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Sri Lanka

Time to end Sri Lanka's culture of impunity

The country has adequate laws to protect its citizens from hate speech and hate crimes, but they must be enforced

Kingsley Karunaratne, Colombo

Kingsley Karunaratne, Colombo

Updated: March 27, 2018 10:07 AM GMT
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Time to end Sri Lanka's culture of impunity

Muslims store dry rations to distribute among families following attacks by Buddhist mobs in Sri Lanka. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)

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Anti-Muslim violence is over in Sri Lanka for now, but social and religious problems have intensified as a result of the disturbing attacks.

According to police, 465 houses, vehicles and businesses were destroyed or damaged during the recent trouble. Two people were killed and Muslim mosques were attacked.

Violence broke out after a Sinhalese truck driver was killed by four Muslim youths in Theldeniya in Kandy district over a traffic dispute.

If the police had taken timely precautions on the driver’s funeral day and afterwards, the situation could have been avoided. The lethargic police gave Sinhalese Buddhist mobs who came from outside Kandy the chance to cause havoc as they pleased.

Many Muslims said most incidents took place during a curfew while the police and Special Task Force were deployed in the region, but they never took steps to interfere, stop or arrest the perpetrators.

Now Muslims are scared to live in their own houses and fear they will be attacked again by Sinhalese mobs. Even though the state of emergency and the curfew have been lifted, the government will have to keep police and army contingents throughout the district for the security of Muslims.

It will take time to heal the wounded hearts and minds of Muslim and Sinhalese people. Buddhist and Muslim clergy should get involved to work for religious co-existence.

In some villages, Muslims ran for shelter and protection to Buddhist temples. One such incident took place in a village in Theldeniya. The chief monk at Gomagoda Temple protected babies, children, men and women in his temple. The monk told Buddhists to protect Muslim houses and property too. Similar incidents happened in other places.

Though these deadly attacks were planned and carried out by outsiders, Sinhalese nationalist organizations like Mahason Balakaya and Sinhala Jathika Balamuluwa have been accused of playing a part in the violence.

The Terrorist Investigation Division has arrested 161 people including Mahason Balakaya leader Amith Weerasinghe, Sureda Suraweera, Buddhist monk Arachchikubure Sobitha Thero and seven other members of the extremist organizations.

Ultranationalism is a very dangerous trend and if meaningful steps are not taken by the authorities, Sri Lanka will be ruined.

On March 16, the district secretariat in Kandy paid compensation to victims of violence. The government paid 500,000 rupees (US$3,200) for a damaged house and 100,000 rupees for an attacked shop. The families of the two killed were each given compensation of 500,000 rupees on March 19. Muslim places of worship will also be compensated for damage.

All damaged properties should be fully renovated within four months with the help of soldiers.

 

A Muslim devotee and local council member Cader Nijam examine the vandalized Jumma Mosque at Pallekele in Kandy following attacks by Buddhist mobs. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)

 

Though restrictions on social media have been lifted, Sri Lanka plans to clamp down on hate speech by enacting new laws and setting up an institution to monitor social media and censor inflammatory postings.

This step is positive in one way but there is another school of thought that the move will limit freedom of thought and expression.

In previous years too, certain social media sites provoked hatred against ethnic and religious minorities, mainly Muslims who were criticized for the hijab (head covering), halal artifacts, ritualistic food items, high birth rates and forced conversion of Buddhists to Islam.

It is obviously the duty of the government to prosecute and convict these perpetrators. However the government has not yet learned that lesson.

At the tail end of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime, an anti-Muslim media campaign claimed that Muslims were planning to take control of Sri Lanka with global Islamic forces such as Islamic State.

In June 2014, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, leader of Bodu Bala Sena, made a hate speech in a rally against Muslims. Buddhist mobs later destroyed Muslim houses, businesses and mosques. At least four people were killed. But impunity prevails for Bodu Bala Sena, with not a single prosecuted or convicted.

Even after 2015, the new government did not carry out further investigations to book those responsible for violence, property damage and killings. However the government in January 2018, paid 20 million rupees in compensation to victims of the riots, some 273 families.

In 2009, Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war ended when the army crushed militant rebels. Sinhala nationalist forces then searched for a new enemy and targeted the Muslim minority. How on earth can a country exist like this? The economy was ruined. The common man was burdened with a high cost of living. Development is at a standstill and the country cannot afford any more such calamities.

We have to rethink the future of the country and come to a consensus that enough is enough for communal and religious hatred so that we can achieve a progressive Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has adequate laws to protect its citizens from hate speech and hate crimes. They must be enforced to punish people who propagate communal hatred and incite sectarian violence, ensuring justice for citizens.

 

Kingsley Karunaratne is administrative secretary of the Rule of Law Forum, which is affiliated to the Asian Human Rights Commission. His organization works toward the radical rethinking and fundamental redesigning of justice institutions in order to protect and promote human rights.

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