Opinion : Lest history repeat itself… | Sunday Observer

Opinion : Lest history repeat itself…

Some 3,000 military personnel were deployed in and around Colombo as well as other key towns for cordon-and-search activities
Some 3,000 military personnel were deployed in and around Colombo as well as other key towns for cordon-and-search activities

As multi-coloured Buddhist flags fluttered in the breeze and perennially catchy tunes reminiscent of the nobleness of Gauthama Buddha wafted in the air, rows of houses and shops belonging mainly to Muslims in Minuwangoda, Gampaha, Chilaw and Kuliyapitiya languished in ruins in the light of the Vesak Full Moon.

For a seasoned photographer the images of those damaged structures creating a backdrop to the fluttering flags would have been a mouth-watering prospect for a headline making photograph. Since I am no photo man, the poignancy was lost, at least in terms of capturing the moment on a lens.

One month after the dastardly attacks of Easter Sunday, the country is now facing political, social, historical and economic uncertainty that has been absent since the victory over the LTTE, exactly 10 years ago. The ease with which the country slid back to the ethos of a police state in the immediate aftermath of the attacks was quite startling. The ‘citizen’s committees’ bolting in to action, suspecting all those who are not like the many, invading the privacy and dignity of individuals, people travelling in public transport not being allowed to keep their bags on racks, being questioned purely on the basis of their ethno-religious background, worse still, based on the garments they wore or facial hair they sported, invoked images from the thirty-year-old civil war, although it was a ‘different’ type of ‘suspicious character’ all were vary of. The respite and the solace of peace, of normalcy and civil life are luxuries for citizens of this island, after all.

Despite earnest requests by the Cardinal, who after a history of shouting himself hoarse, that no ‘churches’ had been under attack, when in reality mobs stoned, burned and damaged churches as well as places of worship belonging to minorities, finally being compelled to witness a different type of attack on his churches, the Sinhala polity, a few acting riotously and the many given to a disposition of suspicion aimed generally at the Muslim community and thus giving tacit justification of such dastardly acts of the unruly few, displayed their idiocy once again, that they are not able to grasp rationally, the magnitude of the situation at hand.

Due to violence against ordinary Muslims spreading in certain places, the security forces are now burdened with the task of guarding innocent people from falling prey to Sinhala Buddhist extremists, who are obviously politically patronised, as the presence of some politicos from the opposition as well as some leaders of far right Sinhala fringe groups such as Mahason Balakaya, Sinhale Api and Rawana Balaya suggests; there is a well-orchestrated effort by some elements to make political mileage out of the situation. The obvious aim of destabilising the country and putting the government in a hot spot is plain to see, even in the eyes of a five-year-old.

From yet another perspective, the reappearance with vigour, of these Sinhala extremist groups, who have been associated with the Aluthgama and Digana incidents, where ordinary Muslims came under attack, without any justifiable provocation, the entire aftermath of the Easter Sunday attack, has taken a different complexion; taking the brutality, barbarity and dastardliness out of the horrendous suicidal attacks aiming innocent civilians out of the picture, staining it with an anti-Muslim sentiment, which ultimately paints the suicide attacks in a better light.

It has given an opportunity to those who promote and condone those attacks to throw the searchlight towards the victimisation of the Muslim community, which admittedly deserves scrutiny, rather than to the bombings themselves.

The headlines are beginning to look different now. If not for the local Muslim community, it has given fodder for those fanatic and jihadist elements, both local and international, to justify acts of violence perpetrated on Easter Sunday.

Quite frankly, the government is responsible for the absolutely imbecile, impotent and inefficient manner in which it handled the entire issue of the bomb attacks, from the time the Indian intelligence services informed their Sri Lankan counterparts weeks before, that an attack was in the offing, to a few minutes before the attack on Easter Sunday, repeating that an attack was imminent. The rest is history and no white washing could absolve the government from the blood stains of those innocent civilians who lost their lives.

That is the immediate picture. There is a subscript that runs parallel to this with some prominent Muslim politicians coming under a cloud of suspicion; in some cases with more than sufficient information to suggest that they need to be seriously examined. It is here that the rub lies; an extensive revealing of facts related to these politicians might run years back and in all probability will reach well beyond January 2015. With some of the fanatics being in the payroll of the then authorities, privileges and the condescension they received, the funding for their universities and madrasas, all these seem to predate the ‘good governance’ (now a term used more in derogation and quite aptly, at that) government.

It is against such a backdrop that one has to have incisive skills of observation to realise as to who would benefit more from the riots that ensued post-Easter Sunday bombings. Three weeks went without much incident, with the kith and the kin of the deceased, somehow, managing to put a lid on their grief, frustration and anguish and not allowing it to become a catalyst for another Black July.

Black July, for it’s part, is a classic example, how a fringe group could ascend to be the sole representative of a given community based on the sympathy it receives from them who are indiscriminately victimised. It served as a launching pad for a guerrilla organisation which consisted of only 15 members at that time, skyrocketing to become the most formidable militant group in Sri Lankan Northern politics and eventually becoming the most feared guerrilla outfit in the entire world.

What Black July did was nothing but proving that Prabhakaran was right; in convincing the Tamils that there could be safety for them only if they bore arms, in the short term and in a separate state, for which they were to dedicate themselves in the long term.

History has a tendency to repeat itself; unless a society learns the lessons it teaches and avert wallowing in ignorant and erratic behaviour, thus inviting on themselves calamities of similar nature again and again. Most of the suicide cadres or hard core Tigers were those who have either suffered or witnessed atrocities committed against their kith and kin in July 1983 or at least indirect victims of it. They hardly would have been in need of a carefully programmed brain washing campaign to turn them in to militants.

As much as Mohamed Zaharan, the mastermind behind the present attacks has managed to brainwash his followers, nothing could make the process more lubricated, in his absence, than demonising the ordinary Muslim community and flogging them together with fanatics.

That in effect is what is transpiring in the form of indiscriminate attacks on all Muslims and a general atmosphere of vilifying them, thus making Saharan and the jihadists, who are apparently without a cause, directly applicable to the ordinary local Muslim, a grievance attributed to them, to be seen in a more acceptable light.

Among the various immediate beneficiaries of the riots are the Muslim politicians who, by all means seem to have been hand in glove, if not directly in terms of attacks orchestrated by the NTJ, at least by patronising, covering up, financing and facilitating their activities. The finger that is being directed at them cannot be shrugged off as over zealous actions of the majority who visualise themselves as being under attack; but are based on so many instances of interference, intervention and patronising done by them to make the work of the fanatics easy. From having relatives closely connected to the bombers, suspicious business relationships, influences done on releasing those suspects when they were apprehended by authorities are too serious to be ignored as coincidents. As long as peace is maintained, as was the case during the first three weeks after the attacks, ground breaking revelations made by the security and intelligence agencies were incisive, deep and damning. Had it continued in the same vein, it would have led to the real power dealers who were behind these acts of mass murder. Now the emphasis of the security forces have been deflected to safeguarding law and order and protecting the innocent Muslim; at least from the public perspective, the focus has shifted elsewhere.

Then we have the Sinhala politicos of the former regime, who, it is revealed now, have been sponsoring extremist elements within the Muslim polity with the intention of dividing the Muslim voter base which in general had not been in their favour. Investigations have revealed that some of the bombers have been in contact, at least indirectly, with the former power wielders and their activities have not been completely hidden from the security apparatus during the Rajapaksa regime, to such an extent that a finger is being pointed in their direction as well. Any further revelations in this regard would certainly have been damning on the image that the Rajapaksas have been projecting on the Sinhala majority as the saviours of Sinhala Buddhist aspirations.

Certainly it would have not gone down well with the prospective presidential candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to have been a benefactor of some of the members of these terror groups, although not directly related to the attacks. Diverting attention from the real issue of digging deep in to as to how Saharan and his aides grew in to such a powerful position of being able to carry out coordinated attacks on six places in a matter of minutes, might shed unexpected light on such shady deals of the former regime as well.

The current government, with its glaring incompetence, inefficiency and inability to rule, reeling from the unprecedented nature of the attack in face of more than sufficient intelligence supplied by Indian intelligence authorities, would certainly not want a pogrom of this nature under their watch. The last strand of legitimacy this ‘good governance’ government might have left intact, could be that it is not given to racist or Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism as a political weapon as the Rajapaksa regime did.

The question again arises as to whether the security apparatus including the intelligence wing is truly and really under the political authority of the present regime. Even if the answer is a tentative ‘yes’, then which group of the governing coalition controls it, is the million dollar question. With the hybrid government at odds with each other at the very top to the extent that the Prime Minister has not been attendant at Security Council meetings, it should not come as a surprise that they are not fully in control of the security apparatus.

Could it be more outrageous than for a President to say that he only came to hear about the news of arguably the most devastating attack by ISIS affiliated terrorists outside the Middle East, through a Facebook post of a friend of his and that too, hours later? Could it be more criminal than for a Prime Minister’s claim that he came to know of it through Whatsapp while holidaying? At the moment the operations and investigations carried out by the security forces, seem to be on their own volition rather than through a resolute political decree of the government in power.

Although the IMF has played down the attacks as having a definite and pointed impact on the economy, including the ability of Sri Lanka to keep the foreign debt financing, with yet another Billion Dollar debt instalment deadline due in October this year, it is common knowledge that the repercussions in terms of vital sectors such as tourism and foreign direct investment would be telling in the immediate future. All remedial measures the government contemplates in grappling with the economic fall out that it sure to take place, will test the competence of the UNP component of the government, in earnest. In the eyes of the public who seem to have gone in to a frenzy of fear and a paralysis in terms of their day to day activities, the economic ramifications do not seem to figure that large, at least at this particular moment of time.

The government needs to show the populace that it is in control of the situation, restore law and order and bring back communal consensus which seems to be in tatters at present. The constitutional amendments that have been in the offing need to be revamped irrespective of the immediate needs of security and governance, requiring the attention and effort of a concerted nature. The country simply cannot relapse in to a post Black July syndrome with ethno-racial tensions reaching boiling point and suspicions surrounding one community dominating the socio political discourse. Although it is evidently premature and in fact, infantile to believe that all will be well once the remaining few jihadists such as those of the NTJ are apprehended, as the President claims, it should not, at the same time, be used to turn Sri Lanka back in to a Stalinist type security state, the type we have been so used to during the civil war. Neither should it be an occasion to facilitate draconian laws that deprive people of their constitutionally guaranteed rights by subjecting them to emergency laws and harsh security measures.

History will repeat itself, unless we are vary, vigilant and act diligently.