18th June 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) strongly condemns the violence unleashed in Aluthgama, Beruwela and Dharga Town over the past few days. More than five years after the end of the war and thirty years after the 1983 pogrom, lessons have yet to be learnt on coexistence, non-violence, peace and reconciliation. The recent events are the latest and most serious manifestation of the politics of hurt, hate and harm that constitute the gravest challenge to pluralism, the rule of law and democratic governance in our country and epitomise the depth of the crisis of the Sri Lankan State. CPA urges the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) to take immediate and all necessary steps to provide protection to the affected communities, investigate the heinous acts and hold to account all perpetrators and those complicit in such acts. It is of paramount importance that steps are taken to prevent the continuation of such violence and in this regard the authorities must hold all those involved to account, sending a strong message to all Sri Lankans and to the rest of the world that violence and hate have no place in post -war Sri Lanka.
The Rise of Religious Extremism
Religious extremism and hate campaigns have targeted minorities and resulted in many incidents of violence in the post -war context. CPA has on several occasions raised concerns about this and documented rising tensions between different religious communities, primarily due to the activities of and ‘hate speech’ disseminated by extremist organisations such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Sihala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya. CPA regrets that no meaningful steps to curb the activities of these organisations and hold them to account have been initiated by the GoSL, thereby feeding the public perception that it is complicit in their activities. It is time that the GoSl step up to its responsibilities and uphold the constitutional and legal framework of Sri Lanka, including the right to equality and non- discrimination. We strongly urge the GoSL to make an official statement denouncing the organisations responsible for engendering discontent amongst different religious communities and to enforce the law unconditionally.
The Collapse of the Rule of Law
CPA notes the continuing and egregious lapse in the rule of law and the maintenance of the security of all the peoples who inhabit our country, highlighted most recently by the violence in Aluthgama, Beruwela and Dharga Town. It is extremely disturbing to note that such violence could take place despite the well-equipped and extensive security apparatus and network at the disposal of the GoSL. The Police have on several occasions in the past obtained Court orders to prevent / curtail protests by student organisations, opposition political parties, and even civil society activists, on the basis that such activities would lead to a breach of the peace. A similar measure was taken on 17th June in Mawanalle after the recent violence, raising the question of as to why such a measure was not taken in Aluthgama, earlier. The inability and/or unwillingness of the GoSL to take steps in Aluthgama , illustrates the selective application of the law and further fuels the perception of its complicity in the recent violence.
CPA is also concerned about the lack of accountability of organisations such as the BBS. Despite the video evidence of the assault on the Ven. Watareka Vijitha Thero, the forcible entry into a government ministry and numerous statements inciting communal passions, no serious attempt has been made by the GoSL to hold the BBS to account in accordance with the law of the land. As noted above, this is particularly problematic in a context where laws are used most effectively to prosecute and/or detain civil society activists and media personnel and to silence dissent.
The need of the hour is to ensure that religious and communal tension and violence do not engulf the country. The full weight of the law without fear or favour should be brought to bear on anyone who incites violence or engenders religious and communal enmity. The deeply corrosive culture of impunity in respect of human rights violations, and indeed, in respect of the incitement of religious and communal hatred, must be reversed as a matter of the utmost national priority. The widespread perception that the purveyors of religious intolerance and violence enjoy patronage and support from within the government needs to be comprehensively dispelled.
The Impact on Civil Society including Media Institutions
The under-reporting of the continuing violence in almost all mainstream media institutions, be it on an official GoSL directive or on account of self-censorship on the part of media institutions, underlines the fact that media in Sri Lanka is not free and is vulnerable to external pressure. Whilst there is a responsibility on the part of journalist to only report verified facts, the lack of information only leaves citizens more susceptible to rumours and unsubstantiated claims, which in turn could lead to further violence.
Furthermore, deeply disappointing is the inability and/or unwillingness of civil society organisations including religious leaders, especially from the majority community, to categorically condemn the BBS and other extreme groups and take appropriate action in respect of those who abuse the robe and the religion. Many insist privately that the BBS is ‘un-Buddhist’, at best an unseemly distortion and at worst a horrific negation of the fundamental tenets of what has been universally recognised as the most non-violent of religions. Few though seem willing to publicly express or demonstrate their unequivocal condemnation of the BBS, and to register the total rejection and repudiation of their politics of hurt, hate and harm.
Five years after the end of the war, there has yet to be any serious attempt to ensure reconciliation amongst the different communities who live in Sri Lanka. As the incidents over the past few days have demonstrated, reconciliation cannot be achieved through the defeat of terrorism and economic development, alone. There needs to be an acknowledgement on the part of the GoSL, political parties, religious groups, civil society and other stakeholders that Sri Lanka remains a deeply divided society. Unless this is acknowledged and a serious attempt made to remedy this, Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, which is also formally a functioning democracy, will be destroyed.
CPA reiterates the call for the GOSL to take swift and decisive action to redress the situation including criminal prosecutions against the perpetrators of violence and to provide financial compensation to the victims. There should also be an official condemnation of the violence and an apology for the lapses in security and law enforcement from the highest levels of government, augmented by demonstrable assurance hereafter that law and order will be impartially enforced and that the Sri Lankan state has the willingness and capacity to ensure the safety of its citizens irrespective of religion and ethnicity.
Finally, CPA calls upon all religious leaders including Buddhist religious leaders and civil society to publicly disassociate themselves from the BBS and its adherents, to condemn their politics of hurt, hate and harm and commit to inter-communal and religious dialogue as the means of resolving problems and achieving post-war reconciliation.