(The writer is a senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo and an Eisenhower Fellow)
On March 6, President Maithripala Sirisena’s government introduced emergency rule, nearly seven years after it lapsed in 2011. The introduction of emergency was in response to the violence and unrest spreading through parts of the Kandy district where shops, buildings and places of worship belonging to the Muslim community were attacked by Sinhala mobs the previous day. Reports from victims and eyewitnesses in Digana indicate that buildings were targeted on the basis of ethnicity, with Muslim homes and shops targeted when surrounding buildings owned by Sinhalese were not touched.
They also confirmed that while a majority within the mob were from outside the area, the violence was directed towards particular buildings, as guided by locals who were privy to the ethnicity of residents and owners. Several who recount the chaos and mob violence, witnessing their homes and shops being destroyed, still live in fear of the possibility of violence erupting, fuelled by the fear of the law and order authorities failing to stop the violence.
I personally witnessed buildings ablaze and panicked residents attempting to seek shelter in Akurana last Wednesday (7). A local resident who watched his building engulfed in fire asked in sheer desperation as to why this was happening when the police was informed of the mob attacks, but only seemed to respond when the violence was hard to contain. In other areas in Katugastota, shops owned by Muslims were set ablaze during curfew hours. In all these areas residents note that the police response was delayed despite desperate calls by residents.
A majority of people in other parts of Kandy and the rest of Sri Lanka were blissfully ignorant of the utter destruction and chaos occurring in some areas within the Kandy District. The blockade of some social media platforms prevented news from travelling and what was sent out to actors in Colombo from areas under attack was contested even by some in government, with several officials denying even the existence of violence during curfew hours. One wonders whether this denial was either due to a lack of information, ignorance, apathy or something else. Whilst this needs to be looked into, the government’s inability to contain the violence during a time of curfew has raised serious concerns among residents in the area and beyond, of the government’s ability to maintain law and order, bring perpetrators to account and ensure non-recurrence.
The lackadaisical approach by this government towards this recent spate of violence comes somewhat as a surprise, but is it really a shock? It took more than 24 hours after the violence in Kandy for the President and Prime Minister to publicly say anything about the incident. This was despite two senior Muslim Ministers in government visiting the area and publicly commenting on the ground situation on the evening of March 5.
Victims in Digana said, even after two days, no other Minister or senior government official had visited the area or spoken with victims. This was despite the President and others having a high level meeting in Kandy. It is also notable that the prelates of the Asgiriya and Malwatta chapters were silent for more than 24 hours after the violence erupted, despite it occurring on their doorstep.
Sri Lanka has had numerous conflicts and decades of violence, but many either have a short-term memory or choose to conveniently ignore it. I was very young when the 1983 pogrom occurred and do not remember too many details but a memory I do have is of my parents opening our home to friends who were displaced and living in fear and to some they did not even know but had encountered on the road needing shelter.
My sister and I were surrounded by people, some known to us and some who were strangers to us – at the time we did not understand how that moment shaped Sri Lanka’s future and the lives of its citizens. The 1983 pogroms took place under a UNP government with some now in government also holding portfolios then. Have they forgotten those dark years? The present cycle of violence reeks of similar signs where mob violence targeting a particular minority group goes unchecked and in some cases, were abetted by the multiple failures of law enforcement.
Communal tensions, riots and conflicts have affected all communities across Sri Lanka over the years, some multiple times. The Muslim community facing the brunt of the present cycle of violence also experienced violence during the war and the immediate post-war period including the mass eviction from the Northern Province by the LTTE in 1990 and bursts of violence in the past few years in places such as Aluthgama and Gintota.
For many, justice is still elusive and the inaction by successive governments in this regard has contributed to the present culture of impunity. Besides the Muslim community, victims from other communities also continue to search for truth and justice. There was hope that the incumbent government would break from the past and address the structural violence and impunity, and fulfil the promises made in 2015. But the backtracking from key promises and the lack of political will and inability to address structural violence and discrimination has contributed to a culture where impunity continues to thrive rather than being condemned and addressed, a similar trend to post-1983 violence and other events since then.
The inaction, incompetence and lethargy in the face of the recent spate of violence cannot be blamed on a few but chalked up to the collective failure of the whole coalition. The few Ministers who met with the victims realized the gravity of the situation but their appeals seemed to receive no real assurances from the leadership until the violence spread. A few resorted to brief social media statements but more should be expected of politicians and officials who are sworn to uphold the rule of law and ensure all citizens are treated as equal citizens in this multi ethnic and multi religious country.
It is imperative they do everything within their power to instil confidence and provide protection to all citizens, not a select few. This week they failed us and this failure calls to question the legitimacy of this administration. We as citizens must also examine our own roles and responses, or lack of it, towards these events and developments. Sri Lanka’s past legacy is sufficient proof that we cannot slide to a place where tolerance, pluralism, the rule of law and civil liberties are under severe threat and people are robbed of their dignity. All citizens must have their rights respected and protected. Justice must be for all. We must demand nothing less.