Sri Lanka may have successfully defeated terrorism some seven years ago, but that does not mean there is reason to be complacent – and recent events should cause increased concern among authorities.
Although there has been no flare up of ethnic tensions on a major scale just yet, there is ample evidence that there is plenty of racial discord simmering just beneath the surface of the social fabric of present day Sri Lanka.
That past few weeks has seen a spate of ‘minor’ skirmishes: protests for and against proposed changes to Muslim law, racially motivated inflammatory speeches during these protests, the arrest of certain individuals and even more vitriolic rhetoric in relation to these arrests. None of this is conducive to peaceful co-existence between the different communities.
During these events, some Muslim organisations have come out into the open, advocating a brand of religious zeal that borders on extremism. As if on cue, there is an equally vocal and volatile section of the Sinhala Buddhist community which responds with alacrity.
For instance, there is Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the self-proclaimed saviour of the Sinhala race who also wears a saffron robe. After being hauled up before the courts, Gnanasara was silent for some time but he is now indulging in his usual shenanigans, inciting racial hatred and threatening bloodbaths if his demands are not met.
Then we have C.V. Wigneswaran, cloaked in the garb of a moderate but making use of his office as Chief Minister of the Northern Province to issue statements from time to time which suggest that the Eelam dream lives on.
There were also reports that the birthday of the slain leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Velupillai Prabhakaran was ‘celebrated’ in the North last week and that some of the sentiments expressed at these events were more in line with rebellion rather than reconciliation.
These are indications that the extremist fringes of the communal spectrum feel the time is now right to sow the seeds of ethnic discord, so they can reap the rewards of a racially-motivated conflagration in the near future.
A glance at social media – now a powerful tool in moulding public opinion – confirms that extremists on all sides of the ethnic divide, be they Sinhalese, Muslim or Tamil are having a field day, engaging in their own campaigns for supremacy over one another. It is a worrying phenomenon.
Besides, there is the small matter of a new Constitution that is brewing in the background. Now, when that is unveiled, wouldn’t that be a fertile ground for more chaos to manifest itself in the guise of patriotism?
These developments have not gone unnoticed. President Maithripala Sirisena himself has given orders to deal sternly with all those who incite ethnic and religious hatred, no matter what community they belong to.
However, the law enforcement authorities which are tasked with carrying out these instructions have to act with utmost caution. They are mindful that they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Such is the volatile nature of issue they are grappling with.
If hauling Buddhist monks, Muslim extremists or even renegade Tamil politicians into detention is what it takes to stop the fuelling of communal disharmony, so be it. Letting people actively engage in hate mongering and not acting against them for the fear of a backlash is certainly not an answer. That is what J.R. Jayewardene did in the wake of the 1983 July riots – and we are still paying for that lapse of judgment.
The silver lining in this dark communal sky is the fact that the government in office is a coalition which is truly multi-ethnic and multi-religious. Surely there are differences of opinion among the different partners in the coalition, but they are bound together by the need to sustain a government that they fought hard to establish.
That alone is, however, not enough. A non-partisan approach by the government must be matched by action that is both pre-emptive and pro-active. Let’s face it, Sri Lanka, despite the end of the war, is an ethnic volcano. It must be prevented from erupting because if it does, its flames will be too much to douse.