THE 10th anniversary of the end of the three decade-long war that pitted the Sri Lankan state against the LTTE passed by uneventfully and without mass mobilisation of people to mark the day. The period of May 18 and 19 in which the final battles of the war were fought has been one of contestation within the country. There are those who would celebrate the war victory and those who would mourn the heavy human toll that occurred at the war’s end. Since the change of government in 2015, the middle path of marking the day as one of remembrance was adopted in which both aspects were taken into account.
In the past two years, however, with relations within the government souring between the president and the prime minister and their associated political parties, the trend was to give more emphasis to celebrate the war victory. If the war victory had been over a foreign country, then a celebration would be appropriate. But Sri Lanka’s was a civil war, an internal one within the country, in which those who fought and died lived in the same geographical space. There has always been a political motivation to celebrate the war victory. This is to highlight the achievements of the political leaders who were in power at the time the war was won.
There is no question that to the vast majority of Sri Lankans, the end of the war was the best thing that happened despite the heavy price extracted from a minority of people. This year at the 10th anniversary, this triumphalist tendency would have gained in strength for the reason that decisive presidential elections are around the corner. Now as the time for elections comes, those in the forefront of saying that the country is in danger of being divided through constitutional reform of all things and their services are needed again are on the ascendant. The recent Easter Sunday bombings, and the sense of uncertainty that grips the country, has given a boost to this sentiment. But if this focuses only on security issues and not on political reform, it will be counterproductive to the interests of national unity and reconciliation.
BEFORE the Easter Sunday bombings, the government was dealing with the problems of political grievances and human rights violations that came from the period of the three decade-long war. But now it has to contend with a problem that is unfolding and its ability to engage in political reform is likely to be limited. The most important challenge is to ensure that in dealing with the present problem of Muslim extremist violence that the larger Muslim population is not alienated. The actions of the anti-Muslim rioters who killed one person and burnt down 500 or more properties could drive disaffected members of the Muslim community to the extremist camp. This is also what happened in the post-July 1983 period when there were large-scale anti-Tamil riots in many parts of the country, including the capital city of Colombo.
The Easter Sunday bombings will make the challenge of addressing post-war reconciliation issues more difficult. In the aftermath of the bombings the priority is to ensure that further attacks do not take place. There are now heightened prejudice and uncertainty in all sections of the population and in all parts of the country. There is a build-up of anti-Muslim sentiment because of the bombings and to political rivalries in the face of forthcoming presidential elections at the end of the year. Ethnic and religious polarisation is likely to escalate in this context and efforts to engage in political reform that promote ethnic, religious and minority rights will become more difficult to sustain.
There is a widespread belief fed mostly by the electronic and social media that the Easter Sunday bombers are not a fringe group of Muslim extremists but have significant support from the larger Muslim community. There is misinformation that large stocks of swords have been recovered from several mosques. But in reality, there were swords found in only two mosques as stated by president’s counsel Ali Sabry speaking to the media along with other prominent Muslim leaders, including former minister Ferial Ashraff. The suicide bombers themselves came from only three families. This suggests that those who planned the bombings and carried them out were few in number and the whole of the Muslim community cannot be blamed for the acts of a few.
THE no-confidence motion in the parliament against minister Rishard Bathiuddin is another example a partisan political action. The selective use of the no-confidence motion against some Muslim politicians who side with the government as against other Muslim politicians who might be friends with the opposition only serves to create further polarisation and mistrust amongst the communities. The tendency is for most people to look at one-sided accusations and to believe them wholesale. It is unjust to accuse people of charges without having sufficient evidence to back them.
Amidst these uncertainties, parents countrywide are still weighing the wisdom of sending their children to school for fear of attack by suicide bombers. There is a need for rational thinking. The army commander has epitomised this good sense. He has asked the president to caution the media not to be alarmist and given specific examples where they exaggerated incidents and gave them a twist. This is a time of introspection for all Sri Lankans and especially for the political leaders on both sides of the divide who failed to see the signs of things to come and for whom ethnic and religious identity, money and votes matter more than protecting the national interest and the human rights of all the people.
Those who organised the anti-Muslim riots were especially oblivious of the larger national interest and humanitarian considerations. People living in the vicinity of the riots have confirmed that the outsiders led the attack. The victims have also stated that some of the mob attacks were reported after curfew was imposed. The police have arrested many suspects. The truth about the organisation of the riots can be ascertained from them. For Sri Lanka’s future stability to be ensured there is a need to ensure that the culprits and masterminds behind the recent riots be apprehended, exposed and held to account swiftly by applying the rule of law without any political or other
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.