There is a potential threat of domestic terrorism of a new type. The excellent choice for Minister of Law and Order, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, and the Defence authorities under President Sirisena and Ruwan Wijewardene must coordinate to face this new, existential threat.
It was on March 3rd, after Ampara but just before Teldeniya, that an impressive young Sri Lankan scholar, Dr. Sara Dissanayake, warned that the State had not recognized right-wing extremism and far right hate crimes as a national security threat (“Why the Government Needs to Overcome the Fear of Labelling”). She has proven spectacularly correct. Her analysis came a few weeks after security scholar Prof. Rohan Gunaratne accurately identified ‘Sinhala Only’ as the beginning of the country’s slide into chronic cycles of conflict.
I would take Dr. Dissanayake’s lucid analysis to the next level: (I) Organized, armed, Far Right ethno-religious urban terrorism is a potential national security threat that must be preempted (II) The state security agencies themselves require inoculation against the ideological disease that is the constitutive element and growth medium of such terrorism. Firm, clear, enlightened leadership from the top brass and the officer corps is imperative.
The Anamaduwa arson came (coincidentally?) in the wake of a social media post featuring the photograph and name of a supposed army man (possibly a fake), recommending the use of small-unit hit and run attacks, rather than mobs! The Anamaduwa attack involved four motorcyclists!
The bias in the coverage of the recent anti-Muslim riots in the global media is generating more Sinhala middle class outrage than the horrifying burning of dozens of mosques and the dispossession of thousands of our citizens.
The imbalanced coverage could have been rectified by a clear and strong counter-opinion arising from within the Sri Lankan Buddhist clergy and Sinhala Buddhist society, not the usual belated banalities. What is socially imperative is a body of counter-opinion frontally opposed to the hate speech of those wanna-be Wirathus on video, such as the young monk threatening an old, grey-bearded Muslim street vendor seated on a mat in Welimada, and the demented homily of the bhikkhu calling himself “Buddha Rakkitha Himi”.
The Islamophobic ideological discourse depicts the Muslims as recent immigrants if not invaders who do not know their place as outsiders in a “Sinhala Buddhist country”, and are “conspiring to become the majority on the island”. The “Buddha Rakkitha Himi” video contains the bloodcurdling allegation that “we know that even Muslim children are indoctrinated into capturing this country someday”. It goes onto justify the recent violence as a belated, legitimate response to Muslim behaviour, asserts that “this is only the beginning, it is not over”, and concludes with the threat that “the smell of the blood of thirty years of war is still causing our nostrils to flare” and that “there may come a day when Muslims will not be able to live in this country anymore”.
This is radical political evil and can, someday, trigger a chain reaction of ethnic cleansing. If you don’t stand up and be counted against such horrible incitement, tantamount to ethno-religious fascism, then you run the risk of that phenomenon being perceived by the world at large as receiving the sanction or warrant of your shared belief-system and community as a whole.
Does the Western media, which is biased against Sri Lanka, accuse the long standing foe and target of the US, namely Cuba, of racist violence? Though rightwing US propagandists (especially in Miami) may dearly love to, it simply cannot be done as there is so much evidence to the contrary and so many from all over the world, including American scholars and filmmakers, ready to testify. Cuba holds the moral high ground as a society. Sri Lanka does not.
Here in Sri Lanka, as in most parts of the global society in the post-Cold War period, from the Islamic through the Hindu to the Christian and Jewish, far right ethno-religious extremism is not only purveyed by sections of the clergy (every religion has mullahs or their equivalents) but also through places of worship and religious instruction (every religion has its madrassas or their equivalent). This is the network; the matrix– and thus the impunity with which socially toxic hate speech is spouted, and the immunity from a state crackdown.
It was President Musharraf who, in his autobiography, posed the essential question: how do parents, indeed how does a society, which spends a considerable amount of money ensuring that its children are tutored by well-qualified teachers, allow views on history, politics, economics, defence, foreign affairs, sociology, culture, civilization, to be purveyed to children and youth by religious clergy utterly unqualified to do so, and actually swallow and regurgitate their ill-informed, unfounded ideas including through the media?
Something is happening in our society, has been happening for a few decades, and will probably not go away this side of a catastrophe. We have to avert that catastrophe. Rightwing ethno-religious extremism has to be contained, as it will lead to a war which the state, the economy and society cannot afford.
One more war and we shall go the way of Cyprus or Yugoslavia. We are not Myanmar which has a powerful ally on its border. No one here can get away with what Wirathu’s ghastly movement has. Our island is vulnerably placed in geopolitical terms: so far from our friends and so close to our “frenemies”.
Yugoslavia was finally ended because Kosovo came after and in spite of—possibly because of—Bosnia. Sri Lanka as a state cannot afford the triggering of a war with the Muslims in the same way that we skidded into a war with the Tamils who are far less numerous and economically endowed as a global community than the Muslims. If we get into another war, the world won’t be on our side and we’ll lose our oldest friends such as Pakistan. We won’t survive another civil war as a single state, not least because we’ll be pushing disaffected Muslims into the arms of the proto-secessionist Tamils and recreating the Tamil ultranationalists’ dream of a “Tamil-speaking peoples” (i.e. Tamils and Muslims) and a self-determination of and for the “Tamil-speaking peoples”.
Sri Lanka won’t be allowed to respond to a militant Muslim challenge should it arise, with monk-led ‘Mahasona’ mobs, ex-Home Guard/CDF militias, and scorched earth tactics/ethnic cleansing. A South Asian Bosnia will not be countenanced.
It is his wartime experience (also as commander of Special Forces) and the existential imperative to avoid another war in which his soldiers would needlessly die, that made Army chief Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake’s remarks in Kandy and on national TV, my favorite public intervention during the entirety of the recent crisis. He spoke with cool Realism, self-assured professionalism, clarity, courage and tough determination. He is trying to avoid a new cycle of violence and war in which the robed Islamophobic ideologues and their constituency, the “three wheeler generation which has not experienced war” (in his words), fight Muslim militias and UN-mandated foreign troops down to the last Sinhala soldier.
Two cheers for what’s left of the Executive Presidency. The Prime Minister took over as Minister of Law and Order on February 28th, and his intimate familiarity with handling the Police and the STF in the late 1980s is known. Yet the Army commander admitted on TV that many of the affected families had complained of the inactivity of the Police and the STF, who in some cases had been onlookers. The STF, a superbly trained, officered and commanded paramilitary, did not seem to have received a timely, clear and correct directive from its political authority. It took President Sirisena, the Chief of Staff, the Army Chief and the military deployment to turn things around–for now.