To quench whose thirst? | Daily News
5/13 clash

To quench whose thirst?

More than three weeks after the Easter bomb blasts which killed over two hundred and fifty people, Sri Lanka faces a different challenge: the prospect of a backlash against the Muslim community with potentially serious consequences if this trend spreads countrywide.

This week, clashes were reported mostly in the North Western Province and in Minuwangoda. Several shops, houses and religious places were damaged when mobs attacked them and set them on fire. One person is reported to have died in these incidents. While the initial attack was reported in Chilaw, the unrest quickly spread to other areas of the North Western Province. At the time of writing, a nighttime Police curfew is in place throughout the country.

Almost sixty persons have been arrested and thirty-three were detained for further questioning for inciting racial violence. Others have also been detained for inciting racial hatred through comments on social media platforms.

Engulfed in the controversy was Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) parliamentarian Dayasiri Jayasekara. Social media reported claims that Jayasekara had intervened to secure the release of suspects arrested in connection with the violence.

Jayasekara held a media conference to clarify his actions. He said that he had only intervened to transfer the arrested suspects from the Hettipola Police station to the Bingiriya Police station. “When I visited the Hettipola Police station, the place was under siege by more than 3,000 people who had broken the police barricade. I went to the police station and explained the situation to the Officer in Charge who transferred the suspects to the Bingiriya Police Station. I did so in order to bring the situation under control,” Jayasekara clarified.

The violence has caused great concern to the authorities who have deployed the Police and the Armed Forces at full strength to prevent a further escalation. President Maithripala Sirisena is currently overseas, visiting China after having appointed Ruwan Wijewardene as Acting Defence Minister. It was left to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to announce that strict measures would be enacted.

Communal tensions

“Certain groups have created unrest in the North Western Province. They vandalised property. These groups are trying to create more disturbances. This is why the government decided to impose an islandwide curfew,” the Prime Minister explained in an address to the nation.

In an attempt to ease rising communal tensions, the Prime Minister also visited Kuliyapitiya, Hettipola and Panduwasnuwara on Tuesday. He was accompanied by ministers Kabir Hashim, Rauff Hakeem and Akila Viraj Kariyawasam.

Earlier, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader and Minister Rauff Hakeem had called for strong action against those inciting and engaging in anti-Muslim acts. “Muslims are suffering for a dastardly crime committed by a few with whom the larger Muslim community has nothing to do with whatsoever,” Minister Hakeem pointed out and called on the government to act urgently to quell the violence, lest it spreads throughout the country.

As the Police and Armed Forces moved into the trouble spots to quell the rioting and restore law and order, the government again clamped a ban on social media. Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram were blocked on Monday to stop the spread of rumours and false stories. “Blocking social media will help prevent fake news or rumours that instil fear psychosis or threaten communal harmony,” the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) said.

The attacks against the Muslim community have already caused concern internationally, with the United Nations calling for restraint. “The country is trying to move forward from a traumatic period of inter-ethnic armed conflict, but these attacks are pushing Sri Lanka backwards. If not adequately dealt with, the recent violence has the potential to escalate even further,” Special Advisor on Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng and Special Adviser on Responsibility to Protect, Karen Smith said in a joint statement.

Among those arrested for alleged involvement in the violence were Namal Kumara, Amith Weerasinghe and Dan Priyasad. Kumara is the self-styled leader of the ‘Anti-corruption movement’. He was at the centre of controversy several months ago when he claimed that he had information regarding a plot to assassinate several prominent personalities.

Weerasinghe is the leader of the ‘Mahason Balakaya’ an ultra-nationalist group which has previously been implicated in allegedly inciting racial hatred. Priyasad is the head of the ‘Nawa Sinhaley’, an organisation which voices sentiments similar to the ‘Mahason Balakaya’.

The fact that the backlash against the Muslim community occurred more than three weeks after the Easter Sunday attacks is a major cause of concern for the authorities. If the backlash was a spontaneous reaction to the attacks, it would have occurred earlier, for example when the last rites of those who died in the attacks were being conducted, when grief and anger against the attacks were at its peak.

Another noteworthy feature is that the Easter Sunday attacks targeted churchgoers and therefore, the Catholic community. It would have been reasonable to expect any spontaneous retaliation to emerge from areas which have large percentages of Catholics in their population. Instead, the attacks were mostly in the North-Western Province and Minuwangoda in the Gampaha district, two regions with predominantly Sinhala Buddhist populations.

These factors and the alleged involvement of individuals such as Kumara, Weerasinghe and Priyasad have raised the possibility as to whether the backlash was orchestrated. That is a matter that the authorities are critically analysing at this time. They are trying to establish whether political motives such as embarrassing the government were a consideration in launching the attacks.

Leading religious leaders have also expressed similar views, noting that the sudden surge of violence indicated that it was not spontaneous. His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who won widespread acclaim for his conduct after the Easter attacks said he had information that some local politicians belonging to certain political parties were behind the violence. “We ask the leaders of these political parties to control their party members,” His Eminence Cardinal Ranjith told a news conference.

Addressing the same news conference, Ittapane Dhammalankara Mahanayaka Thera said that it was clear that an ‘invisible hand’ had incited the violence. “People acted with restraint after the Easter Sunday’s Bomb blasts. They were calm for about two weeks after the incident on April 21. However, the sudden eruption of violence makes it clear that there is an invisible hand misleading the people,” the Thera said.

Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa also appealed for calm and warned that the current crisis could quickly deteriorate to a situation similar to the events experienced in July 1983, when countrywide riots against the Tamil community erupted in the aftermath of the killing of thirteen soldiers in the North.

Aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks

“Those bitter experiences still linger in our minds. I especially appeal to our youth to avoid taking the law into your hands, even though the government has failed to fulfil its responsibility. Act patiently and wisely. Control your feelings even if it’s the most difficult thing to do. We should defeat this racism and terrorism,” the former President said in a statement.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) meanwhile blamed the government for the current security situation saying its lapses in dealing with the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks has contributed to the current situation.

“The government did not properly implement the law. What they should have done was to impose the law against the culprits irrespective of their race or religion. This is why some people are attempting to take the law into their own hands,” JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva said.

Meanwhile, the Armed Forces announced that they would use whatever measures that were required to restore calm. Issuing a statement, Army Commander Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake stated that the military will not hesitate to use maximum force, if necessary.

“I as Army Commander request and at the same time warn anyone who has planned to destroy or dishonour the orders given by the government or the Armed Forces, that we will take stern action. I say again we will take stern action to apprehend, arrest and even open fire and use a minimum or maximum powers given under emergency,” Lieutenant General Senanayake said.

In the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks, after the initial shock and horror were dealt with, the first objective was to apprehend those responsible. From the inquiries so far, it can be safely assumed that the attacks were not the work of an isolated clan of Islamic extremists. The attacks required sophisticated planning, organisation and resources which point to a network with international connections.

As the country came to realise this, the next focus was on preventing further attacks, particularly in the wake of unsubstantiated claims that a second wave of attacks was being planned, with some reports speculating that the date of those attacks would be May 13.

May 13 has passed but was marred by the violence of a different kind: anti-Muslim riots which at the time of writing, have been fortunately confined to a few regions of the country. Now, the attention of the government has been diverted to an entirely different aspect, that of preventing countrywide anti-Muslim attacks.

Given the rapidly evolving nature of this crisis, it would be both optimistic and naïve to expect the current uncertain climate in the country to dissipate within days or weeks. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka faces an uncertain future in the coming months, if not years.


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