Sri Lanka must address, not ignore, Muslim grievances

By JS Tissainayagam

The Sri Lanka government’s response to the Easter Sunday bomb blasts has been solely from a security and military standpoint.

But a military-centric response could also boost Colombo’s decades-long indifference to the legitimate political grievances of Muslims in the country.

The explosions left over 250 dead in three churches packed with Easter worshippers and in luxury hotels as foreign tourists and local guests were at breakfast. But Colombo’s narrative is confused on who is to blame: it remains uncertain whether the attack was spearheaded by a local organisation, the National Thowfeek Jamath, or if ISIS (which belatedly claimed the attack) was working through the NTJ.

The government’s response framing the blasts and the conspiracy behind it as a national security issue resulted in mainly two consequences: expanding military and police deployments and drafting new laws that facilitated security operations while restricting human freedoms.

Following the explosions, the military poured out on to the streets. There were raids where the alleged assassins were hiding, among the more gruesome of which was on a house in Sammanthurai in the Eastern Province. While details remain murky, it appears 15 people were killed including six children. Elsewhere, more than 100 people have been arrested, while bomb squads pre-emptively detonated bombs in vehicles, located weapon caches and uncovered hoaxes as well.

But the presence of the military to protect churches and mosques has also caused nervousness among Muslims attending prayers and Tamil congregants in Christian churches. In Tamil-speaking North and East Sri Lanka, which is emerging from the 30-year civil war and where militarisation has been the cause of a raft of human rights abuses, whole villages were cordoned off, searched and arrests made.

The second element of strengthening national security was the new emergency regulations brought in by the government on April 24 following the proclamation of emergency the day before. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told the media that the Easter Sunday attackers were not apprehended because the laws in place were inadequate.

That is palpably false since the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), designed specifically to prevent acts such as Easter Sunday’s, has remained in the statute books despite the armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels coming to an end 10 years ago.

While granting sweeping powers to the State, the new emergency regulations afford individuals few safeguards of their rights.

Defining terrorism overbroadly, it calls for the death penalty or life imprisonment for – among other offences – causing destruction or damage of property, committing theft of any article from a vacant or unprotected property, or for persons dishonestly receiving or retaining articles or goods “knowing or having reasons to believe an offence has been committed in respect of such articles or goods.”

Emergency regulations also impose draconian restrictions on the freedom of the media. It gives immense powers to a competent authority to be appointed by President Maithripala Sirisena “to take measures and give direction” for preventing or restricting publication in Sri Lanka of material that is, among other things, prejudicial to national security, the preservation of public order or incites or encourages the incitement of riots, civil commotion or mutiny.

If these prohibitions target violence and its incitement, they will be welcome. However, they emerge in a country that has had a history of defining terrorism overbroadly under the PTA and suppressing legitimate dissent by characterising it as terrorism.

Emergency regulations also confer extraordinary powers on “any military personnel and police officer” to arrest suspected offenders. The suspect need not necessarily be detained in a prison but could be in a place “authorised by the inspector general of police.”

The detainee may be held up to 90 days without appearing before a magistrate. Here too the precedent set during the civil war in Sri Lanka where suspects arrested under the PTA were tortured and made to disappear bodes ill for vast powers in the hands of law enforcement and military personnel through the new laws.

Despite these security measures, goons attacked homes of Muslim refugees, including the persecuted Ahamadya minority from Pakistan.

What’s more, there are reports of incidents of harassment and intimidation of Muslim women for wearing niqabs and hijabs in supermarkets and banks. Muslim academics were harassed by university security for the same reason.

And Muslim shops and businesses remain shuttered fearing retaliation by Sinhala mobs.

While Colombo takes these measures to strengthen national security and law and order, will this approach stifle the legitimate grievances of the Muslims against Tamils, Sinhalese and especially the state?

Muslims have had issues against both the Tamils and Sinhalese. While this article is not the place to delve into the history of Muslim-Tamil relations in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, right now ownership of land in that region remains a contentious issue.

During the civil war, the LTTE appropriated Muslim lands. In the post-civil war era, much of those lands have been wrested back by the Muslims with political support. In fact, Tamils now accuse the military and Muslim politicians of occupying Tamil lands.

Another disagreement is how power should be shared in the multi-ethnic Eastern Province between Muslims and Tamils, especially if more devolution is contemplated. In northern Sri Lanka, animosity bred by the LTTE’s expulsion of the Muslims remains.

Muslim issues against the Sinhala-Buddhists have been much more fraught. There were repeated attempts by the Buddhists to suppress Muslim identity and political power. Extremist Sinhala-Buddhist organisations such as the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) sought to destroy mosques, incite rioting, and campaign against halal foods. Muslims have demanded that they be protected from Sinhala-Buddhist extremism.

These legitimate concerns, never of much importance to Sinhala leaders, have been almost entirely obliterated by the Easter violence and the charged, vile rhetoric directed against the Muslims in the recent days.

But this is precisely the way Sinhala elites approached the substantive political problems of the Tamils. Sinhala leaders characterised the conflict as a “terrorist problem” and refused to engage with root causes of Tamil grievances. By demonising Tamils as violent and senseless killers they were able to play on the fears of the Sinhala masses and persuade them that no political settlement was possible with the Tamils.

Two important Sri Lankan political players took no time after the Easter blasts to come out with agendas focused on national security, with hardly a word of assurance to the Muslims.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is nursing ambitions to contest presidential elections as the opposition Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) candidate criticised the incumbent government for security lapses: “This government was never serious about the security aspects of things.”

Meanwhile, Champika Ranawake, the leader of the ultra-Sinhala nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and a cabinet minister to boot, released a 10-point agenda that included, “security forces to investigate the teaching process… of mosques”.

The Muslims of Sri Lanka and overseas should understand that while asking forgiveness from the Sinhalese and Tamils for the Easter Sunday bombings is deeply appreciated for its humility, they must not let the Sri Lankan state and its political leaders control the narrative.

Because, while Easter Sunday’s violence is deplorable, it should not let the legitimate demands Sri Lankan Muslims have put forward through the democratic political process for redress to be ignored or neglected.☐

© Asian Correspondent

JS Tissainayagam, a senior journalist and former Sri Lankan political prisoner, is a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard. He won Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism (2009) and the CPJ Press Freedom Award (2009).