By Dr. Prasanna Cooray
Enough is enough. This country has suffered a lot from a civil war fought on ethnic lines for nearly three decades. It left thousands dead including combatants and civilians caused irreparable damage to property, both private and public. The war cost us dear on the economic front as well. Furthermore, time and again, violence was unleashed against “minorities” (although I dislike this word, I use it here for want of a better alternative) by the majority.
In the not-so-distant past, anti-Tamil riots erupted in the country in 1977 and 1983 before the civil war erupted. Against Muslims and Sinhalese, an ethnic cleansing drive in the North and East was unleashed by the LTTE in the 1980s and 1990s, which left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands were driven out of the Northern Province. Again, riots against the Muslims erupted in Mawanella in 2001 and in Kalutara in 2014. In April 2002, there was an incident of violence between two sects of Muslims in Beruwala and that claimed three lives. These are only some of the incidents I can recall.
Needless to say what we have experienced during the last two or three decades has tarnished the image of Sri Lanka and it has prompted Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader Dalai Lama to appeal for the safety of Muslims here. His Holiness said so at the Himalayan city of Leh, almost three years ago, on 05 July 2014. (Most of our own Buddhist monks and other religious dignitaries have also denounced all forms of violence including attacks on the ethnic and religious minorities). Why this message is important to the majority communities in this country is because it is their responsibility to safeguard the rights of the minorities who live among them.
The government’s big hype about bringing laws against hate speech seems to have died a natural death. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have said in public they will bring stringent laws for that purpose. Parts of the previous draft bill, entitled Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Bill, was identified, much in line with the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Its presentation to Parliament was suspended due to protests.
Stern action is called for against those who spread ethno-religious hatred through the social media. Considering the power of the social media, these spiteful postings could spread across the globe in a split second causing irreparable damage.
Ethnic hatred spewed on the social media in this country takes certain distinct characteristics. Browsing through these contents posted on the social media, one could clearly identify a few common threads that go viral.
Ethnic, religious and political inclinations
Its originators tend to represent the majority communities and even show certain political inclinations. More than once this country has proven that there is no place for racism or religious discrimination in the national political platform. Minorities account for about 25% of the country’s population and about 30 percent of Sri Lankans represent minority religions. These are sizable numbers, especially politically. So the political leaders should take cognizance of this fact and distance themselves from these elements.
These unsavoury social media elements also tend to identify Sri Lankan armed forces with the majority ethnic community and religion. Ironically, that is exactly what the LTTE too did to advance its cause. But the fact remains that the officers and men from the minority communities and religions served the the country with distinction. Some even laid down their lives.
Since the slaying of the Tamil police officer T. I. Bastiampillai way back in 1978, there have been a number of officers and men from ethnic minorities who were killed by the LTTE. These include Fazly Lafir, T. N. Muthaliff, Harris Ousman of the Army, Shanti Bahar of the Navy and Ranjan Pakianathan of the Air Force. Since the death of Srilal Mendis in the early 80s, there were a number of Christian army officers who made the supreme sacrifice for the Motherland. These are but a few names I can recollect from the three forces and the police, in haste. This list could be quite lengthy. The hatemongers should be cognizant of these facts, the true history of the war.
If and why mindset
The conspiracy theories propagated by the sick elements via the social media are full of “if and why” arguments. These are often put forward in defence of a particular Buddhist monk known for his aggressive behaviour in public. Events totally irrelevant to the issue in question are often showcased to create doubts in the minds of the public.
Forest destruction in Wilpattu is a contentious issue taken up by these elements every now and then, in defence of the said monk and to discredit an (identified) Muslim Tamil politician. True, the Wilpattu forest destruction is an issue to be addressed and redressed at the highest level, as this writer has argued already (Environment & Society, The Island, 13.02.2017.) But, there again, it’s not Wilpattu alone, but the issue of forest destruction in Sri Lanka in its entirety. (By the way, Sri Lanka is the fourth worst destroyer of forests in the world). But, the social media patriots are silent on the destruction of forests by members of their own community.
Backward social media focus
Anyway, this country is notorious for the backwardness of its social media focus. Time and again it has failed to grasp the eclectics that surround the social media. At least two schoolchildren have died (precisely, were driven to suicide following severe reprimanding by school authorities) for having a Facebook account. Enough and more derogatory contents have been posted on the social media by people to defame their enemies. Macabre video games have already claimed at least one life (reported by Health & Society, 05.05.2017.). On top of all this, social media has become a customised vehicle of ethnic hatred, where anyone can have a joyride at will. These are some of our emerging issues, where the societal “health” is at stake. It is high time the authorities came out of their deep slumber and do the needful urgently, before it gets out of hand.