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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Apologising for saffron terror

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 22, 2012

On the involvement of Buddhist priests in acts of violence against other communities

Rauff Hakeem is a generous man. A week or so ago, he issued what he referred to as an ‘unreserved apology’ to all Buddhists in Sri Lanka for a remark he made on the campaign trail that some people had interpreted as an insult to the Sangha.

Indeed, he didn’t just say sorry. The SLMC leader also praised the pluralism practised by Sinhalese Buddhists from as long ago as the time of King Senarath, who gave Muslims land in the Eastern Province when they were being persecuted by the Portuguese, and acknowledged the patronage and benevolence Muslims had always enjoyed under Sinhalese rule.

The media didn’t stint on its coverage of his statement, and the frenzied criticism that both preceded and followed it was also given plenty of attention – Faizer Mustapha, his colleague in the UPFA administration, accused Rauff Hakeem of trying to provoke race riots for political gain.

Race riots? He wants a repeat of 1915? Believe that and you’ll believe anything.

The funny thing is that there was no such widespread reporting of what the SLMC leader actually said in the first place.

The whole episode had very little to do with any offence caused and nothing at all to do with any potential danger to the country – very few people would have come to hear of Rauff Hakeem’s comment if not for the ruckus created by his critics. Instead, it had everything to do with the September 8th provincial council elections, in which the SLMC has decided to go it alone in the Eastern Province. Since Muslims are now a majority in the East, the SLMC is expected to do well, and no doubt it didn’t want to risk the fate of MLAM Hizbullah, who brought his faction to contest with the UPFA in 2008 on the understanding that the community with the most votes would be offered the chief ministerial position, only to see it handed to the TMVP – Tamils won only six seats compared to eight for Muslims.

It is actually Faizer Mustapha who should be apologising to Muslims for attempting to take political advantage by raising the awful prospect of race riots.

What made all this possible was the use of the phrase ‘saffron terror’, which Rauff Hakeem urged must be tackled as was the LTTE.

It is not a very helpful phrase, certainly. Muslims don’t like it when people call Al Qaeda Islamic terrorists, on the basis that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism – just because terrorists claim to be acting in the interests of a particular faith doesn’t mean they should be taken seriously. Predominantly Islamic countries never use the word Islamic in connection with Al Qaeda, in the same way as Anders Behring Breivik isn’t called a Christian terrorist in countries where the dominant religion is Christianity (he sometimes isn’t even referred to as a terrorist!) – indeed, this label is rarely applied elsewhere either, so dominant is the West in the formation of the global narrative.

Also, ‘saffron terror’ is the phrase in common use by Indians including the Congress and its now former Home Minister P Chidambaram to describe terrorism by rightwing extremist groups adhering to Hindu nationalist ideology.

This is obviously not comparable with anything that is happening in Sri Lanka.

Rightwing extremist groups in India have been linked to a series of blasts in the last half decade that together have killed hundreds of people. When a bomb explodes, as happened in Pune on August 1st, the first reaction of the Police is now to acknowledge that it is as likely to be the work of Hindu extremists as it is of Muslim extremists.

Even generally speaking, the relationship between communities in the two countries cannot be compared. Race riots are a current reality in India – since July 20th, violence in the Northeastern state of Assam between Muslims and indigenous tribes has claimed more than 75 lives and resulted in 300,000 people fleeing their homes, while there has also been a mass exodus of Northeastern migrants from Southern cities like Bangalore and Chennai due to fears of a backlash.

Sri Lanka is much better off.

However, this is not guaranteed to remain the case. Given the history, which includes several events like those of 1915, and the fact that the country is just emerging from a generation long war fought by a group claiming to represent one particular community in the face of discrimination and oppression by a chauvinist state, it might be wise to err on the side of caution.

More important than how Rauff Hakeem expressed himself is the point he was trying to make. The phrase ‘saffron terror’ as employed by him was meant to refer to the involvement of Buddhist priests in acts of violence against other communities.

The Dambulla incident in April this year made the headlines around the world thanks to the availability of rather compelling visuals of monks leading a mob in storming and vandalising a mosque they claimed was built illegally within the declared sacred area of the Golden Temple. Anybody who still hasn’t watched the footage should immediately search for it on the internet (‘Bigoted monks and militant mobs: is this Buddhism in Sri Lanka today?’, Groundviews, April 23rd), since it is bound to change your perspective on the seriousness of the problem. The sight of a monk disrobing and jumping up and down exposing himself outside the mosque while other monks break down the door cannot be forgotten, nor can the explanation given by the Ven Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thero that the act of destroying the mosque is actually a shramadanaya in which all Buddhists should participate.

Three issues merit repetition. First, the monks used their status to achieve their objectives – the Police were present in numbers, but they did not prevent the monks from breaking the law, although they did restrain lay people.

Secondly, their concerns could have been resolved with very little difficulty if they had chosen a different path. The mosque is not like Ayodhya or the Temple Mount. It grew up to serve the Muslims of the area, but there is no desperate attachment to that particular location – it is not the Prophet’s birth or deathplace. Also, the structure itself is more or less makeshift. Putting up a new one in another place wouldn’t have been an unthinkable task before the mob attack inflamed passions. The Government could have negotiated for suitable land outside the declared sacred area.

Thirdly and most importantly, Muslim leaders responded very sensibly, moving to reduce rather than increase tensions, ensuring that protests were non-violent.

It is a shame that the Government has not apologised to Muslims for its failure to protect their religious freedom on that occasion. In particular, if saying sorry for statements that some people find upsetting is in order, Prime Minister DM Jayaratne should have done so for responding to the mob attack with an announcement that as Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs he was ordering the immediate removal of the mosque – this was hardly the responsible course of action, if there was even the smallest chance of race riots.

Meanwhile, the Ven Inamaluwe Sri Sumangala Thero is clearly not going to issue an ‘unreserved apology’, since he apparently believes that violence is a perfectly acceptable way of getting what you want (‘A monk on the rampage’, interview by Niranjala Ariyawansha of the Sunday Leader, May 6th).

The Dambulla incident happened months ago, and it may be argued that the damage done by the Buddhist priests was minimal – the mosque is back in operation and the people of the area have resumed their normal practice of peaceful and harmonious coexistence. Indeed, it is true. Sri Lanka must certainly not be castigated as an intolerant society, since to do so would be to ignore the common behaviour of the vast majority of its people and even the general attitude of its leaders. However, there would have been no damage at all if not for the Buddhist priests – they guided their followers in what was very definitely the wrong direction.

Also, Buddhist priests continue to be involved in such incidents, while nothing is being done about what looks like becoming a trend in the post-war environment.

In the last fortnight alone, reports indicate that a mob led by a Buddhist priest took away a statue of a god from a Hindu kovil in Panama, Eastern Province, while in Deniyaya, Southern Province, another mob including Buddhist priests beat and threatened to kill a Christian pastor and his wife whom they accused of spreading Christianity in the area.

These are much worse insults to the Sangha than anything that was or ever could be said by Rauff Hakeem.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 22nd August 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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