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Sri Lankan gains and losses in tackling communal violence

'The government should take action against inflammatory opinions that provoke communal violence'

 Jehan Perera, Colombo

 Jehan Perera, Colombo

Updated: December 22, 2017 06:25 AM GMT
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Sri Lankan gains and losses in tackling communal violence

A damaged Muslim house after the clash between Buddhist and Muslim communities at Gintota in Galle district on Nov. 17, caused by a minor incident. (Photo ucanews.com)

 

While there have been improvements in the way Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka deals with communal violence, there has so far been a failure to adequately counter hate speech.

Social media attacks link ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims to international terrorism and berate Buddhist monks who promote inter-religious dialogue.

On a more positive note, Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayaka appeared to be justified when he defended handling of recent communal strife at Gintota in the far south of the country.

Tensions were sparked when a cyclist from the Sinhalese Buddhist community collided with a Muslim woman and child.  Clashes escalated in the days that followed.

But security personnel contained the situation by swiftly arresting 19 troublemakers, many of whom came from outside, and imposing a curfew.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited the area.

The seriousness with which the current government addressed the riots in Gintota contrasted with how former President Mahinda Rajapaksa handled a similar situation.

The failure of Rajapaksa to protect Muslims in 2014 led to him losing electoral support in the Islamic community, which comprises about 10 per cent of the population.

In that strife at Aluthgama, which is also in the far south, four Muslims were killed, about 80 were injured and there was large-scale destruction of Muslim homes and business premises.

For two days the police failed to respond.

In Aluthgama it was a Sinhalese three-wheel taxi driver and a Buddhist monk who got into a fracas with a group of Muslims youths over a road accident.

Violence in the aftermath of motor vehicle accidents is not uncommon even if those directly involved are of the same religion and ethnicity.

However, there are extremists waiting to seize any opportunity to portray it as a "communal" problem, particularly if their ethnic/religious group has a numerical majority in a particular city or region.

A damaged Muslim house after the clash between Buddhist and Muslim communities at Gintota in Galle district on Nov. 17. Due to the clashes, businesses, houses and vehicles belonging to both communities were damaged. (Photo ucanews.com)

 

Against this backdrop, it is important for government, civil society and religious institutions to promote inter-ethnic and inter-religious understanding.

The government needs to link its district religious committees to civil society groups engaged in conflict mitigation.

Promotion of tolerance towards minorities through education is essential.

And the security forces must be made aware that it is their responsibility to impartially enforce the law in relation to inter-community conflicts.

The manner in which the government took swift action in the case of the recent Gintota violence suggests that lessons were learned from the 2014 Aluthgama riots.

The present government is steering away from ethnic nationalism and towards greater tolerance of free speech.

However, those who do not accept liberal views of society are exploiting this space for people to voice opinions in a negative way.

For example, through hate speech on social media.

There is much anti-Islamic discourse such as the claim about local links to global terrorist outfits.

Other commentary attacks high Muslim birthrates and suggests that there is a conspiracy to chemically sterilize Sinhalese Buddhist men.

And the hate speech includes criticism of Buddhist monks who support inter-religious reconciliation and amity at the community level.

The government has so far not taken legal action against such poisonous extremist groups.

And there is a lack of  "counter-messaging" campaigns to promote pluralism.

Decisive government action should be taken against the expressing of inflammatory opinions that provoke communal violence. 

 

Dr. Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka and a regular weekly political columnist for newspapers in Sri Lanka and internationally.  

 

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