Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
As Sri Lankans are besieged by daily if not hourly reports regarding the rounding up of suspected islamist jihadists in the wake of last month’s Easter Sunday atrocities, it is crucial to recognise that the terrorism of a barbaric few cannot and should not be allowed to taint an entire Muslim community. Sadly but inevitably, Muslim Sri Lankans who were as appalled at the attacks as their Sinhalese and Tamil neighbours may face random and increased hostilities from the ignorant or the racially motivated. This is a trend that must be unequivocally and roundly rejected.
Misleading arguments on the ‘insufficiency’ of law
This time around and as differentiated from conflicts over land and power which had gripped Sri Lanka in its savage toils for decades, the fight concerns an ideology that is perverse and violative of the very fundamentals of Islamic teachings. In other words, the fight is over the territories of the Sri Lankan mind or to put it more correctly, what remains of that as twisted and beaten down by ceaseless political propaganda of the most sordid kind. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the counter-narrative to a jihadist doctrine of pure hate must not be trapped in a self-defeating ‘terror mentality.’ In that context, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s claim this week that the Easter Sunday barbarities may have been prevented if the Counter Terror Bill was passed in Parliament is as disengenous as it is dangerous.
There is a wholly misleading rationale to this reasoning. As appears to be this Government’s wont, the blame is passed from an unpardonable failure of political and bureaucratic leadership to a specious argument that existing ‘law is not enough’ to deal with jihadists having links to international terror groups. As Sri Lankans wriggled in acute embarassment, this was the same excuse trotted out to international news journalists who interviewed the Prime Minister in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. But the second part of that argument is where it gets interesting. As a result of this seeming lacunae, the Counter Terror Bill now before a parliamentary oversight commitee needs to be, (apparently in the Prime Minister’s mind), passed post haste as he urges parliamentarians in uncharacteristically pithy Sinhalese to stop ‘grating coconuts’ (pol ganne nethuwa) and pass the Bill.
First, this claim that the ‘law is not enough’ could not be further than the truth. Several Sri Lankan laws, from the Prevention of Terrorism Act (1979, ( PTA) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act (2007, ICCPR Act) to the more mundane Penal Code may have been utilised.
Secondly, the Government’s very actions since the attack give the best and most persuasive lie to this claim. Investigations have uncovered the connection between the islamist jihadists that carried out the Easter Sunday attacks and the damaging of the Buddha statutes at Mawanella along with the killing of two policemen in Vavunitivu. Why was this link not pursued earlier? Or was it not taken seriously due to political expediency of the Eastern vote bank and the Government’s courting of Muslim politicians? This is, by far, the more credible explanation, apart from hair raisingly amusing conspiracy theories being regurgitated in every corner.
Rejecting hostility towards the Muslim community
The same question applies to never-ending discoveries of explosives, swords, guns and knives with a few being discovered in mosques. And if assets of the identified terrorists and their families are being frozen under prevalent law as the public has been informed, why could not this have been done earlier? But as we are getting to know in excruciating detail, the fault does not lie in the law. Even though intelligence officers on the ground knew the situation, political leaders and bureaucrats were running in opposite directions like headless chickens.
The few ‘in the know’ vacillated and chewed their fingers, hoping that even if some incident occurs, it will be a ‘little one’ as the former Defence Secretary so incautiously spluttered when questioned. If the Government had not been ‘grating coconuts’ during the time that it should have been vigilant, Sri Lanka’s Catholics might not be now labouring under a horrific sense of revulsion as flesh and blood of victims still stick to the walls of their churches and Muslims would not be cowering in fear.
Meanwhile, the culpability of Muslim politicians in instigating the radicalisation of their voter bases is clear. The silence of the East’s Muslim Ministers in particular as jihadism grew under their feet as it were and the active support of others to that destructive growth is striking. This mirrors the manner in which Tamil and Sinhala politicians benefitted off the extremism of segments in their own societies to the eventual detriment of those very communities. Indeed, the responsibility goes deeper than political culpability
Pursuing a dishonest narrative
Post 2015, a deliberately dishonest narrative in force framed Muslim radicalisation in Sri Lanka purely as a reaction to Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism aggravated by post-war Rajapaksa triumphalism. Moderate Muslims hesitated to reflect on worrying changes in their societies due to cries that this will bar Sri Lanka’s ‘reconciliation’ and ‘transitional justice’ processes. Now as our expectations of reconciliation, let alone normalcy in daily life fade, certain truths must be realised. We must acknowledge that anti-Muslim rhetoric by radical Buddhist monks was not the trigger for the Easter Sunday attacks by Islamic State fighters, though this may well have been part of the backdrop to the alienation of communities. Irrefutably, attacks on churches could not have been the chosen plan of offense if that was the case. At least now, young Muslim writers have started speaking out candidly about dilemmas of community, religion, violence and radicalisation.
Nonetheless, this leaves the larger question of political accountability in issue. Why is it that only pawns are captured in this game while politicians are left untouched? While the arrest of one Municipal Councillor here and another one there and the arrest of drivers, secretaries and so on of prominent politicians is well and good, those higher in the political ladder need to be held to account. This is where the deficit of trust persists. So while a new counter-terror law may be this Government’s pet project, the Prime Minister and Ministers need to explain themselves to a suspicious public rather than airly waving their hands and uttering vapid nonsense.
Indeed, time limited emergency regulations subject to Parliamentary control and constitutional review by the Supreme Court is a far better tool to deal with what we have in hand rather than a permanent counter-terror law which, once the Speaker’s seal is put, passes out of the scrutiny of court. Swift, surgical strikes are needed rather than an embedded state of ‘counter-terror’putting legitimate criticism at risk.
Despite the UNP’s clever games amidst ludicrous confidence that it will win the electoral day, a Counter-Terror Bill which undermines civil liberties in its present formulation will pave the way for a ‘security state’ run by smiling Rajapaksa strongmen. We will be projected into an entirely hazardous reality of international and regional counter-terror chess games having the potential to undermine hitherto strategically won gains of the Rule of Law. What calamity next awaits us? Fundamentalist Christians bursting into mosques or temples with guns akin to what New Zealand and the United States has experienced?
If care is not taken even at this definitively late stage, unmitigated and unchecked terror stalking the land will be the sole and dismal legacy of the ‘yahapalanaya’ victory of 2015.