June 2014 violence against Muslims is frightening and unsettling minorities in Sri Lanka.
Muslims in Aluthgama and Beruwala in the South of Sri Lanka were subject to violence so reminiscent of what happened to the Tamils 31 years earlier in July 1983, although in a much miniscule scale. In both instances, thugs were imported into areas to unleash violence. In both instances, a "reason" was found to unleash these thugs. In 1983, it was the killing of 13 Sri Lankan soldiers by Prabakaran and the LTTE, and in 2014, it was the stoning of a Buddhist monk by a group of Muslims.
On both occasions, there has been no involvement of ordinary Sinhalese civilian either in 1983, or in 2014 in the mindless violence against the Tamils and the Muslims. On both occasions, the violence unleashed by roaming thugs, probably paid for their dirty labour, did not materialise in any kind of mass civil disorder or inter-ethnic violence between the minority communities and the majority community.
While religious tensions have and will continue to exists amongst sections of all communities, as it does in many other parts of the world, these tensions have not resulted in any type of widespread religious disharmony in Sri Lanka that has translated into inter religious violence. All minority communities need to be assured of this fact.
However, the fact that machinations by interested parties, and the use of thugs to harm minorities on the pretense that there is religious disharmony and they are giving expression to majority dissatisfaction, has to be of concern to minorities as they have no assurance that this will not happen again. The fact that these incidents have happened many times, at least as far as the Tamil community is concerned, is evidence that the State has been powerless in preventing these from happening.
There is no easy way to provide such an assurance as opportunities to exploit religious (and ethnic) tensions that are provided to those intent in exploiting them, are provided by the communities themselves, either by inaction, ignorance, indifference or a combination of all this. The impact of this inaction is the disturbance of the social equilibrium of the country brought about by the actions of minorities within communities, which then is exploited by interested parties.
These minorities habitually wave red rags to the psychological bull sentiments inherent in all communities to varying degrees. Although the country's population statistics and mix is just accidental and not the deliberate work of any super being, statements likes "this is a Sinhala Buddhist country" is a red rag to elements in other communities.
The spread of fundamental Islamic practices, including strict dress codes for women (in particular), and the proliferation of Mosques belonging to these fundamental groups, is a red rag to elements of other communities, in particular to those within the Sinhala Buddhist community.
The spread of Christian fundamentalism and as some have said, unethical conversions to these faiths, are red rags to elements within other communities.
All these red rags disturb the social equilibrium in the country and provide the opportunities and the fodder for those intent on exploiting the tensions that build as a consequence.
In instances when these tensions surface, the majorities within each community, through the leaders of these communities (religious, civil society, business) must find ways and means of dealing with the minority elements that fan the flames of religious tensions.
If they sit back and allow such tensions to be exploited for political or even economic gain, then they necessarily have to take some responsibility for the consequences, although the primary responsibility to ensure tensions are not allowed to build and rogue elements within communities are not harboured for any reason, they are checked and apprehended before they exploit tensions, rests fairly and squarely, and entirely with the government of the day.
In 1983, it is strongly suspected that a section of the then government had a hand in the organized violence that took place against the Tamils. In 2014, there are suspicions that a section of the government at least had a hand in supporting directly or indirectly, a minority element of the Sinhala Buddhist community widely attributed to have precipitated the violence that occurred in Aluthgama and Beruwala.
The governments of 1983 and 2014 have denied this, although this is not of much comfort to minorities as they will rightly say that both governments failed to stop the violence even if they had no hand in it. To the credit of the current government, one has to acknowledge that violence did not spread to areas outside the pockets in the South in question, unlike in 1983, when it spread to many parts of the country.
If suspicion of government involvement or direct or indirect complicity is unfounded, saying so is not sufficient. They must find those who were responsible and expose them and charge them according to the law of the land. Failure to do this will always leave lingering doubts that there might be some truth in the suspicions and the speculation surrounding the government's involvement or association with the elements that had some responsibility for the violence.
To this day, no one actually knows what happened in 1983 and who actually was responsible for the violence that was unleashed against the Tamils. Hopefully, the current government will not leave any stone unturned in exposing who was responsible and they take lawful recourse against those who were responsible. If this is not done, not only will the government have to live with the stigma of possible involvement or direct or indirect complicity with the violence, unfounded as it might be, but they would leave a gaping opportunity for future exploiters and thugs, to leave minority communities feeling frightened and unsettled about their future in Sri Lanka.
Another consequence of this would be that the stated efforts to usher reconciliation amongst communities will become a factoid, a questionable statement being presented as a fact, when facts will not be there to back statements that there is ongoing reconciliation amongst communities, when what might be there is fear and uncertainty, certainly not the necessary criteria for reconciliation.
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Published by HT Syndication with permission from Asian Tribune.
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