the lorries and vans to loot entire households of furniture, and warehouses and shops of goods; who pointed out Muslim houses and other properties, that need to be inquired into and answered. It is also imperative to examine the role of the police and the STF, especially given the eye-witness accounts of these State forces watching and not taking action to stop the rioting and looting.
The failure of the State to provide protection highlights systemic issues that need to be addressed including in ensuring an accountable and independent police force serving all citizens, rather than the political interests of governments in power. Such a thorough investigation is necessary for faith, both locally and internationally, in the machinery of law and order and the neutrality of the state is to be re-established.
The Government has taken steps to provide compensation but there are questions regarding whether a comprehensive assessment has been conducted to examine all losses and whether compensation will be in relation to these losses. While the Government’s speedy response is appreciated it is hoped that the rebuilding and compensation efforts are carried out without prejudice to a thorough and balanced inquiry into the incident. The military has been mobilized to clean and reconstruct damaged buildings but there are concerns that the investigations into the damages including materials used to burn have not yet been tested by the Government Analyst.
As reported in the press and in social media, isolated incidents against Muslims continue to occur. Several have been reported from Panadura, Nugegoda, Ibbagamuwa, Bambalapitiya, Beruwela and other areas in the aftermath of Aluthgama. These incidents form part of a larger list of incidents that have taken place over the last three years. The violence is part of a larger wave of violence against religious minorities, including Christians, which has been repeatedly denied by the Government. It is incumbent on the Government, religious leaders and other actors in society to address this situation or it could continue to deteriorate. There is a need for both short-term and long-term action but it needs to be rooted in a desire to build a more democratic, just, equitable and peaceful Sri Lanka.
We also urge the Government and all civil society actors to take action to address the serious breakdown in inter community relations in the affected areas. Many, if not most Muslims and Sinhalese in the affected areas now barely speak with each other and neighbourhoods remain tense. Restoring ties and relations will be a long-term process but this process needs to start immediately.
It has been heartening to see the response of religious figures (including individual Buddhist priests), some politicians, professional associations, civil society organizations, business chambers, artist collectives, diplomats among others condemning the violence and expressing their empathy with the victims.
Nonetheless, the silence from some quarters, particularly the Mahanayakas and the prominent Buddhist priests, at the very least to condemn the use of violence by all and to express empathy with all victims of violence is disappointing. Beyond this, there needs to be a national dialogue on how we have allowed this climate of hate and violence to grow, on how we justify mob violence as a response to incidents and issues, on how religious places have been attacked and even used as sites for gathering mobs to launch attacks. Above all we need to now reflect on how we regain our humanity.
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