| by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena
( April 12, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian ) Not even during the entire three decades of the war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government troops has communalism and race hatred been displayed so openly by Government protected groups of men wearing yellow robes as in these most unhappy times.
BBS being let out like a genie from a bottle
During that period, churches were not attacked and kovils were not robbed. Obscenities were not openly screamed by rabid forces like the Boddu Bala Sena (BBS) against Muslims and Christians. Ironically it was only after the ending of conflict in 2009 that the gathering of religious extremist forces came into their uncouth splendor, crawling out of the woodwork as it were. Even brave Buddhist monks of the true discipline who oppose them are not spared. And interestingly while the BBS was silent for a period leading up to the vote of the Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council, they were no doubt let out like a particularly unpleasant genie from the bottle this week.
Scarcely had the rejoicing over the Sri Lanka multi-ethnic cricket team’s victory in the T-20 finals subsided, when a group of monks led by the BBS General Secretary Galagoda Gnanasara Thera stormed a press conference at a Colombo hotel where a strong critic, Watarekke Vijitha Thera from Mahiyangana was holding a press conference with others. The purpose of the press briefing was to explain that illegal resettlement was not being carried out within the Wilpatttu National Park by Northern Muslims who had been chased out by the LTTE.
Covering up a multitude of sins
But the Government protests in righteous indignation that religious minorities are not being targeted by extremist forces before the Geneva based United Nations Human Rights Council. Laughably, it points to constitutional provisions ensuring the right to religious freedom. These and other fairy tales, dealt with in these column spaces last week, are not hitting their target this time around however. The Government’s massive propaganda machine which had been successful in covering up a multitude of sins under a cloak of lies and bluster is slowly but surely failing in its task.
Protestations of religious pluralism sound extremely unconvincing when, in practice, the reality encompasses rampaging BBS monks openly victimizing religious minorities with impunity. Even at this week’s threats by the BBS aimed against another monk, the police were unable to afford effective protection. Later and predictably, it was reported that the BBS was called to give a statement by the Slave Island police on a complaint made by the abused and clearly shaken Watarekke Vijitha Thera. We all know however what will happen to the outcome of these ‘investigations.’
Not sporadic incidents
In its response in Geneva, a sanctimonious claim is made by the Government that attacks on religious minorities are only ‘sporadic’ and that ‘whenever credible information relating to incidents has been made available’ it has ‘taken appropriate action’ (see paragraphs 30 and 33 of the Government response to the report of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, A/HRC/25/G/9). It also takes the curious position that such ‘sporadic incidents’ anyway occur in any society that is multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious and that Sri Lanka should not be unfairly judged on that basis (ditto, paragraph 35).
But the External Affairs Minister who appears to have forgotten basic tenets of law and the Government which he so badly represents should be reminded of certain crucial factors that cruelly distinguish Sri Lanka in this regard. First, the incidents are not sporadic. Rather, there is a dangerous political scheme that is becoming more and more apparent in these manifestations. They emerge at particularly apt periods and then retreat as suddenly as they come.
Second, it is not an answer to cite that only a few make official complaints and that therefore, the police cannot proceed (ditto, see paragraph 30). Such childish games at covering up the truth truly beggars belief. The fist principle of the law is that any offender of the law should be dealt with by the law. The threats and obscenities leveled by the BBS are recorded for full viewing by the Government. In certain instances, some brave complainants have in fact, come forward.
What are the punishments?
It is no answer to say merely, as the Government has done, that cases are proceeding or that some have been concluded. The question is, what are the punishments meted out to these offenders of the law? It is a joke that when the existing law cannot be implemented properly, Cabinet Ministers like Vasudeva Nanayakkara who has metamorphosed into a veritable caricature of himself can indulge in fantasies of new laws against hate speech.
There are those who protest that reports of such religious extremism are vastly exaggerated. Such complacent souls should embark on a cursory web search which would throw up enough and more recordings of BBS threats against religious minorities, using language that can only come from guttersnipes and hopeless inebriates. The question is that this group is so powerful that it can even attack Cabinet Ministers in public threatening them with bodily harm.
A lamentable reality
The fact that these threats are recorded on tape and broadcast for the world to see, is immaterial. Indeed, the BBS can threaten hosts and producers of television stations who, to the limited extent possible today, expose their leaders. It can threaten to disrobe Muslim women wearing their traditional dress. It can even threaten to disrobe moderate Buddhist monks who oppose the BBS. In fact, as Watarekke Vijitha Thera quaintly but tellingly posed the question some month ago ‘I am not sure why the BBS is so intent of pulling the clothes off everybody.’
The point is that the BBS can engage in such abhorrent behavior undeterred by the law. Cabinet Ministers threatened by the BBS have to grin and bear it.
Such is the lamentable state of government today.