(Text of Editorial appearing under the heading “The silence of the good people” in the “Sunday Observer” of 11 March, 2018)
Last week in Kandy, Sri Lanka witnessed the worst ethnic violence since the atrocities at Aluthgama in 2014. The latter was under a brutal militaristic, undemocratic regime that actively emboldened hardline Buddhist groups for its own political ends. In the toxic milieu of jingoistic Rajapaksa rhetoric, Aluthgama was a tragedy destined to happen; the only surprise was that it did not happen sooner, and did not escalate further.
Kandy and Ampara on the other-hand; these were tragedies that were never meant to happen.
On January 8, 2015, the people of this country, beleaguered and desperate, voted to defeat the tribalistic menace of petty communal politics that had plagued our country for decades. That was a vote against all odds, at a time when democracy, freedom, equality and the desire to live in a pluralist, multi-ethnic country seemed only a distant dream.
It is nothing short of a tragedy that the current government of national unity, elected into office on the high pedestal of good governance, rule of law, justice and dignity for all, have all but failed to prevent the violence against minorities in Kandy and Ampara over the last two weeks.
Worse still, its response in the wake of the tragedy that unfolded in Kandy last week has further eroded credibility among the very people who pinned such great hope in the January 2015 change.
There is a time for sugar quoting and political spin. There is also a time to see ‘all sides’ of an issue. This is not that time. There were victims and there were perpetrators in the Kandy violence. There was nothing in between. All over the Kandy District, homes have been burnt to cinder, lives and livelihood have been lost. In pockets of Digana, grown men cry dry, heaving sobs, as they survey their property turned to ashes; or in the case of Fayaz Samsudeen, who lost his son Abdul Basith when the mob burned down his house – to mourn the loss of a child.
The time has come for the national leadership to unequivocally condemn the violence targeted at the Muslim community last week. It is time to take swift and decisive action against the perpetrators of this violent persecution, it is a time to show no mercy to those who spread fear and hatred and incite violence against innocent people.
The folly of attempting to pacify the fascists behind the Aluthgama tragedy rather than meting out justice to them over the past three years since the Rajapaksa administration was electorally defeated, has come home to roost. The likes of the Bodu Bala Sena, Ravana Balakaya, Mahason Balakaya and their fellow travellers were not supposed to have had a second lease of life under this administration.
Yet, here we are again.
The usual suspects are rampaging through the streets of Kandy and Ampara inciting violence and spewing hatred. The arrest of Mahason Balakaya leader Amith Weerasinghe at long last, was the first glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak week for harmony and peaceful co-existence in this country. This criminal and purveyor of hate must not be bailed out in a few weeks. If these thugs are not brought to justice, Kandy and Ampara will go down as another black chapter in this island story of violence and senseless killing, with many more to follow.
The bloc strength of the Tamil and Muslim vote, combined with the votes of a sizeable share of Sinhalese votes, swept this Government to power three years ago. These are the people who bore the brunt of the Rajapaksa era policies of discrimination, inequality and repression. These are the very people who trusted this Government to be different from the last, to at the very least guaranty the right to live with dignity and without fear of discrimination and harm.
There is no room in that 2015 mandate for the mollycoddling of extremists.
Even more pertinently, after the 1983 anti-Tamil riots occurred on the UNP’s watch, the party, as the leading constituent in the ruling alliance, has a moral obligation to stand up against persecution and violence against numerically inferior communities of people today.
Sadly, the leadership has failed to step up to the plate. True national leadership, pleas for sanity and reason to prevail emerged instead from less likely quarters. A host of former cricketers spread messages of hope and unity, demanding an end to the senseless violence. The village monks who decided to sleep inside neighbouring mosques in order to protect the sites of religious worship from the rampaging mob, the Sinhalese families who sheltered their neighbours – these were the leaders who stood up to be counted when the fires of injustice were raging.
It is the appalling silence of the good people that will be remembered when history is written about Aluthgama, Ampara and Digana. Each time the country has faced these pogroms, the state has failed and failed and failed again. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited affected families in Digana and Katugastota to meet with the victims aof the unrest. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya also led a team of Parliamentarians to the Kandy District yesterday. But to a victimized community, the moves may have come too little too late, and too long after the fires have died.
While it was not clear at the time, the anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama in 2014 determined the trajectory of this country. It galvanized the Muslim community to abandon en masse the Rajapaksa regime and its tribal governance.
Here we are again at a crossroads in history. The path our national leaders choose will determine Sri Lanka’s future. Since the local government election, authoritarianism and the politics of division are knocking once more at the window. The ultra-nationalist slogans of the Pohottuwa faction, and its electoral gains, have no doubt emboldened its pet monsters, and given them impetus to ride bravely through our streets again, spreading hate and fear.
If the political leadership fails to tackle simmering ethno-religious tensions head on and act against the purveyors of hate and violence, history will repeat itself and this country will slide back into the abyss of war and civil strife. We know that those who start wars rarely have to end them. The price of those wars will be paid in the blood and tears of another generation of Sri Lankans, long after today’s leaders have taken leave of the political stage.
After 30 years of civil war, and the installation of a repressive regime, democratic resurgence came at a high price back in 2015. Lives were literally on the line when the Republic was fought for and wrested back from an autocrat. Sri Lanka cannot afford another slide into authoritarianism and state sponsored racism. This time, it will herald an era of darkness worse than the last.