Hard-line Sinhala groups like the Bodu Bala Sena essentially have a singular objective. They aim to spread fear and suspicion about communities and people whose customs and way of life are alien to most. Once upon a time, before a separatist struggle tore the country apart, it was the Tamils. Post-war, their rage has been directed at the Muslim community.
The Bodu Bala Sena now has a Special Investigations Unit and two emergency hotlines for the public to call in order to spur the unit into action.
Less than one month after the Sinhala hardline group commandeered a ‘civilian’ police force at a major rally in Maharagama, at least two major raids have taken place under its watch.
Both times, the country’s lawful police have followed meekly in the wake of the monks leading the charge against a Colombo Municipal Council run abattoir in Dematagoda and then a citizen’s arrested of an allegedly rogue Buddhist priest at the Maligawatte flats. Both times, the group conducted the raids with media personnel and television crews in tow, as if eager to showcase the impunity with which they operate.
Raiding the ‘abattoir’
In Dematagoda, the Bodu Bala Sena ‘officers’ led by the group’s General Secretary Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thero shut the gates to the slaughter-house –– and prevented meat trucks from entering. They interrogated drivers and CMC officials on site, demanded to see receipts and licenses and inspected storage facilities. The Dematagoda Police, summoned to the site at a few minutes’ notice, indulged and facilitated the BBS “raid” despite admitting later that the monks appeared to have been misguided about the activities at the premises.
While the building that dates back to 1865 is known as the Dematagoda Slaughter House, the premises actually serve as a meat distribution point. Cattle slaughter is prohibited within the Colombo city limits. The meat is transported to the site from other areas of the island, for approvals by the CMC Veterinary unit that declares it fit for consumption before it is distributed to meat markets and hotels and restaurants throughout the city.
The Bodu Bala Sena troops initially stormed the premises under the erroneous assumption that calf-slaughter was taking place inside. They changed tack upon realisation that they had been misinformed. Suddenly, the raid became about improperly stored meat products that were reaching the urban consumer. A CMC Veterinarian quipped that in 25 years of service with the Council, he was yet to receive a complaint of rotten meat traced back to the Dematagoda distribution site. The official also said that while the BBS monks were quizzing the mostly Muslim meat truck drivers, what had perhaps escaped their notice was that ironically most of the meat was arriving in Dematagoda from Sinhalese cattle farmers in Anuradhapura and elsewhere.
But in the Bodu Bala Sena world, such considerations are immaterial. The fact that meat truck drivers were mostly Muslims and the CMC is run by a Muslim Mayor would be proof enough that something ominous was happening at the Dematagoda premises. The group’s post-raid posters show images of a Muslim man juxtaposed with an Arabic script and pictures of the Dematagoda premises.
The very next day, television crews were provided front seat viewing for the Bodu Bala Sena led invasion into a home at the Maligawatte flats. The televised raid involved an interrogation by the group and the monk being handed over to the Maligawatte Police on allegations that he had committed financial fraud and sexual abuse. The priest has since been released on bail since, but the BBS is threatening similar action against marauding monks in the name of protecting Buddhism.
The group is mobilising frantically, with rallies in major cities across the country, the setting up of task forces and membership drives. Last week an anti-Halal demonstration took place in Weeraketiya, in Hambantota, the heartland of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s support. Colombo Mayor A.J.M. Muzammil reacted angrily to news of the protest, saying it effectively provided the green lights for anti-Muslim protests all over the country.
BBS goes door-to-door
A promised door-to-door campaign appears to have already begun, with a group of clergy and laymen, claiming to be from the Bodu Bala Sena, visiting homes in the Mount Lavinia area last weekend, to inform Sinhalese residents that it was their duty to have as many children as possible to counter the explosion of the Muslim population in the country.
The group walked around with what appeared to be a Grama Sevaka list, residents said, using which they were able to identify Sinhalese homes. In one such residence, having realised the family was Sinhalese Christian, the BBS team still urged the homeowner to have more children. The bizarre request left some residents stumbling for answers, having to explain to the strangers in their home that it was not economically feasible for them to have more children.
Amidst the noise and fury of BBS antics, more incidents against Muslim businesses and places of worship were reported last week. A mosque in Kegalle was stoned in the wee hours of the morning last Friday (1). The 60-year-old Mahara mosque was defaced with images of pigs and distasteful slogans. The Asian Tribune website contains a list of incidents against members of the Muslim community and mosques and enterprises since the beginning of the year. In cases where individuals have been assaulted, the website claims the victims have chosen not to report the incidents for fear of reprisal.
And even as the BBS madness crescendos and speculation grows about the group operating with at least tacit State sanction, the announcement came by the group’s senior officials that Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa would declare open the new Buddhist Leadership Academy in Galle on Saturday (9). The Academy will be run under the twin auspices of the Buddhist Cultural Centre run by Bodu Bala Sena President Kirama Wimalajothi Thero and the Bodu Bala Sena. The academy aims to provide ‘leadership’ training to Buddhist clergy, laymen and youth activists and inculcate knowledge of history and Buddhism through its curriculum.
Meanwhile, the Health Ministry last week announced the ban on the LRT contraceptive method and vasectomies for men – the former being agenda item seven on the Bodu Bala Sena’s Maharagama Declaration unveiled on 17 February.
Following discussions with the Government and senior Defence officials, the All Ceylon Jamaiythul Ulama has offered not one but two compromises in the past two weeks, on the Halal issue, all the while claiming that they were not doing so under duress from the Government but to ensure harmony between religions. Tomorrow, the ACJU will meet private sector stakeholders to attempt to reach a compromise on the Halal certification issue. Despite a request by the ACJU that the Government take over the Halal certification process, the Administration has so far declined the offer, perhaps in the knowledge that the wrath of the BBS and its splinter groups will turn on the regime in such an eventuality. All the while, the BBS’ 31 March deadline for a total ban on the Halal certification draws closer.
As the Halal debate wears on, the ACJU is finding itself in a remarkably isolated place, politically. Having backed the Rajapaksa regime unreservedly in the past, it is now finding that because of the ethno-religious dimensions of this crisis, the Government’s sympathies must remain with the Bodu Bala Sena, which shares a support base with the regime. An ACJU delegation accompanied Government officials to Geneva last year, when the first US-backed resolution against Sri Lanka was adopted and repeatedly affirmed the Rajapaksa regime’s commitment to peace, reconciliation and minority rights at various side events during the UN Human Rights Council session.
This year, the UNHRC Session unfolds even as a very different scenario plays out in Sri Lanka.
Lack of progress
One year after the Council adopted a resolution against Sri Lanka, the international community is making it clear that the country has shown an appalling lack of progress in addressing lingering reconciliation and rights abuses issues in the aftermath of the war. Reports by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights watch repeatedly critique Sri Lanka for a lack of progress in investigating alleged war crimes allegations and continued minority and opposition suppression in the country.
The US has called Sri Lanka out at the Council this year, as showing a lack of genuine action on issues highlighted last year by the international community, even as the Sri Lankan delegation took pains to repeat to the Council many of the statistics and action plans it had heard before.
To make matters worse, the Sri Lankan Head of Delegation Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe was also the only speaker at the UNHRC 22’s High Level Segment to launch such a brutal tirade on High Commissioner Pillay’s credentials, alleging that she was biased against Sri Lanka and had fallen prey to LTTE propagandists. The Sri Lankan Minister’s remark drew immediate sympathy for the High Commissioner from the German Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, who felt Pillay required a defence against “unjustified and personal” criticism from certain quarters, and called out Minister Samarasinghe by name.
It was nothing if not a testament to the diplomacy Sri Lanka has grown accustomed to practice of late, in which vilification and belligerence constantly triumphs reason and common sense. One has come to expect a certain comprehension on the part of officials of Samarasinghe’s ilk, who must realise that Navi Pillay is not merely an individual that must be taken on, but the present holder of high office within the UN system. Denigration of Pillay only singles Sri Lanka out for further criticism, as a country that consistently and vehemently lashes out at its critics instead of seeking to silence them with quiet and affirmative action.
And so it is in this muddled backdrop in Geneva, with Channel 4 and the Tamil lobby charging, that the Sri Lankan State continues to suppress and discriminate against the Tamil people, that the Leader of the Muslim Tamil National Alliance Azath Sally on Tuesday (5) wrote to UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon, in attempt to draw the UN Chief’s attention to the present plight of Muslims in Sri Lanka.
UN Chief alerted about Muslim situation
In his letter, copied to High Commissioner Pillay, Sally tells the UN Secretary General that the Sri Lankan Government was “pushing the country towards another holocaust”. Alleging that the violation of the rights of Muslims living in Sri Lanka were tantamount to a violation of the UN Charter, Sally said that radical members of the Buddhist clergy were being allowed to take the law into their hands, with the enforcers of the law watching from the sidelines, and publicity given to these events by organs of the State.
The MTNA Leader cites the 1992 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities that requires states to “take measures were required to ensure that persons belonging to minorities may exercise fully and effectively all their human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination and in full equality before the law”.
The impunity with which the BBS operates and the climate of insecurity it is creating for the Muslim community has not gone unnoticed by the diplomatic community. That the Government is permitting the BBS antics to go unchecked, especially when it is under serious international scrutiny at the UNHRC session in Geneva, is if anything, ample proof that it is no longer concerned about censure from that forum.
This notion was further reinforced when 11 busloads of civilians from the north, families of the disappeared who were travelling to Colombo to attend a rally yesterday to highlight their cases during the UNHRC sessions, were detained in Vavuniya by the Police. The Police warned the civilians that the buses may come under attack on the way to Colombo, Tamil politician and Democratic People’s Front Leader, Mano Ganesan said.
Strong US reaction
The detention drew a sharp response from the US Government last night.
Issuing a statement, the US Embassy in Colombo charged that Sri Lanka has been “backsliding” on important areas of fundamental democratic rights, since the adoption of the UNHRC resolution last year.
“The LLRC recommends thorough investigations into disappearances as well an establishment of a mechanism to address cases of the missing and detained. Since last year’s UNHRC resolution the United States has grown increasingly concerned by the lack of progress on these issues,” the Embassy said in a hard-hitting statement that urged the Government to allow freedom of movement to the protestors from the north. The US expressed “alarm” at the detention of the peaceful protestors and said “the right to freely express opinions is universal and protected under Sri Lankan and international law”.
The statement comes in the wake of New Delhi and other ‘friends’ of Sri Lanka urging the Government to engage diplomatically to soften the language of the second US-backed resolution due to be tabled at the UNHRC in the next few days. With the Government intent to regress and show its hand even while the sessions are in play, the prospect of that dilution is beginning to look very remote.
Looking away from Geneva
Determinedly looking away from Geneva, the Rajapaksa administration is instead focusing all its energies on ensuring that the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting goes through in Colombo in November. The summit has been cast into shadow due the Government’s vehement decision to impeach Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in violation of international standards for the removal of judges and rulings by its two highest courts and its apparent lack of progress in improving its human rights situation.
Minister of External Affairs G.L. Peiris told Parliament on Tuesday that it was ‘crystal clear’ that the summit would go ahead in Colombo come November and asserted that there was no grounds for Sri Lanka to be inserted into the agenda of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group.
The core grouping is mandated to determine whether Commonwealth member states are adhering to the organisation’s core principles and has the power to suspend states seen to be in violation. An international drive is underway to have Sri Lanka placed on the agenda for the group’s meeting in April that comes soon after the UNHRC 22nd Session closes at the end of March. If Sri Lanka enters the agenda, the skies will darken ominously over the prospect of the major summit being held in Colombo as scheduled, Minister Peiris’ proclamations in Parliament notwithstanding.
Unnoticed by its citizenry, Sri Lanka has taken a dangerous turn towards autocracy and ethno-religious fascism that places the country precariously on the edge of international pariah status. Neither phenomenon screams to announce its presence, but creeps up slowly on a politically naive and disengaged populace. The citizens of post-war Sri Lanka, intoxicated with its hyper-development drive and superficial stability, are sufficiently apathetic to the real dangers posed by the BBS and its powerful sponsors. Blinded by rage against the ‘other,’ the Bodu Bala Sena and its affiliate groups are engaged in a campaign to spread fear and mistrust about the Muslims of Sri Lanka. The trajectory of fear is abundantly clear and its seeds are already sown. Unless arrested now, political apathy and patronage could allow an already disturbing situation to spiral swiftly – and violently – out of control.