Anti Muslim Violence in Sri Lanka: The Puzzle Of Continuing Impunity
COLOMBO: Some years ago, in 2011, there was a phenomenon called the “grease devils” that struck fear in communities in different parts of the country, and particularly those living in areas in which the Tamil people predominate.
Semi clothed men with grease on their bodies started to infiltrate into the homes of people. They broke inside and sometimes groped women but usually they only caused utter fear and no other physical harm. As in the case of the present upsurge in anti Muslim violence, the grease devil attacks took place in a number of places almost simultaneously, as if pre-planned.
On occasion when people from the affected communities gave chase they found the suspected grease devils running into camps of the security forces in their bid to getaway. As suddenly as it started the grease devil phenomenon ended. There were no arrests by police that led to convictions.
In the last two months there have been several violent attacks targeting the Muslim community which appear to have ended at least temporarily. Muslim owned business enterprises and places of religious worship were especially targeted. These incidents, numbering over 20, caused economic ruin to many people, hurt their religious sentiment and brought dismay to the entire community.
However, attacks on the Muslims have been taking place on an irregular basis for the past several years. They spiked in 2014 with the burning of a section of Aluthgama town in which the Muslim community was dominant. The most recent attacks took place in different parts of the country. While not simultaneous, they were sufficiently widespread and systematic to suggest a pre-planned effort to target the Muslims. None of the recent attacks led to deaths. It appears that the attacks had been carefully calibrated. None of the attackers are known to have been arrested.
The failure of the security forces to apprehend those who have broken the law is at the root of the puzzle. It has led to calls for action by the government to uphold the Rule of Law. These calls have been made by civil society organizations, political parties, foreign governments and also by the Bar Association.
The statement issued by the Bar Association sets out the provisions of law under which the police can arrest those who perpetrate violence and hate crimes against the Muslim community and under which the Attorney General’s Department can file indictments in the courts of law. The puzzle is that the police have been inactive in taking the first step which is to obstruct the violent actions of those who are terrorizing the Muslim community and arrest those who have been videoed and documented as having been in the attacking parties.
The evidence of attacks and the identity of the attackers are readily available. A national television station, for instance, showed an incident where the temporary shelters of Muslims in a rural area were being physically pulled down and demolished by a group of people with a prominent Buddhist monk in the picture.
Those who have suffered violence and destruction at the hands of violent groups have also provided the police with footage of the attacks. The irony is that the governmental leaders who are in charge of the security forces have been affirming their opinion that the police ought to act, even in Parliament, but there continues to be governmental and police inaction that is difficult to explain.
It may be that the governmental leadership does not believe that this is the time to act. The massive crowds bused in by the Joint Opposition for their May Day rally was larger than any other. It is also indicative of the political opposition’s ability to muster people power onto the street, even if they have to be provided with a handout inclusive of transport, meals and drinks.
In this context the government’s instinct may be to delay taking decisive action and hope that the problem will go away. The government may also be trying to follow the example of Myanmar, where the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi has sought to accommodate the hardline Buddhist nationalist groups within the government in order to win their support.
In Myanmar, the greatest threat to the stability of the democratically elected government comes from the military that ruled the country for over five decades. It has only been in the last five years that the military has taken a step back from its direct hold on power and relinquished power to the elected civilian government that is led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
But the government is afraid that the military generals are waiting in the wings to take back power and this is why the democratically elected government has preferred to try and bring the Buddhist nationalist groups within its own fold. During the period of military rule the Buddhist monks were a powerful and non-violent force that stood resolutely in opposition to the military dictatorship.
The problem is that while the Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar are opposed to the military dictators, they have also identified the Muslims as a source of future threat to Myanmar especially in terms of changes in the demographic composition of some regions of Myanmar. As a result the Myanmar strategy of trying to bring the hardline nationalists within the government has not been successful. Instead it has further legitimized the hardliners in the eyes of the general public and they have become more active in attacking the Muslims in Myanmar.
It is ironic, and unfortunate, that in a similar manner in Sri Lanka, the government appears to be seeking to pacify hardline Buddhist nationalist groups in order to deal with the political challenges posed by the Joint Opposition which can exploit Buddhist nationalist sentiment and insecurities.
Although the anti Muslim violence has got the centre stage at this time, there is also anti Christian violence that has been directed for a longer period against evangelical Christian groups that engage in conversion activities. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance has reported that since the beginning of this year, over 20 incidents of violence and intimidation took place against Christian places of worship across the country.
In this context, the government may want to prevent the Joint Opposition and the Buddhist nationalist groups from coming together for fear that they can create conflict on the streets in a way that would make the country difficult to govern. It is noteworthy that the anti Muslim attacks grew in numbers after the Joint Opposition’s show of strength at its May Day rally. But whatever may be the motivations of the anti Muslim violence it cannot be condoned, justified or permitted.
The right to equal protection of the laws is not only a constitutional right; it is an absolute human right in any civilized society that cannot be violated. The government has a particularly strong political mandate to uphold the equal protection of the laws for the ethnic and religious minorities.
These are the groups that gave their wholehearted support to the government at the last elections. All Sri Lankans need to keep in mind the lessons from the past in which the failure to protect minorities from discrimination became a cause for three decades of war. We have seen that when problems are not resolved and are permitted to go on unchecked that they escalate with time.
With terrorism spreading throughout the world, it is important that Sri Lanka should be committed to its non-recurrence in Sri Lanka, and for this it needs the fullest support of all its people who benefit from the equal protection of the laws.