A new form of anti-Muslim terrorism in Sri Lanka: What is to be done?

By Laksiri Fernando

The incidents at present appear geographically scattered. But things can get concentrated and escalated into larger proportions, if stern action is not taken soon to apprehend the instigators. This is important as addressing the flood emergency and the devastation caused by this natural disaster and the administrative neglect, with all heartfelt sympathy to all flood victims.

The pattern of recent attacks against Mosques and Muslim-owned businesses shows those are not a reflection of any resentment from the ordinary people, but organised action by extremist religious and nationalist groups. The danger however is that the things can get quite viral and the instigators can recruit larger groups and influence others to behave in the same manner. The conditions inside the country and overseas might work in favour of them, if rapid action is not taken to control the situation.

There are clear indications and evidence for the direct involvement of the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Force Army – BBS) and its leader, Galagoda Atte Gnanasara. It is difficult for me to call him Venerable, Thero or consider him as a proper Buddhist monk. It appears to be a small group of his followers who go around the country, attacking the Muslims and their places of worship and businesses. His direct involvement in several of these incidents, including the attack on the Kurunegala mosque, is very clear. The most recent attack on a Muslim shop was in the town of Kahawatte in the Ratnapura district last week (22 May), before the floods came in, and it was burnt to the ground according to the reports.

Is it terrorism?

Why it is terrorism and a new form of terrorism? It is true that the United Nations have so far not been able to come up with a comprehensive definition of terrorism due to disagreements among the member states. However, the Security Council resolution 1566 (2004) gives a fair description of what is terrorism as “any action…by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to DFT-16-13compel a Government or an international organisation to do or to abstain from doing any act.”

Let us for a moment forget about whether the BBS intends to ‘compel the Government to do or to abstain from doing any action.’ But it is very clear that ‘by its nature and context, the BBS actions intimidate the Muslim population in Sri Lanka.’ It is not only ‘intimidation.’ But already they have been harmed and their properties destroyed, in addition to threatening them from practicing their religion. The latter is about ‘religious freedom’ guaranteed as a fundamental right in Sri Lanka’s constitution.

Article 10 under Fundamental Rights of the Constitution guarantees, as it says, “Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” It is this fundamental right of the Muslims that is violated through vilification of that religion by Gnanasara and attacks on Mosques and religious places by his BBS supporters.

The US Code of Federal Regulation 28 gives a more precise definition on terrorism than the present UN description. As it defines, “The unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” This is the definition which was used in proscribing the LTTE as terrorist in the United States which was overwhelmingly hailed by Sri Lanka. The same meaning could be applied in defining the BBS activities in Sri Lanka as terrorism.

The BBS’s use of force and violence is not aimed at the Government, like in the case of the LTTE. Not yet. More repugnantly, it is aimed at a ‘civilian population.’ That is one reason why it is a new form of terrorism, which shows early symptoms of a neo-fascist movement. Many neo-fascist movements, Klu Klux Klan as an example, emerged not attacking the governments but attacking the hated civilian populations. The Muslims at present is an easy target, because of the ‘Islam’ related terrorist activities internationally. Paradoxically, the BBS is also the ideological mirror image of the Islamic State (IS) terrorists or Taliban in the Middle East. The BBS led by Gnanasara has more similarities with the 969 Movement led by Ashin Wirathu in Myanmar (Burma).

It is also a new form of terrorism, because it is organised not in a military fashion or as a tightly knit organisation, but a loose association of several groups, with a leader at the helm to propagate ‘intense hatred.’ The groups associated are Sinhala Ravaya, Ravana Balaya, Sinhale, Mahason Balaya and Sinhala Jathika Balaya (SJB); the BBS acting as the umbrella organisation. They all have the ‘ideology of terrorism,’ as I defined in the last article (“Manchester Carnage and the Need to Combat Terrorism”), that contains, in addition to ‘intense hatred,’ an ‘urge for destruction and will to sacrifice.’

The Government and the law enforcement authorities particularly should be careful about the latter aspect as some of the activists might soon resort to self-immolation. They are fanatics and ‘true believers.’ However, at these early stages, if the leader/s can be arrested and convicted for the crimes committed, the movement can be effectively curtailed. Inaction otherwise can lead to a bigger monster.

Recent attacks

There have been 12 attacks since mid-April on mosques, Muslim owned shops and villages, as shown in table 1. Of course, the accuracy of the incidents is not yet verified. However, it is up to the Police to do so. Even if there are inaccuracies about the extent, the incidence cannot be denied and the patterns are clear. As the table shows, there have been repeated attacks on the same place; very clearly showing the inaction of the area police. Therefore, on the part of the Government the creation of a ‘special police for hate crimes’ is a welcome move. However, this should not lead to the inaction of the area police on the pretext that there is a ‘new branch’ or special police.

Prior to the above attacks, there had been a pattern of instigation by the BBS and its leader, Galagoda Atte Gnanasara. The initial focus has been at Irrakamam in the Ampara district where they have a strong support base in the adjacent area. Irrakamam however is predominantly a Muslim area. There had been land grabs, under the pretext of a dispute which should have been resolved through law courts or official channels. That was in mid-April. Gnanasara has visited the area and reportedly made provocative statements against the Muslims and their faith.

It is also under his patronage that Vesak celebrations had been held in this Muslim area on 10 May. It is during the same period that the BBS propagated that the Muslim refugees are coming from Myanmar and the local Muslims are supporting them for further ‘colonisation’. During Onegama (Polonnaruwa) attacks, Gnanasara is reportedly been present. Another repeated provocation has been to insult the Allah – Subhanahu Wa ta’ala (meaning the most glorified, the most-high). There is substantial evidence/information for the above incidents. The BBS has been acting as if to invite IS terrorism in Sri Lanka.

Morally repugnant

The BBS propaganda and activities in Sri Lanka are morally repugnant in predominantly a Buddhist country. It is difficult to imagine how Buddhism is used to propagate hatred and violently attack another religion for narrow ‘ethnic’ or sectarian reasons.

As the King Dharma Asoka declared in his Edict XII, “There should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way.”

What is most relevant and applicable in the case of Sri Lanka is the following:

“But it is better to honour other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others. Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought “Let me glorify my own religion,” only harms his own religion.” – ‘The Edicts of King Asoka,’ https://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/ashoka.html.

It is hard to believe that Gnanasara’s cause is a religious cause. He does not engage in any meaningful criticism or discourse other than insults and abuse. His demeanour is violent. If he or anyone wants to air doctrinal differences, that can be done in decent writing. As the good king Asoka said, ‘if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way.’ That does not preclude the ‘freedom of criticism.’ But it should not be vilification of other religions. This distinction does not appear to be clear for many people in Sri Lanka unfortunately. This is the same in human rights. ‘Freedom of criticism,’ anyway is not burning Muslim shops and attacking Mosques.

It is rather farcical that the BBS representatives had lodged complaints before the Human Rights Commission. If that is to safeguard any atrocity on the part of the police, in the process of arresting him, then he should appear before a Magistrate and surrender. He should give up and face the rule of law. The fact of the matter is that the police and the law enforcement authorities have been quite lenient on Gnanasara and the BBS so far. He has reportedly been there on 21 May during the mosque attack in Kurunegala. But he was not arrested.

The national task

The police hierarchy may or may not be culpable of directly protecting the BBS. But they must be at east confused or influenced by the same propaganda and prejudices against the ordinary Muslims and the business people. These have been long standing in the country. In early 20th century, many of the Piyadasa Sirisena’s novels used to propagate these prejudices. I myself have experienced my neighbours at Peradeniya in the 1970/80s harbouring these prejudices and antipathy against the Muslims or their businesses.

But previously, I have also experienced the Sinhala Buddhists and the Muslims amicably coexisting in Moratuwa-Horetuduwa area during my childhood. Therefore, it is a mixed situation or a deterioration of a previous situation. There can be a possibility that the way some of the Muslims conduct their businesses is distasteful to some Sinhala businessmen. But that is not a reason to attack and burn their shops and businesses. The reasons can be profit competition or envy.

This is where the rule of law should prevail. The misunderstandings or even prejudices should be matters for the much-declared National Reconciliation efforts/programme to address. The Muslims also have a role to play in this endeavour.

Sri Lanka cannot go on like this. After major attacks in June 2014 at Aluthgama, there were all indications that the BBS was planning to celebrate the centenary of the 1915 ‘Sinhala-Muslim’ riots in 2015. What prevented this catastrophe was the change of government and the political situation. Therefore, the present Government has a major responsibility to sustain and stabilise the situation. An apparent problem may be one part of the present Government is one part of the past Government.

The events during April and May are quite disturbing and detrimental to national unity and harmony. These should be curtailed not under an iron fist, as some would argue, but under the rule of law. There should be national consensus going beyond party politics and bringing all parties/sections together as much as possible. It is difficult to imagine any democratic party or formation would conscientiously approve what is conducted by the BBS. At least that is the expressed position/s of all democratic parties.

Therefore, that potential should be utilised to the full extent. There are parties (i.e. the Left) even in the Joint Opposition that should be mobilised against the BBS’ xenophobic activities.

There is much discussion on the issues of national security these days. The most dangerous threat to national security, both internally and externally, at present is religious disharmony and conflict in the country. These issues warrant a special parliamentary debate with the objective of achieving common consensus in curtailing the situation. This is equally important as flood relief activities and assistance to the victims.

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