Kath Noble

Letting the extremists in again

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 16, 2013

On the Government’s responsibility to reduce intercommunal tensions and prevent violence

bodu bala senaThe execution of migrant worker Rizana Nafeek in Saudi Arabia touched the hearts of people around the world. That a girl of 17, left to care for a baby, in addition to being charged with the supervision of the other children of the household, plus the cooking and cleaning, should be punished – let alone beheaded – for what could well have been an accident, was appalling.

Equally distressing was the careless attitude of the Government. Appeals were made to the king, but it was negotiations with the family on blood money that were needed. Were they even attempted? And how is it that diplomats were so little in touch with her case that a minister claimed in a statement made after her death that she would be released very soon? The extra time that she got as a result of her appeal was due to the efforts of the Asian Human Rights Commission, an NGO based in Singapore, which raised the funds to pay for a lawyer. Would she have been convicted if the embassy had provided her with legal assistance as soon as she was arrested?

These questions have to be answered. While the remittances of workers in the Middle East are so important to the Sri Lankan economy, the Government must have the capacity to deal with the problems that they will inevitably encounter.

However, there is an even more important and pressing job to be done at home, in tackling communalism.

Sri Lanka is fortunate that Rizana was a Muslim.

These days, Sinhalese extremists are so keen to advance their campaign against Muslims that the execution of a Buddhist in a Muslim country would have become yet another of their ‘grievances’. They would have been out on the streets protesting, perhaps even burning an effigy of the Prophet Mohammed. There would have been posters and emails and a whole lot of ugly words.

It wouldn’t have mattered that Muslim countries consistently back the Government on matters equally close to their hearts, with regard to Tamils.

This is part of Sri Lanka’s post-war mess.

In the last year or so, these people have been increasingly active. We have seen the emergence of several very unpleasant websites, in Sinhala and English, dedicated to vilifying Muslims. And they are constantly on the look-out for new ways to draw the majority into their communalism. Recently, they have been talking about the ‘tax’ Sinhalese have to pay towards the construction of mosques as a result of the money some businesses spend on halal certificates, with absolutely no concern for the fact that the funds are likely used only to administer the system and that this is anyway an incidental cost for manufacturers, and one that they only bother to pay if they feel that they can sell enough of their products to the mere 9% of the Sri Lankan population that are Muslims. In other words, it is a non-issue.

But extremists are never ones to let facts get in the way of their preconceived notions. They are now urging Sinhalese to boycott shops and companies owned by Muslims, in an attempt to establish some kind of commercial apartheid.

More seriously, there have also been attacks on Muslim shrines and mosques, notably in Anuradhapura in June 2011 and in Dambulla in April 2012.

There was a time not long ago when the JHU was the vanguard of Sinhalese extremism. Its leaders were the ones who talked of sending Muslims ‘back’ to Saudi Arabia and other such nonsense.

But it would seem that something changed with the party’s success in the 2004 elections, when it secured nine seats in Parliament under Chandrika Kumaratunga, subsequently entering into an alliance with the administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The need to interact in even a very flawed democratic framework had an impact, if not on the views of its leaders then on their understanding of what can be done about them in a country like Sri Lanka, and some of the least moderate of the JHU’s members broke away.

Groups like the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya came up.

The Ven Akmeemana Dayaratne, who leads the Sinhala Ravaya, inadvertently became one of the JHU’s MPs in 2004, as the fourth man on its list in the Colombo district, when the party forced the third man to resign his seat on discovering that he had become a bit too attached to the SLFP. The leader of the Bodu Bala Sena, the Ven Galagodatthe Gnanasara Thero, was also in the JHU at that time.

No doubt the slight moderation of the JHU was not their only motivation for moving away from the party. They seem to be at least as interested in boosting their own profiles, in particular in competition with the Ven Athuraliye Rathana Thero, whose humble beginnings in a tiny temple (actually a converted house) in Matara would not be easily accepted by monks from the orthodox Siyam Nikaya with thousands of acres vested in their temples by the kings of yore.

Having broken away, they need to show their strength. Yet their supporters are actually very few in number.

That is what the Anuradhapura and Dambulla attacks were about.

The monks who led the mobs on those occasions were making a point. They wanted to chase Muslims away, but with as many people watching as possible, since their objective was to demonstrate to Sinhalese that they are the people who can deliver.

What is crucial to note is that the Government encourages this behaviour.

Violence shouldn’t bring the perpetrators anything other than prosecution and imprisonment, but nowadays it is the easy way to get what you want.

In Dambulla, the Ven Inamulawe Sri Sumangala Thero could have negotiated the relocation of the mosque away from the sacred area. The temple has plenty of land to offer, and Muslims were not implacably opposed to moving. Yet that would have required discussions that could have gone on for weeks. He got what he wanted within a matter of hours when he stormed the mosque, ably supported by the Sinhala Ravaya. The Prime Minister declared that the mosque was illegal and would be removed forthwith. (Fortunately his enthusiasm to reward the mob did not endure – it is reported that more reasonable leaders subsequently managed to resolve the matter amicably.)

The Government is now doing exactly the same thing in response to protests about the Law College Entrance Exam.

Various people questioned the results when they were announced last month. According to news reports, while in almost every year until 2010 less than ten Muslims qualified, in 2011 the number was 51 and in 2012 it was 78. The three toppers were Muslims, as were 28 of the first 50. This naturally raised suspicions, since it was in 2010 that Rauff Hakeem took over as the Minister of Justice. It was alleged that he was involved in leaking the question paper, using Muslims who serve as English-Tamil translators. Equally naturally, Rauff Hakeem denied it, saying that responsibility for admissions to the Law College lies with the Council for Legal Education rather than with his Ministry, while the Entrance Exam is conducted by the Department of Examinations, but it is hardly surprising that this did not dispel all doubts.

Politicians regularly interfere in such matters, so there was no need to treat it as a communal issue. The only special feature of this scandal, if the allegations are proven, is that it was uncovered because those involved belonged to just one community.

What was needed was a credible investigation.

But although the Government immediately took action when a leak was alleged in the O Level, resulting in the arrest of five people, including a tuition master and an official from the Department of Examinations, it ignored the Law College Entrance case. This is despite the fact that unlike the O Level, the Law College Entrance is a competitive examination, meaning that one person’s success necessarily means the failure of another, which makes it a much more controversial issue.

It was only when the Bodu Bala Sena stormed the Law College that anything was done. The Principal immediately decided to suspend registrations.

People thus got the message that it pays to be violent.

Even more important is the space that this kind of response opens up for extremists.

As things stand, the vast majority of Sinhalese are not at all interested in the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya, or indeed in the JHU. They are content to live peacefully with Muslims, and they have no intention of acting on any prejudices they may have developed. They don’t read the disgusting websites that such people maintain, and they have not been roused by the shouting about halal certificates and other such red herrings. They are not stupid.

But their common sense cannot be taken as given forever.

The relationship between Sinhalese and Muslims is far more sensitive than the relationship between Sinhalese and Tamils, due to the more obvious cultural differences.

Having just concluded a generation long conflict, the Government should understand the danger.

The Government has a tremendous responsibility to stop the further growth of Sinhalese extremism, yet it actively helps in the creation of ‘grievances’, and it consistently allows communalists to do as they please, even when this includes violence.

Sri Lanka is fortunate that there are as yet no comparable groups among Muslims.

When Rizana Nafeek was executed, they could also have taken it as a reason to protest against Sinhalese. They could have argued that the Government didn’t bother with her precisely because she was a Muslim, while it is an administration that is interested only in Buddhists. They would have been wrong, but there is no reason to expect one set of extremists to be smarter than any other.

The sad truth is that the girl died because she was poor.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 16th January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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