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Northern election, Nationalist rhetoric and the threat to Communal harmony

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By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

As the Northern Provincial Council election draws nearer many contradictions appear in the heavy rhetoric used by major players in the campaign, in relation to the circumstances they refer to. The TNA is seen as the frontrunner in the five Northern districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Mannar, having presented a manifesto full of nationalist rhetoric. There seems to be a disconnect between the authors of this document and the real issues faced by the people whose votes are being solicited. One of the loudest complaints of the TNA has been in relation to military presence in the North. Another charge relates to people’s alleged lack of confidence in the police.

People’s perceptions

While the call to reduce the visible military presence at election time may be justified, it’s important to consider whether the TNA’s representations accurately reflect people’s perceptions. A recent survey carried out by the UN High Commission for Refugees, of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the five districts of the Northern Province plus Trincomalee, seems to suggest otherwise.

The survey was carried out between Nov 2012 and March 2013 and published in June 2013. One of the questions the respondents were asked in the study was “How do you feel about the military presence in your village/area?” The IDPs’ responses showed that while 43% had ‘No problem,’ 16% of the responses were ‘Generally positive.’ Twenty nine percent were ‘Generally negative’ and 12% had ‘No opinion.’ The negative feeling towards military presence was mostly in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. It was noted that “Almost no respondents (1%) reported experiencing a serious security incident against a member of their family since arrival at the place of return, relocation or local integration.”

The TNA manifesto was also critical of the police in the North. It said “The People have no confidence in their police officers and are often afraid to approach the police with concerns about crime and conflict in their communities.” The UNHCR survey would seem to contradict this claim when it says that respondents showed “a high level of confidence in local civilian law enforcement, with a significant majority of respondents (89%) saying that if a serious crime was committed against their family, they would report it to the police (65%) or local civilian government (24%)…” Furthermore, out of those respondents who reported having visited a police station in the past year, 75% were ‘Satisfied’ or ‘Highly Satisfied’ with the police response, the study said.

Communal tensions

Meanwhile, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is leading a vigorous campaign on behalf of UPFA candidates in the three provincial elections. In Vavuniya and Mannar he spoke partly in Tamil. Both districts have over 80% Tamil populations. In Mannar 16% of the population is Muslim.

The President with characteristic popular appeal has fashioned his speeches to reassure communities that he will preserve the country’s unity and protect all ethnic groups, and is seen to enjoy resounding endorsement from ethnically mixed audiences. However, the President’s brother Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapksa at a recent conference attended by a large number of foreign delegates seems to have struck a somewhat different note.

On 3rd Sept in his keynote address at a Defence Seminar in Colombo he drew attention to what he called “the possibility that extremists elements may try to promote Muslim extremism in Sri Lanka.” He said “It is a well known fact that Muslim fundamentalism is spreading all over the world and in the region as well. This is a situation that our law enforcement agencies and security forces are concerned about.” He went on to observe that “one of the consequences of the increasing insularity among minority ethnic groups is the emergence of hardline ethnic groups within the majority community.”

The Defence Secretary’s remarks, in contrast with those of the President, caused considerable concern within a key minority group within the government. Minister Rauff Hakeem who leads the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and minister Rishad Bathiudeen on behalf of the All Ceylon Muslim Congress, both partners of the UPFA, challenged his claims. The Muslim Council of Sri Lanka issued a statement categorically denying that there were any armed groups or ‘other forms of extremism’ amongst the Muslim community.

It’s relevant to note that less than two weeks earlier, Military Spokesman Brig. Ruwan Wanigasuriya, in the process of rejecting Indian media reports about an alleged plot by Pakistani militants planning an attack on India from Sri Lanka, also categorically denied the existence of Muslim extremists anywhere in the country. There are “no Muslim extremist groups that are active in Sri Lanka” he said, and “There is no location in North or East of Sri Lanka suitable to have the kind of training camps or attack base that they are talking about.” (Sirasa TV news 22.08.13).

Two sets of contradictions

There are two sets of contradictions here. One is regarding the level of concern among law enforcement authorities over the alleged threat posed by Muslim extremists, and the other relates to the very existence of the alleged Muslim extremists.
The rhetoric relating to this entire ‘Alice in Wonderland’ type episode, would seem to suggest that Sri Lanka’s Muslim extremists appear and disappear from the country’s political landscape at the government’s pleasure. When the Defence Secretary wants to rationalise the emergence of hardline Sinhala Buddhist groups, they appear. But when the Military Spokesman wants to deny irresponsible Indian media reports, they disappear.

Against the backdrop of an ongoing hate campaign against Muslims spearheaded by Buddhist extremist groups, which threatens to disrupt a precarious, hard won peace, it would seem vital to examine these developments in the cold clear light of reason, in order to dispel the unease caused at a crucial phase in Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process.
COURTESY:Sunday Times

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