June 2014 will go down in the annals of Sri Lankan history as a turning point in ethnic relations, with large scale communal violence being unleashed on a most hapless minority. This month saw the worst acts of violence targeted against the country’s second largest minority, the Muslims, since the infamous anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983.
This month has been aptly termed ‘Black June’.
In the South-Western coastal towns of Aluthgama and Beruwala, hysterical mobs looted and torched scores of shops and other business establishments. Innocent lives were lost. Mosques were damaged and copies of the Holy Quran destroyed. Homes were broken into and vandalized.
Decades of hard work were brought down to zero as the state authorities failed to protect unarmed civilians and their properties through the grisly days of violence.
By their acts of madness and mayhem, the rampaging rioters thus shattered the dreams and hopes of not only those who were directly affected, but that of all peace-loving citizens of this country. The innocent majority were hurt by the follies of a selfish few.
The manner in which the events unfolded left no doubt in the minds of the victims and observers alike that the attacks had been well-planned. Shops and homes had been emptied prior to being set alight. Stolen goods had been packed into waiting lorries according to several eye-witness accounts. Petrol bombs had also been widely used in the attacks.
All this, despite the presence of the law enforcement agencies, who stand accused of failing to intervene to stem the violence.
The ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ became more pronounced than ever. A community of people that previously felt equal, in every way, to their fellow citizens were stripped of their dignity, and reduced to feeling like strangers in their own land.
Even the Muslims who did not strongly identify themselves as such, felt a deep sense of injustice and polarization. Today the Muslims live in absolute fear as sporadic attacks on Muslim-owned businesses, mosques and homes continue.
When the LTTE was defeated by the Sri Lankan military in May 2009, the Muslims wholeheartedly joined in the celebrations. How could one not rejoice at the end of terrorism? Peace and prosperity was imminent, it seemed.
The Muslims, one may recall, had paid a heavy price for resisting the LTTE’s mission to establish a separate state in Northern Sri Lanka. As a result of their refusal to join the terrorist movement, nearly 100,000 Muslims were forcibly evicted from the North and were rendered homeless overnight. They ended up languishing in make-shift camps for over two decades as internally displaced persons.
But tragically, the end of one form of terrorism has given way to the rise of another equally frightening form of terror. This time round the terrorists are clad in saffron robes. They have brought ridicule and disgrace to Buddhism – a noble religion that places great emphasis on tolerance, non-violence and compassion to all living beings.
From its very inception in 2012, the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) or Buddhist Power Force has carried out a series of organised campaigns against both Muslims and Christians, on the baseless premise that minorities are a threat to Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Buddhist identity. They refuse to recognise Sri Lanka as a multicultural nation.
It was this extremist organisation that was permitted to hold a rally in Aluthgama, a town with a significant Muslim population, on 15 June, the day the conflagrations began.
Tensions were already running high in Aluthgama fuelled by reports that a Muslim man had allegedly assaulted a Buddhist monk on 12 June. In this backdrop, it was a serious miscalculation on the part of the Police to allow the BBS to hold a rally just a few days later on June 15, effectively exacerbating the prevailing anti-Muslim sentiment.
Video footage of a hate-speech made at this rally by the BBS General Secretary Galgoda Gnanasara Thera, the key instigator of the violence, is available online for the world to see. “If a ‘marakkalaya’ or any other ‘paraya’ keeps so much as a hand on a Sinhala person, let alone a monk, it would be their end,” he raged.
The key question being posed by all right-thinking citizens is, why has he not been arrested to date and remanded? If a British nurse could be arrested for a Buddha tattoo on the basis that it is offensive and culturally insensitive, then why has the BBS demagogue not been arrested by an identical application of the law?
The BBS has been actively working to foster communal tensions over the last several months, and several speeches made by Gnanasara Thera laid the foundation for Black June. Where is the long arm of the law? Or is Gnanasara Thera above the law?
That he has been immune from prosecution gives rise to speculation that the BBS enjoys a close relationship with the powers that be. For such speculation to be doused, then there needs to be an equal application of the law for all citizens. The perpetrators of the violence must be swiftly brought to book. Equally, the injustices meted out to the victims must be fully acknowledged, compensation paid, and steps taken to restore normalcy in the affected areas.
We as a nation have to get our priorities right. There is no point investing heavily in physical infrastructure when our more valuable resource, that of human capital is in shambles. To ensure that our country is never torn apart by such violence and anger again, the main priority should now be to build racial and religious accord, promote a spirit of tolerance and co-existence, and spare no room for inciting racial hatred.
We have lost nearly three decades due to one war. We can certainly do without another.