A long war against racism | Sunday Observer

A long war against racism

Ten years ago, Sri Lanka finally ended a bloody conflict that spanned three decades. It is particularly tragic that the week preceding this milestone was marked by calls to guard against a repeat of July 1983, which likely sparked the full-blown war over Tamil separatism.

Before the riots of July 1983, the LTTE numbered a few dozen scrappy militants operating largely in Jaffna. For four long days, the mobs pillaged and killed. Some estimates claim up to 3000 Tamils were killed, their homes burned and businesses destroyed islandwide. To Sri Lanka’s eternal shame, the 1983 riots came to embody state apathy towards heinous injustices perpetrated against minorities.

It was years before the smoke cleared following the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983. The LTTE capitalised on that persecution, with a community feeling vulnerable and marginalised, and morphed into a 10,000 strong fighting machine. Successfully hiding sheep’s clothing, the terror group managed to draw international sympathy and support, as they waged their war and couched their bloodshed in the name of Tamils persecuted by a majoritarian state.

That support would continue, until the world saw the true colours of the Tigers, who openly turned on the Tamil people with child conscription and other forms of totalitarianism. The Tamil people ultimately were sickened by their atrocities and string of high-profile assassinations and brutal terror attacks on a foreign Prime Minister, a Sri Lankan president, several national politicians and countless civilian targets.

Thirty something years later, the parallels are stark and terrifying.

This week, angry mobs rampaged through the North Western Province, to “vent” their anger against innocent Muslim civilians for the brutal Easter Sunday terror attacks. At least one man was killed. Hundreds of shops and houses were burnt and vandalised in the raging unrest that spread as far as Minnuwanagoda, just eight kilometres away from the Katunayake airport.

The devastating blasts took place nearly a month ago, causing shock and untold grief, and were met with remarkably restrained calls for calm by Christian and other religious leaders. There was no rationale for the sudden outbreak of violence in the North West three weeks after the bombings. The answer lies in understanding who benefits from dividing the country and setting it alight, even as the immediate threat from ISIS linked groups has been contained.

Political patronage paved the way for the bloody pogrom of 1983. In Mawanella, Aluthgama, Digana and now Kuliyapitiya and Minnuwangoda, there were always political puppet masters running the show. They bus in mobs. They drop off five or six troublemakers in the centre of a Muslim settlement. In last week’s Wayamba violence, the picture is becoming clearer. One mob leader arrested by the CID, Namal Kumara, declared himself as a Podujana Peramuna parliamentary candidate. His attorney, SLPP spokesman Ajith Prasanna, said the CID fabricated evidence to arrest Kumara.

It has been proved time and again. Once hate and fear against another community is propagated, there is no calling off the dogs. For decades, the anti-Tamil monster was fed. In 1958, 1977 and 1983, the prejudice and fear mongering led to violence against the Tamils. Even during times of peace, this polarisation was acute, with both Sinhala and Tamil nationalism feeding off each other, alienating communities and propagating hatred. All the LTTE had to do was to strike a match on this powder keg.

Security officials insist the threat from Islamic terror groups has been contained. The CID has dismantled the terror network and most of the members of the group are in police custody or on the run. Reactionary violence targeting a community that decries extremism and violence will only lead to more radicalization. Persecuted communities become fertile recruiting ground for radicals. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya argued that there was no difference between the terrorists who perpetrated the Easter attacks and those mobs unleashing violence against innocent Muslims in the North West. “The flames were kindled in July 1983, and for 30 years the country burned,” the Speaker recalled.

Over the last decade, the country has had many moments to reflect on our legacy of conflict. Ten years after the guns fell silent, many still search for answers, still strive to go back home, and still search for loved ones. The war snuffed out nearly 100,000 lives and left the island’s socioeconomic fabric in tatters. For 10 long years, the country’s leaders have failed to address the root cause of the conflict or offer a permanent solution to the ethnic dilemma.

Alas, instead of breathing a sigh of relief as we mark a decade since the civil war ended, Sri Lankan hearts are heavy. Peace came at a high cost. As a country, we failed to consolidate and guard that peace. Still reeling from the horror of Easter, this week brought new tragedy, renewed hopelessness; and for Muslims, choking grief and fear of their own.

Each time the country experiences a cycle of communal violence, the aftermath brings pledges of “never again.” Instead, this week’s clarion call was “here we go again.”

It was apt that the most poignant message condemning the violence against Muslims was delivered by the Tamil National Alliance, which represents a community that was once similarly “othered” and persecuted. It was a deeply introspective and a painful reminder of all the mistakes that we had already made.

“If people do not think that the Government and the security forces are able or willing to protect them, they will be forced to defend themselves,” the TNA said. “We appeal to the Government: Do not let that happen. Do not let yet another community in Sri Lanka feel that in order to survive in this country, it must fight for itself.”