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Reflections on the Brink of the Next Abyss

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“How could we not have seen what was coming, until it had arrived in our midst, clanking and smoking?”
John Banville (Shroud)

( June 26, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) President Mahinda Rajapaksa is furious. Not about the Aluthgama riots; that, in his eyes, was a ‘most minor incident’. He is furious about the peaceful protest (Hartal) against the Aluthgama riots.

Little wonder then that Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thera is not only free but was allowed to hold another ‘religious meeting’ in Kandy.

According to President Rajapaksa, murder and mayhem constitute far, far lesser crimes than a peaceful protest: “During the conflict period the LTTE killed people irrelevant of their ethnicity. Certain groups that didn’t dare stage a single hartal campaign during the LTTE period have now started them. Large scale (Maha loku) hartal campaigns are organised for even the most minor incidents.”

Is it any surprise that the police, instead of arresting the criminals of Aluthgama, are hot in pursuit of the organisers of the peaceful Hartal?

In this context, if Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara succeeds in bringing a law against hate speech, it will be used to silence not the BBS/JHU/Ravana Balaya but to incarcerate those who criticise the hatemongering of Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara et al.

Once, not so long ago, this President justified attacks on Muslims by claiming (entirely apocryphally) that only child rapists have been targeted. This week he dismissed an outbreak of violence which claimed four lives and inflicted a festering wound on the ethno-religious fabric of Sri Lanka as a ‘most minor incident’. Can his government be trusted to discover the truth about Aluthgama and prosecute those responsible?

According to Parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera, the Aluthgama riot was a concept of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, implemented by certain military officials. Mr. Samaraweera, given his past affiliations, would know what the Rajapaksas are capable of. And he would not have made such an extremely serious allegation outside parliament unless he had some evidence to show for it. Any government interested in justice, order and its good name would launch an impartial inquiry into such a grave charge. Any society interested in peace and fair-play would demand such an inquiry of its government.

Instead the regime seems to be planning a witch hunt against Mr. Samaraweera. According to police spokesman an investigation might be launched against Mr. Samaraweera under the Official Secret Act for “divulging information regarding national security and information about the security forces” . Is the regime accusing Mr. Samaraweera of revealing state secrets? Wouldn’t such an accusation be tantamount to accepting that Mr. Samaraweera spoke the truth about Aluthgama riots?

If Mr. Samaraweera lied, why not arrest him for slander and other lesser crimes?

If Mr. Samaraweera did not lie, then the ‘great betrayal’ Sri Lanka’s viscerally Orwellian army spokesman was blathering about was committed not by Mr. Samaraweera but by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and his brothers.

Before Black July, Sri Lanka experienced two minor riots, in 1977 and 1981 (the burning of the Jaffna library). Had Jayewardene regime responded sanely, sensibly and lawfully to these outbreaks, had Sinhala society condemned these outbreaks unequivocally, Black July and many other consequent disasters could have been avoided.

Are we living in a similar interregnum? Is this is the uneasy calm before the next bloody tornado? Will we evade the abyss or plunge into it, singing patriotic songs and waving the Lion and ‘Buddhist’ flags?

Rioters are law-breakers. If the government implements the law, without fear or favour, another, greater, disaster might be avoidable. But the regime is not interested in prosecuting criminals but in persecuting enemies. So UNP provincial councillor, Mujibar Rahaman has been questioned, Watareka Vijitha Thero has been arrested and Mangala Samaraweera might be summoned to the Fourth Four.

Meanwhile the criminals of Aluthgama remain as free as air.

Governments can instigate/encourage riots; but such violence cannot flourish in the absence of societal approbation. In July 1983, the rioters were empowered by the sense that a large component of Sinhala society (if not the majority) approved of what they were doing. Without that oxygen, the fires of Black July would not have blazed for as long as they did.

Lankan Buddhists, lay and ordained, led by the Chief Prelates have to make a decision: who is our Teacher? Is it the Buddha with his message of compassion and non-violence for all living beings? Or is it Bhikku Mahanama, Anagarika Dharmapala and Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thera, with their anti-Buddhist justification of violence against ‘unbelievers’?

Are we Buddhists, the followers of the Gautama Buddha? Or are we Mahawamsa-Dharmapala-Gnanasara disciples?

The New War?

In 2008, as the war was grinding towards a victorious conclusion, the principal of a school in Galle ordered the father of a Muslim pupil out of his office for wearing a prayer cap.

That was an early sign of the new disaster which is almost upon us.

Post-war, we Sinhalese should have made a conscious effort to prove to minorities that we are not what we were in 1956, 1972, 1973 and 1983. Instead, under Rajapaksa aegis and intoxicated by the ‘great patriotic victory’, we acted as if there was nothing wrong with 1956, 1972, 1973 and 1983.

To win the war, the Rajapaksas appealed to the fanatic in the Sinhala soldier and the Sinhala civilian. Now to maintain themselves in power they are appealing to the fanatic in Sinhala-Buddhist citizens and monk. The Rajapaksas need enemies and Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists have enemies. The Rajapaksas need a new war, to justify the imposition of a familial autocracy on an imperfect democracy; Sinhala-Buddhists supremacists are never without a handy casus belli.

The Tamils have been taught a lesson; now is the turn of the Muslims.

Someday, the turn of the Christians too will arrive.

Fanatics inhabit a different mental universe, a psychological wasteland in which reason does not exist and any barbarity is permissive in the name of the chosen ‘cause’. That was the logic of Black July. That mindset helped the Tigers to triumph over the more moderate Tamil options. The LTTE in turn helped the Rajapaksas to power.

The moderate Muslim leaders, the ones who believe in democracy and non-violence, are being discredited and are discrediting themselves. Their successors will be neither non-violent nor democratic. Aluthgama would have lent credence to the voices of immoderation in the Muslims community. If a bigger outbreak follows, it will be a death knell for the moderate, non-violent and democratic Muslim. In his/her place will be the Jihadist.

The Rajapaksas may not mind that. The Sinhala-Buddhist fanatics may not mind that.
But is that the future we want?

The allegation that there were 1,000 Jihadists in a mosque in Aluthgama is inane. If there were even a singhel Jihadist he/she would not have just lobbed stones.

Do we want Sri Lanka to become a target for real Jihadists out there in the world? Do we want suicide bombers and bombs again, probably on a larger scale?

It is easy to conjure spectres; getting rid of them when the work is done is quite another matter. Before we allow the Rajapaksas and their crazy acolytes to damage Sinhala-Muslim relations beyond the point of recovery, we should ask: Do we really want another war?

The Colombo Telegraph – 23.6.2014
Daily Mirror – 26.6.2014

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