Distress and divide

In the aftermath of the Easter bombings, Muslims have become the new bogeyman for the majoritarian politics in Sri Lanka. The communal divide is likely to widen as politicians appear to be more keen on taking advantage of the hardening social identities than offering a healing touch to the wounded nation.

Published : Jun 19, 2019 12:30 IST

During prayers at the Jumma mosque in Minuwangoda, near Colombo, on May 15. Mosques and Muslim-owned shops and businesses were targeted in a violent backlash after the Easter attacks.

During prayers at the Jumma mosque in Minuwangoda, near Colombo, on May 15. Mosques and Muslim-owned shops and businesses were targeted in a violent backlash after the Easter attacks.

IN EARLY JUNE, A LOCAL SCHOOL IN Colombo gave its students a two-page list of frequently asked questions on the April 21 suicide bombings so that they could comprehend the issues involved in simple and straightforward language. One question was: “Were the bombers Muslims?” The answer was: “The bombers said they were Muslim, but Islam does not tell people to kill each other. The Sri Lankan people, including the Muslims, are very sad and angry about what these few people have done. They have been helping the people who were affected and are trying to help to keep us all safe. All different kinds of people have to stand together, help and love each other no matter what religion we are.”

The Easter bombings killed more than 250 people across the island, shocking the nation and pushing its people into the zone of fear and apprehension that existed when the Sri Lankan state fought the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for three long decades. All the suicide bombers were Muslim. The terrorists chose four hotels and three churches. The bombs went off in all the churches when the Tamil Mass was on and not during the Sinhala service. Most of those killed were Tamil-speaking people. One hotel, the Taj Samudra, escaped because the trigger mechanism of the bomb planted there did not work.

In the following weeks, there were various attacks on Muslims in retaliation for the Easter bombings. On June 11, hundreds of people in the southern town of Matara came out to uphold peace in Sri Lanka, even as incidents targeting Muslims showed no signs of abating across the island nation.

“Braving the rain, several thousand people came to Matara town to say ‘NO’ to hatred, intolerance and bigotry while expressing their very vocal support for a new Sri Lanka—united in its diversity,” Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera said in a tweet.

The same day, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem and all the Muslim Ministers who had resigned from their posts on June 3 met the Chief Prelate of the Ramanna Nikaya, one of the three major Buddhist orders in Sri Lanka, the other two being the Siam Nikaya and the Amarapura Nikaya. The meeting sought to bridge the divide that had developed between the Muslim and Sinhala communities. The team also met the Chief Prelates of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters of the Siam Nikaya in Kandy.

Soon after the blasts, during a special session of Parliament on April 24, several speakers sought to separate terrorism from religion. “I appeal to all, politicians in particular, not to blame this tragedy on any particular community,” said M.A. Sumanthiran, a leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). “The Muslims of this country have never reacted with violence even when violence was thrust upon them. We value that very much and we will march towards a better tomorrow for all of us—Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and others—hand in hand,” he added.

“In my capacity as Speaker, I am doing my best to strengthen unity within the government. All leaders have to contribute and I am hopeful that current differences can be overcome for the benefit of all Sri Lankans, as divisions within is what the enemies of the nation want,” Speaker Karu Jayasuriya said in a tweet on June 12.

Similar sentiments could be heard in the multi-ethnic eastern town of Batticaloa, where a church bombing left 26 dead on the spot. “No, no one among our community is looking for revenge. No one is in a mood for retaliation,” said Fr Clement V. Annadas of the St. Mary’s Cathedral, about 100 metres from Zion Church, which was attacked. “This is obviously not an incident that will be forgotten. But no one is holding the Muslim community responsible for this,” he said in response to a question.

Most people who spoke to Frontline remember where they were and what they were doing on that day. “It’s but natural,” said a lawyer, whose friend was at the Shangri-La Hotel that morning. He left just before the bombs went off. “We will remember it all our lives,” he added.

Anxiety about loved ones, fear and anger over the outrageous blasts, and concern for the future were common threads across conversations. “I was too stunned,” said a businesswoman in Colombo. “I remember crying for no reason for more than a week,” she added. She was not alone in this grief, as seen from the experiences of many who were not directly affected by the blasts.

However, the reality on the ground is that Muslims, who constitute about 10 per cent of the Sri Lankan population, are in the same situation that the Tamils in Sinhala-majority Sri Lanka faced not long ago. The Tamils were hounded and targeted in the country during the decades when the LTTE held sway over the Northern Province. Even after the war ended in 2009, the community was harassed, some members of the Tamil community from the Northern Province said. Not much help was forthcoming from the Muslims at that time.

Now the talk of communal harmony and the gestures remain just that. The Muslim community does not find much support from the Tamils or from any other group in Sri Lanka despite gestures such as inter-religious meetings. “What can these meetings achieve other than being a photo-op?” asked A.L.M. Sabeel, convener of the National Front for Good Governance, a political party with a base among Muslims. “They all come, sit and possibly have a meal or speak, and then leave. The real cooperation has to happen on the ground among the people. No real steps are being taken towards that,” he said.

Majoritarian politics has found a new enemy that it was in search of, and extreme right-wing elements have been making one unreasonable demand after another with the aim of removing Muslims from top positions in different walks of life. The first of these was to dismiss the Muslim Governors of two provinces and a Minister whom many Sinhalas believe, without any basis, helped the perpetrators of the blasts.

A monk on fast

Although the right-wing elements were making these demands and threatening to lay siege to Colombo until their demands were met, they did not act upon their threat except for a monk, who is also a Member of Parliament, who did it with dramatic effect and consequence. Athuraliye Rathana Thera decided to undertake a fast—until the Muslim politicians resigned—at the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy, one of the holiest places of worship for Sri Lankan Sinhala Buddhists. His fast, which began on May 31, demanded that President Maithripala Sirisena remove Western Province Governor Azath Salley, Eastern Province Governor M.L.A.M. Hizbullah and Minister for Industry and Commerce Rishad Bathiudeen because he believed that they supported Islamist extremism.

Politicians and other leaders initially dismissed the fast as a drama, but by June 2 the fasting monk had received a lot of support and huge crowds began to gather at the site of the fast. The next day, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, visited him, shocking many in Sri Lanka because it appeared that he was trying to placate an unreasonable extreme right-wing element. Some monks were of the opinion that they needed to undertake a 100-kilometre march from Kandy to Colombo to force the Muslim politicians to resign.

Not to be outdone, Gnanasara Thero, a monk who is the founder of Bodu Bala Sena, a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organisation, warned that he would begin a national protest if the two Governors were not dismissed. Isolated instances of attacks on Muslims, with the police being mute spectators, and a variety of politicians trying to capitalise on the new hate matrix have added to the already inflamed situation across the country.

Sitting on the sidelines and watching the developments seems to be a favourite pastime for Sri Lanka’s ruling party politicians. Except Mangala Samaraweera, no Minister has come out in the open and called out the demands of the Buddhist monk for what they were: “Hatred is never appeased by hatred. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal. Today, it was left to our Muslim Ministers to exhibit this sacred teaching of Lord Buddha while imposters in robes incited hatred in his name. A shameful day for our beloved #lka,” he said in a tweet after the Muslim Ministers resigned.

He was also unsparing in his criticism of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith for travelling to Kandy and meeting the fasting monk. “#Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith fanning the flames of hatred and communalism by visiting fasting robed MP Rathana. #Vatican TAKE NOTE,” he wrote in a tweet, tagging Pope Francis and Vatican News, the Pope’s official communication channel. The Cardinal took exception to this tweet and explained that he was only working for communal harmony, but his explanation did not cut much ice in Sri Lanka where religious leaders work in tandem with politicians.

Muslim Ministers resign

By 11 a.m. on June 3, the two Muslim Governors had resigned. Until then, they had refused to yield to the demand of the fringe groups. But with the majority speaking like the fringe and prominent members of society visiting the fasting monk, they were left with no option. Soon after this, in a rare show of solidarity in the community, all the Muslim Ministers—four Cabinet Ministers, four State Ministers and a Deputy Minister—decided to resign en bloc, regardless of party affiliations, putting pressure back on a beleaguered and dysfunctional government.

By the evening of June 3, all nine Muslim Ministers had quit the government but said that they would extend support to it. They demanded an expeditious investigation into the charges floated by the right-wing fringe and the release of persons detained arbitrarily, and gave the government a month to meet their demands. “We cannot be pushed beyond a point,” Rauff Hakeem told Frontline (see interview on page 23).

By resigning, the Ministers took the wind out of the sails of the fringe elements. Political observers believe that this action defused a potentially dangerous situation that would have torn the social fabric of the country.

“Most unfortunate that Muslim Ministers succumbed to pressure from racists. Yesterday us, today you, tomorrow a new ‘other’. We continue to stand in solidarity with Muslim people & call on all right thinking Sri Lankans to do the same,” Sumanthiran said in a tweet on June 3. He sent a clear message by saying “yesterday us”, a reference to the Tamils.

Soon after the resignations, the heads of missions of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) issued a statement warning of potentially “unforeseen and dangerous consequences”. The strongly worded statement bluntly began by saying that “communal violence targeting Muslims in Sri Lanka has regional and global security implications”.

The OIC had issued statements after the anti-Muslim violence in Aluthgama in 2014 and Digana in 2018, but this was its strongest statement on this issue ever. The statement is problematic because of how it might be perceived by the public. One view is that the statement conveys the impression that Muslims from other parts of the world are getting together to force Sri Lanka to go soft on the perpetrators of such violence. In the extreme, this may also be seen as a move to force Buddhist Sri Lanka to conform to the wishes of Muslims.

It did not help the Muslim cause when M.L.A.M. Hizbullah said that although Muslims were not a dominant community in Sri Lanka, they were a dominant community in the world.

In videos posted on his Facebook page, he appeared defiant and spoke about how Muslims could not be subjugated by anyone.

Despite these events, it must not be forgotten that all Muslims are politically not under the same umbrella in Sri Lanka; the region they hail from often determines their political affiliations.

By all accounts, it appears that the communal divide between Muslims and Sinhala Buddhists is widening. The attempt to divide begins at the very top: President Sirisena, according to media reports, spoke of the possible emergence of a “Muslim Prabakaran” (a reference to a return to the insurgency that Sri Lanka had witnessed earlier), fanning the flames of hatred. Most Sinhala politicians, even the ones who participated in interfaith prayer meetings and communal feasts, changed their language in pro-Sinhala platforms across the island to hold the entire Muslim community responsible for the violence and tension.

“This [the bombing] was a work of some Muslim extremists. They [the suicide bombers] ended up attacking not the Tamils or the Sinhalese but their own people. Their people are suffering as a result,” former President Mahinda Rajapaksa told Frontline (interview on page 17).

Traditionally, Sri Lanka’s Muslims have been traders and businessmen. There are Sinhala voices on social media that have surreptitiously called for a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses and shops. A community meeting in a suburban town even made an open call to this effect to its members. Even people holding white-collar jobs and those considered to be the conscience keepers of society are not above this kind of messaging.

“You saw what happened. When there was a problem for a few Muslims, all the Muslims everywhere ganged up,” said a senior Tamil journalist. His colleagues were in complete agreement. “When we [the Tamils] had problems, they did not stand with us. Now they are facing the music,” he added. According to the journalists, the problems now being faced by the Muslims cannot in any way be compared with what the Tamils faced.

“The Tamils were subjugated while the Muslims have been part of the power structure since the beginning,” a journalist said. “Also, the [Tamil] Tigers had an objective, an independent state of their own. In the case of these bombers, what did they ask for? Nothing. They just killed. So, do not compare the Tigers to these bombers,” he added.

Across the island, those who have visited the Muslim town of Kattankudy point out that the town stands out from the rest of Sri Lanka: the arches across the town are shaped in the Arab architectural style; some buildings, including mosques and a cultural centre, have minarets; and some of the traffic islands also showcase such architecture. To top it all, there are signages in Arabic in a town whose people neither read nor understand Arabic; there is even a line of date palms on the road dividers. In short, Kattankudy is an Arab-looking town in Sri Lanka, and its distinct look agitates Sinhalas and Tamils alike.

“Many of these are [Eastern Province Governor] Hizbullah’s contribution,” said A.L.M. Sabeel, who is also a member of the Kattankudy Mosques Federation and the local urban council. “He went overboard trying to please his Arab donors. There is nothing more to be read into this,” he insisted.

Regardless of the semantics, one thing is amply clear: Sri Lanka is manufacturing discontent among the Muslim minority on an industrial scale. The Sinhala majoritarian polity of Sri Lanka, which demonised the Tamils even after the end of the war, is doing exactly the same with the Muslims.

The ethnic divide

The result of all this is likely to be felt by all Sri Lankans: the April bombings have the potential to wipe out all the gains made by the nation since 2009, when the LTTE was annihilated. Muslims are well-entrenched in the economy and the political and administrative structure of Sri Lanka (most state intelligence field officers during the heyday of the LTTE were Muslims).

The Tamils, the other prominent minority group, feel that they are not obliged to take up the case of the Muslims because of distrust from the war years. The Tamils regard the Muslims (who also speak Tamil) with suspicion because the Muslims “collaborated” with the Sinhalese government during the war years. The LTTE even carried out a massacre of Tamil-speaking Muslims in 1990 in Kattankudy. The Tigers also ordered all Muslims out of the Jaffna peninsula. (They later settled in the north-western town of Puthalam.) No prominent Tamil group of that time opposed this.

The communal divide is a relatively new but fast-developing fault line and it sits on top of the massive ethnic divide. Sri Lanka has not been able to arrive at a negotiated settlement of the “national question”— the demand of the Tamils for a federal set-up in Sri Lanka in which their hopes and aspirations can be realised. One of the major promises of the national government that assumed office in 2015 was that it would implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

The 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution devolves powers to the Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern Provinces and was part of an accord signed by Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayawardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. It remains the only hope for some autonomy for the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Rajiv Gandhi’s defeat in the 1989 general election and the subsequent instability in the Indian polity gave Sri Lanka the escape route it was looking for. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991 and India’s lack of interest in the issue during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s tenure as Prime Minister between 1991 and 1996 ensured that India did not push forward implementation of the accord.

Also, as majoritarian passions rose in Sri Lanka following the accord, it was very clear that there was no possibility of the Amendment being implemented. With the defeat of the LTTE in 2009, the government is under no serious pressure to concede any demand of the Tamils.

Moderate Tamil political leaders are ready to cooperate and are deeply committed to a fair political solution, TNA leader R. Sampanthan told Parliament in March this year.

“You made commitments that you will evolve an acceptable political solution once the war came to an end, but that has not yet happened, despite Tamil moderates once again giving you the fullest support to achieve that. Tamil people are committed to a just, reasonable political solution and we will do all that we can to achieve that objective. We are committed to ensuring that if the process of finding a political solution ends in failure, the failure is not attributed to us. We will remain committed to a political solution within the framework of an undivided, indivisible country,” he said.

Sampanthan and his colleagues in the TNA have been trying to push for a solution through Parliament. Each new government makes promises but has never risen to fulfil them. This time too, despite a lot of progress in parliament, implementation is not in sight.

Time is ticking for the fractured Tamil polity too. Sampanthan, who is 86, has spent his time in Parliament trying to push for a settlement of the Tamil problem. He holds the Tamil alliance together with his tact, understanding, patience and sheer force of personality. But Sampanthan is disappointed with the current set of leaders, especially after the attempted parliamentary coup of October 26, 2018. At the end of the whole exercise, the only group that lost out was the Tamils: Sampanthan was ousted as Leader of the Opposition without notice and the seat was given to Mahinda Rajapaksa.

On June 9 this year, the TNA’s top leadership called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi at India House in Colombo. The four leaders who accompanied Sampanthan were Mavai Senathirajah, Selvam Adaikalanathan, D. Siddarthan and Sumanthiran. While they are all leaders in their own right, they do not have the acceptability that Sampanthan enjoys to hold the alliance together. This is the defining crisis in the country’s Tamil leadership.

There is also the outlier, former Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Vigneswaran, who left the TNA to form his own party. In a country with a proportional representation system of election, all votes count. While Vigneswaran will not be a major force in the Tamil polity, he can always be regarded as a representative of the Tamils if he manages a decent vote share. Former Minister Douglas Devananda, who runs the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), is the other contender for the Tamil leadership. He will continue to play the minor role that he has been playing in the past few decades.

Apart from the communal and ethnic divides, a major cause for concern is the floundering economy and lack of job creation. The International Monetary Fund, in a May review, said that the economy remains “vulnerable to shocks” because of the huge public debt, thin external buffers and massive financing needs. Public debt rose to about 90 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) by end 2018, pushing the Sri Lankan rupee down.

Tourism is the third largest revenue earner in the country’s economy, after remittances and textiles and garments. In the past five years, the growth in visitor numbers was unprecedented, averaging more than 22 per cent year on year, according to “Sri Lanka Tourism—Strategic Plan 2017-2020”, a government publication. All that ended on April 21. Although April to September is considered the lean period, it is also the time when many Indians travel to Sri Lanka. Tourism, which is nearly a $5 billion industry in Sri Lanka, contributes to about 5 per cent of the country’s GDP (see story on page 20).

With tourists staying away, even after some countries withdrew travel advisories, jobs in the hospitality sector are vanishing every day. The indirect job losses to local businesses are difficult to calculate and barely make it to government statistics, according to a local tour operator in Polonnaruwa, a city of ancient ruins that attracts a considerable number of tourists.

As a consequence of the security measures undertaken by the government after the blasts, many Maldivians, for whom Sri Lanka is a second home, are considering other countries as options. All Maldivian citizens are Sunni Muslim and they too undergo the same problems as local Muslims across a variety of establishments. Colombo was their preferred destination for studies, medical aid, and rest and recreation. There are about 12,000 Maldivians in Sri Lanka. “Some have gone back to the Maldives, a few others are looking at other countries such as Malaysia to move to,” said a senior Maldivian official.

For a ‘strong’ leader

Sri Lanka’s political problems are even more complex than the economic slowdown: the people’s lack of faith in the country’s polity is apparent and there are voices which demand that a strong person is needed to govern the country. “Yes, this is true,” said Chamindry Saparamadu, a lawyer and political analyst who has worked at the forefront of both constitutional reforms and the Right to Information Act in Sri Lanka.

“The hope was that this government will deliver on at least some of its promises. But it has failed at all levels of governance. All efforts that we have put into constitutional reforms as well as finding a negotiated political settlement to the national problem have gone waste. So much progress could have been made, but because of individual egos of those at the top, a great opportunity has been lost,” she said.

The idea that strong leadership is the antidote to all that is wrong in Sri Lanka is gaining ground. One name that has been proposed is of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is said to have ordered the killing of unarmed Tamil Tigers and civilians in the last stages of the Eelam war.

“The issues that civil society thinks as critical are not actually that important for the people at large. The white vans [which were allegedly used to abduct critics of the government ] were a major issue that was talked about by civil society during the Rajapaksa regime. But that did not affect the public at large, the middle class or the traders at that time. These people are being affected now because of underworld criminals and thugs who are having a free run now,” Chamindry Saparamadu said.

From anecdotal evidence and from what civil society leaders say, it appears that the Sri Lankan people have forgotten the excesses of the Rajapaksa era and now want a strongman as President. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the frontrunner, but Sri Lanka is known for too many palace intrigues ahead of an election. Gotabaya has declared himself a candidate (see “A Rajapaksa eyes the presidency”, Frontline , May 10, 2019) and is working to make sure that his brother and the Sinhala majority accept him. Meanwhile, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the most popular politician in the country today, is working towards a consensus to ensure victory of the candidate he backs.

With the presidential elections slated for December 7 this year, it is very clear that the variations of the theme of “strong leader” will be played out. The differences between the communities will only grow as politicians seek to take advantage of the current insecurities.

Sirisena’s release of Gnanasara Thero, who was jailed for contempt of court, and his talking tough with the Inspector General of Police and asking the Defence Secretary to resign, apart from raising the bogey of a “Muslim Prabakaran”, were all intended to project himself as the one who could act quickly and decisively to put down terrorism.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who tried to make it seem as if he had nothing to do with the direction in which the country was heading, is as deeply ambitious as any other politician in Sri Lanka and fancies his chances as a candidate.

The Sinhala majoritarian polity will keep stoking anti-Muslim sentiments because it will mean a consolidation of the Sinhala votes. Both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sirisena are eyeing this vote bank. Wickremesinghe is expected to woo the minorities, as his party, the United National Party (UNP), has always done with new promises.

Unless Rajapaksa breaks into the base of Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) or finds new allies, his candidate will find it difficult to win. Sirisena too has the need to keep his old allies or find new ones. That game is being played out in the country.

The presence of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Hindu maths in Sri Lanka will add a new dimension to this election because of the re-election of Narendra Modi in India.

All these developments are in the shadow of a superpower rivalry between the United States and China in India’s backyard. Modi’s visit in early June and the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in end June appear to be guided by the need to steer the Sri Lankan state in a certain direction. China has promised and delivered technical support to Sri Lanka “to combat terrorism”, apart from keeping in close touch with most of the country’s leading politicians. The U.S. is taking more than a passing interest in Sri Lanka after the blasts, and is actively helping Sri Lankan investigators in piecing together the case.

China’s interest stems from the fact that Sri Lanka is its pivot for the Belt and Road Initiative in this part of the world (see story on page 26). Most of the Chinese investments, such as the Hambantota Development Zone and the Colombo Port City project, are protected from the political vagaries of the country because of how China has positioned these assets. The Colombo port expansion is assured of business because India uses it as a major transshipment hub; the Port City will enable China to move some of its financial businesses from volatile West Asia to the secluded and secured man-made island in Sri Lanka. Both Hambantota and the Port City will service Chinese interests in East, South and parts of North Africa, apart from providing a competitive base to businesses desiring access to Africa. A stable Sri Lanka is in China’s interest but is not fundamental or critical to its functioning.

The need to win the December election will force politicians to overlook the critical need for collective healing of a violated society. The tapping of grief, anger and fear, and channelling them towards a political goal, which is the root of identity politics, is second nature for the political class in Sri Lanka. “Learning lessons”, “building bridges” and “attempting reconciliation” are phrases that were used in the post-war phase in Sri Lanka. A decade later, these are still reserved for the annual intergovernmental shows in Geneva and New York.

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