After 4/21, what next for Sri Lankans?

………..Will the President oblige!

Sri Lanka is a multi-racial and multi-ethnic country with a multi-party system, yet politics is dominated by power-hungry political groups most of whom are inseparably knotted to corrupt extreme elements that does not acknowledge the reality that the island is made up of diverse communities with diverse cultures and their ethnic and religious identities are deeply overlapped. This attitude of the past rulers has over time created among the ruled not by choice but by necessity ethnic and religious extreme groups that provided a fertile ground for terrorism to grow. Regrettably these political groups each with its own vote banks formed by the alliance of political parties have been responsible for the many highly destructive cycles of violence since gaining independence in 1948. Because in Sri Lanka, the voters of these political groups that nurture extremism on the lines of religion and race tend to blindly support the candidate put forward by their political party. When politicians get elected to the legislature they virtually hold on to the post till they breathe their last; key candidates who fails to get elected are brought into the legislature through the national list of the political party. Further defeated political groups with a view to regain power use their extremist elements to destabilize their opponents in power, this was very evident many times that made mockery of the parliamentary system in recent years. When in power these ruling groups resort to use the sensitivities and pain of mind of the ruled to achieve their petty and narrow political objectives. It is fair to say that the rulers had collectively flawed democracy in the country, instead had these rulers provided a holistic rule from 1948 many violence acts including the civil-war and 4/21 incredible terrorist violence would have not taken place at all.

The fact is there has been no history of violent animosity between Muslims and Catholics communities, whereas both have been targeted by Buddhists, similar to Tamil communities targeted by the Sinhala extremists on multiple occasions all victims of majoritarian violence. Yet the latest violence that befell on 4/21 Easter Sunday morning where bombs ripped through three churches and four hotels in a series of attacks causing loss of over 250 precious life and injuries to over 500 innocent civilians plus destruction of properties cannot be justified and it could have been easily avoided had the authorities not ignored the warnings. What is unfamiliar with this most unfathomable act of violence that plunged nation into a state of grieving is the total absence of any rationality. These bombings was of unprecedented scale than any seen in the violence-ridden history of this island nation that was once the paradise in the Indian Ocean. It brought back the trauma of the 26-year-long civil war in north-east, where many places of worship including many churches were attacked by the state security forces in executing their duties and outside the war zone by those opposing the state in all situations many innocent civilians, who had taken refuge from the fighting lost their life or were wounded that included men, women and children.

Sadly, the rulers have seen several communally charged incidents between the majority Sinhala extremists and the Muslim minority, but had failed to take necessary actions to diffuse them. Since the civil-war ended in 2009, the same extremists have tried to transfer remaining hostility against Tamils onto the mostly Tamil-speaking Muslim population who had till then been mostly coexisting peacefully with other communities. This was because many of these extremists believed that Muslims, would soon threaten their demographic supremacy, while others felt their poor were exploited; yet the key factor was the increasing Arab influence over Sri Lankan Muslim culture in recent years including the building a number of mosques using money coming from Arab countries and adoption of Arab dress codes by Muslim women, which diverges from traditional dress. Many tensed situations were experienced in Ampara District since 2017, with Buddhist groups accusing Muslims of forced conversions and vandalizing Buddhist archaeological sites and the recent communal violence in Kandy is the first since the Black July violence which occurred in 1983 between Tamils and Sinhalese Buddhists and is also the first time such communal violence has occurred between Muslims and Buddhists in the district of Kandy since the 1915 Ceylonese riots. Then it was a widespread and prolonged ethnic riot in the island of Ceylon between Sinhalese Buddhists and the Ceylon Moors and the brutal suppression of it by the British colonial authorities. The riots took place at the time when World War I was raging in Europe; the British feared the riots as a possible native upraising, martial law was first declared in the Western and Sabaragamuwa Provinces and later extended to other provinces, during which many summary executions and other atrocities where carried out by the colonial forces in attempts to subdue the riots.

Bitter Truth is since independence all past leaders have collectively with politicians evolved a flawed system of democracy for the country; that began with the leaders ignoring the well-balanced first constitution that had proper checks and balance fit for a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country that Sri Lanka was at independence. With the government policy of promoting the language and religion of the majority community helped slowly but surely to erode away the secular status of the country. The first post-independence violence known as the 58 riots occurred in 1958, targeting the minority Tamils that lasted five days with many life lost and their properties affected before it was brought under control by declaration of emergency. These events shattered the trust the communities had in one another and with the rulers pursuing divisive policies led to the polarization by ethnicity and with each cycle of violence the ruled got divided into smaller ethnic and religious units.

Then in 1972 country was made a republic with a new constitution that was biased towards the majority community and in no time officially the country lost its secular status and the deterioration of the national economy due to misrule was felt by the poor in rural areas, while the rulers prospered, they have been a miserable failure in not providing a holistic rule that caused an “Us and Them” feelings among communities as cycles of violence were repeated, with a noticeable path to the outrage paved with a history of real or imagined wrongs. Thus this feeling grew between the rulers and the ruled causing uprisings against the state by the ruled economic minorities, in particular from neglected hill country Tamil minority and in the south within the majority community. During the first and second southern insurrections in 1971 and 1987–89 there were terror that resulted in killings of innocent civilians and destruction of common properties. On both occasions the insurrections were crushed by the state and most victims were the southern economic minorities. Then came the present constitution known as the draconian constitution, which opened the flood gates for corruption that was beneficial to the rulers more than the ruled. The 1983 Black July anti-Tamil pogrom was a clear act of state terror unleashed on the minority Tamil community living in all parts of the country and pushed to the wall the oppressed Tamil youth rebelled against the state with terror resulted in many massacre that took the life of both combatants and innocent civilians and the conflict escalated to a bloody civil war that dragged on to 2009.

The devastation caused by the civil war, which lasted from 1983 to 2009 shaped the destiny of the country and continues to haunt the millions especially those living in north and east who must contend with its aftermath every day. Thus the country experienced some of the worst acts of terrorism by systematic use of violence for political, religious, or ideological goals, such as suicide bombings, massacres of civilians and assassination of political and social leaders. As it posed a significant threat to the society, economy and development of the country the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1978 was enacted by the rulers as a temporary law in 1979 and later made permanent in 1982 is still in force and provides the powers to law enforcement officers to deal with issues related to terrorism in the country.

After the war ended in 2009, how is it that terror cells had mushroomed in various parts on the country with external influence is still a mystery to be solved? For a decade was long enough period for any nation to recover from ill effects of a three decades old civil-war to rebuild the country; but the previous rulers have collectively failed to achieve this goal as they continued with an “us and them” mentality, than providing a holistic rule. As to the present rulers, it is true they did not promote extremism, like its predecessor; but nor did they resist extremism and the failure to stop the massacre fits into a general pattern of indifference towards all forms of extremism. But due to their failure to get past petty political differences the leaders of both major political parties had left nobody to focus on the pressing security needs of the country, that caused the security lapses and with a culture of complacency creeping into the defense establishment kept busy by the rulers attending to civil matters in previous civil-war zones left national security at risk. That led to several warnings being ignored or dismissed altogether, but both past and present rulers did collectively shed tears crying to stop extremism in the country.

The governments in Sri Lanka have never in the past displaced common governance and when they empowered Buddhists and state interference on land sowed the seeds of extremism. Whereas it was the duty of every ruler to check to discipline and educate such fundamentalists; but by tolerating inequality, successive governments abused majority power that in turn has promoted radicalism and today the present leaders are struggling to protect the people from the actions of radicals. Whereas after the civil-war ended then rulers should have made an extra effort and worked towards a holistic rule, the absence of which is what caused rise in extremism from the days of gaining independence. First the southern uprisings from a section of economic minorities, followed by the northern uprisings from a section of ethnic minorities that developed into a full scale the civil-war. Whereas the post-civil-war rulers could have prevented the present uprisings from a section of religious minorities.

Sadly, the speed with which the first arrests were made by the police gives credence to reports that a section of the security establishment seems to have known of an Islamic terror group possibly ten days ahead that was planning to target Catholic churches, even knew the names and other details of some of the attackers. The Defense Secretary had claimed that the information was vague and the absence of emergency regulations was a handicap; but if the known attackers had been arrested, the massacre wouldn’t have happened and it could all have been done under normal law and certainly didn’t require emergency regulations. What is more if the churches were informed about their peril, they could have taken some precautions; but due to absence of such measures many innocent lives were lost that could have been saved. The President acknowledging this security lapses has since removed the officers concerned from their posts and appointed new officers.

All Sri Lankans wish rulers will act to combat the cancer of religious extremism, perhaps primarily from within and the first step is to start criticizing one’s own extremists. It is only by taking an unequivocal stand against extremists of their own community will the rulers earn the moral right to criticize extremists of other communities and rehabilitate them all. Sinhalese and Tamils failed to take a stand against their own extremists; each community raged against the other’s tribalism while justifying one’s own. That failure caused both communities incalculable harm, and incalculable self-harm as the result the Black July insurgency turned into a full-scale civil-war and regrettably with a decade of negative peace the rulers have failed to address the root causes of the civil-war conflict.

But the Easter Sunday attacks is a brand-new type of terrorism that had rocked the nation and this came as a shock to the people in the island nation that had rid of separatist motivated civil 30-year war that ended in 2009, after claiming between 70,000 and 80,000 lives and indiscriminate attacks on institutions, but the government with plenty of assistance from friendly nations was able to silence the enemy; but has yet to address the grievances that caused the conflict. It is not clear why Christians were targeted. Christianity is a minority religion in Sri Lanka, accounting for 7.4% of the total population of 21.4 million. According to census data, 70.2% of Sri Lankans identify as Buddhist, 12% Hindu and 9.7% Muslim. The government deserves all the credit for taking immediate action including the imposition of a curfew in search of local Islamic activists operating in cells and funded by an international Islamic terror group. It must be appreciated that the police with the security forces have been working round the clock doing their job to bring back normalcy to return in the country. That probably saved the country from another round of bloodletting, but the danger will not be over in a day, or even a year and only constant vigilance can prevent another tragedy. Sadly, the history tells us that hate is easy to cultivate and would flourish anywhere. All it needs is an inch, a second, a thought, a glance, one unguarded moment to ignite, therefore it is the responsibility of all citizens to assist the authorities to get rid of these destructive cells. This massacre has presented both past and present rulers yet another opportunity to rebuild the nation and provide a holistic rule to fit all communities and therefore, it is imperative to address the economic, social, and cultural factors that could potentially trigger radicalization, which results in violent extremism.

Sri Lankans are standing on a familiar precipice and to guide them away from it, towards the plains of moderation and stability belongs to not just with Muslims and Catholics in the country, but with all Sri Lankans too. For which country need is a good leader divorced from any of the political parties to lead them to a united and peaceful country that would be a homeland for all its diverse peoples to live in; a progressive leader with a vision to provide a holistic rule for democratic Sri Lanka.  Acknowledging that by 4/21 people have suffered enough, their humanity was placed by the rulers above every other consideration taken all efforts to deal with extremist elements; as a potential force to fight terrorism the rulers should in addition improve the social cohesion among the ruled. The people expect the President to oblige by rising above party politics to take the country forward to provide a holistic rule.