Saffron marches and the ides of September

Last Wednesday, police officials paid a visit to the beef stall at the Bambalapitiya Market on Galle Road. They had a polite warning for the beef vendors at the market. The Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya march would pass through the Galle Road in Colombo early next week, they said, and the best way to avoid unruly incidents was for the beef stalls to shut their doors on that day.

The warning came one day after participants in the Sinhala Ravaya foot marched from Kataragama to Temple Trees in Colombo, passing through Tangalle and setting Muslim owned beef stalls ablaze in full view of the police.

The saffron army has passed through town after town along the Southern coast, issuing dire warnings of their arrival in the area 24 hours ahead and challenging meat vendors to remain open when the ‘river of people’ pass through their towns.Dharisha

Saffron armies

In fact, the past week has been filled with incidents in different parts of the country with ethno-religious extremist groups like the Sinhala Ravaya, the Ravana Balaya and even in some instances, the now infamous Bodu Bala Sena, publicly taking the law into their own hands while state law enforcement arm stands passively by or take instructions from the mobs led by men in saffron robes.

In Mulleriyawa on 17 June, a Sinhala Ravaya affiliated monk and his group allegedly manhandled a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, threatened them with dire consequences and escorted them to the Mulleriyawa Police Station where they lodged an official complaint and demanded the group’s arrest.

The Sinhala Ravaya’s foot march calling for a ban on cattle slaughter (with a demand for the repeal of the 13th Amendment thrown in for good measure) however, has brought about the worst of the incidents with crowds of people whipped up over the week long march with the most rabid and intolerant rhetoric.

In Maggona last Friday (21), lay members of the Bodu Bala Sena group forcibly removed a moonstone or ‘sandakada pahana’ that lay at the foot of a statue of St. Mary at the road leading to the St. Vincent Home. They charged that the moonstone was part of Sinhalese architectural heritage and had no place near a Catholic structure. But residents say that as long as they could remember, the moonstone and the statue had coexisted within the monument.

The statue that was being repaired and given a facelift was to be inaugurated during Sunday mass on 23 June. But the area became restive after the BBS members removed the moonstone, residents say. On Saturday (22), evening a large crowd of Catholic devotees commenced a protest near the statue, demanding that the moonstone be returned and restored to its original position. Catholic priests and parishioners joined the protest.

The situation became so tense that the police and riot squads moved in with tear gas to prevent major clashes. The area’s Divisional Secretary and local Government members also turned up at the scene. About three hours after the protest began, residents say four BBS members from the Maggona area turned up at the protest and apologised to the Catholic priest for removing the moonstone. The stolen moonstone was handed over to police custody and the police in the area have decided to refer the matter to court. But the issue did not end there.

The Sinhala Ravaya marched through the town the day after the Catholic protest and the return of the moonstone into police custody. Completely updated on the weekend’s events in Maggona, the Sinhala Ravaya chanted hostile slogans, leading to a confrontation between the marchers and a significant number of Catholic residents in the area who arrived on the scene to boo and heckle the marching crowds.

According to eyewitnesses, the hooting angered the monks leading the march and a confrontation was avoided only due to the efforts of the Special Task Force personnel who had moved into the area the previous day.

Blazing a trail through Southern coastal towns, the saffron army’s next target was a Jumma mosque in the Vettumakana Junction in Kalutara. Incensed by their reception in Maggona, the Sinhala Ravaya marchers got unruly near the mosque according to witnesses but the police managed to contain the problem.

Success at Temple Trees

The Sinhala Ravaya marchers arrived in Colombo on Wednesday morning but despite warnings issued by police officers to meat vendors in Bambalapitiya and Colpetty, no incidents targeting these shops were reported in the capital. The Kataragama-Colombo foot march calling for a state enforced ban on cattle-slaughter that is in truth a poorly disguised attempt to target the minority Muslim community, ended at the door of Temple Trees, where the group’s leading monks met with President Mahinda Rajapaksa last afternoon.

According to the monks who spoke to the media following their meeting, President Rajapaksa had promised them that legislation banning the killing of cattle would be introduced to the country within two months. Needless to say, these campaigns have the regime’s tacit support, with many senior members of the administration being ardent vegetarians and openly expressing an abhorrence of the slaughter of cattle for consumption.

While animal rights activists might rejoice at their causes being espoused by the powerful saffron armies pervading Sri Lanka’s political scene, it is getting harder to ignore the veiled attempts such campaigns are making to repress a trading community and their food culture.

The regime prefers to look benignly on these increasingly violent and frequent incidents targeting specific religious minorities in Sri Lanka. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who hosted newspaper editors to breakfast last Friday (21), dismissed the growing influence of these hard-line Sinhala Buddhist groups and offered a unique prescription to neutralise them. He urged a media blackout of the incidents against religious minorities and their places of worship, saying that without the necessary publicity the hard-line groups would fade into oblivion.

It is a prescription utilised by the media in the past, senior scribes recall, when isolated misdeeds of the military in the North and the East in the late 1970s went unreported in the name of preventing communal unrest. All the while, LTTE atrocities continued to be featured widely, creating an information gap that resulted in the misinformation campaigns carried out by Sinhala hard-line groups who whipped mobs into a frenzy to take arms against innocent Tamil civilians in the capital in July 1983.

On the other hand, keeping the activities of the present-day triumvirate leading the anti-minority charge – the Bodu Bala Sena, the Sinhala Ravaya and the Ravana Balaya – keeps the moderate sections of the populace wide awake and alert to potential sparks that could ignite communal flames.

Image-building concerns

The President’s rationale on the other hand might be motivated by his Government’s desperate need to control the damage caused to its image by its own anti-minority policies, including the latest attempt to slash the powers of the provincial councils denying any semblance of political autonomy to Tamil and Muslim populations living in the North and East.

The regime’s policies have led to the mushrooming of hard-line groups, legitimised their claims and strengthened their hand in an unprecedented way. In fact, despite the President’s apparent contempt for such groups, the fact that every one of them have taken up the call for the repeal of the 13th Amendment, adding to the chorus of ultra-nationalist voices within the ruling regime including its innermost circle, means that the Government is able to manipulate the groups to doing its bidding when necessary.

The Bodu Bala Sena group for instance, which made the loudest noise and attained infamy very quickly with its regular press briefings and rallies, had slunk into the shadows since their leaders took a much publicised trip to the US in April. The Bodu Bala Sena that charged a candlelight vigil calling for an end to hate speech, harassed the protestors endlessly on social media and took to storming private homes and churches with police escorts, went strangely quiet following the Sinhala and Tamil New Year.

Many analysts believed the group had overstretched itself and operated too publicly, calling far more attention to themselves and their covert supporters within the ruling administration than other hard-line groups that had operated in the shadows for much longer following the end of the war. The traction the BBS was getting in the press and its love of publicity made it easier to associate the group with all the anti-Muslim incidents being reported.

As the Islamic diplomatic corps in Colombo mobilised and the foreign press picked up on the increasing intolerance of minority religious groups in Sri Lanka, the impunity with which the BBS was operating made for some uncomfortable questions being asked of the Government. The BBS was therefore likely thrust back into obscurity to be trotted out again as and when required. And when it comes to the repeal of the 13th Amendment, the administration needs all the help it could get to build opinion in the country against the provincial council system.

Poll promises

In fact, it is quickly beginning to look as if the Government may have bitten off a little more than it can chew with regard to revising the 13th Amendment to the Constitution ahead of the Northern provincial council election. All signs show that the Rajapaksa administration is being pushed into a corner with regard to the absolute necessity to hold the poll in the North by its self-imposed September deadline.

For it is important to remember that while the international community, including New Delhi and Sri Lanka’s firm friend Tokyo, are holding Colombo to the September election promise, the very first commitment in this regard came from President Rajapaksa himself in repeated media interviews and promises to foreign visitors.

The President’s argument more than a year ago was that the Government’s ‘Uthuru Wasanthaya’ or Northern Spring development program required more time for completion before provincial administrations could be set up and the tasks handed over. Month after month, the President held fast to his September 2013 promise, believing his Government could keep using the reconstruction argument to push back the date further.

The flaw in the plan appeared when the US delegation in Geneva decided to uphold the President’s September poll promise in the text of its second resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council this year – allegedly at the behest of New Delhi.

Making matters worse, President Rajapaksa’s mid-UNHRC visit to Tokyo that was a major diplomatic success for the regime with Japan pledging millions in aid and support for Sri Lanka’s post-war recovery plans but it came with a caveat. Japan would dole out money and support Colombo by abstaining at the vote on the UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka but all bets were off if the Government failed to hold elections in the North by September this year.
The inclusion of the poll promise in the resolution was a reflection of the international community’s continued frustration with Sri Lanka’s broken promises since 2009 on matters relating to reconciliation and a final political solution to the ethnic problem.

More time

As the clock ticks on the September deadline however, the Government has decided it wants more time to continue its development work in the north and affect massive economic recovery in the Northern Province before it is willing to cede control to the Tamil National Alliance in a provincial election.

While the Central Government’s authority in the North will remain largely unchallenged, once a TNA led Provincial Council is constituted, the Government will no longer have supreme authority over all matters in the region, with some subjects clearly devolved to the provincial administrations by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. If the timing of the Northern election is non-negotiable internationally, then the Government must opt for the next best thing – a means to decapitate the provincial councils and ensure the centre’s writ remains unchallenged in the Tamil and Muslim dominated regions. Therefore, to begin with, the Government sought to introduce a 19th Amendment to the Constitution, repealing the power of adjoining provinces to merge to form a single administrative unit and allowing Parliament to pass laws relating to the powers of the Councils by removing the hindrances enshrined within the 13th Amendment to such usurping moves.

Backtracking

The resistance to the move within the President’s Cabinet of Ministers was unprecedented. Hastily abandoning the second revision, the President decided to go ahead with an urgent bill to repeal the merger clause, even though he was in no way certain of absolute support to the move from his coalition partners.
It has been three weeks since the Cabinet spokesman vowed that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution would be tabled in Parliament within four days of his statement, but something is holding the regime back. Needless to say, it is going about its usual business. Each provincial council controlled by the UPFA – except perhaps the East – will likely pass resolutions approving the Government’s proposals to dilute the 13th Amendment.

A similar tactic was adopted during the Divi Neguma fracas, as a show of strength by the ruling party. Its loudest mouthpieces are persistently reiterating the need to reform or repeal the 13th Amendment while the LTTE spectre has been predictably resurrected to create a fear psychosis about a provincial administration system that has been in existence for 26 years.

The Government’s constituent ally, the JHU, last week introduced the 21st Amendment to the Constitution as a private member’s bill, a piece of legislation that seeks to completely repeal the 13th Amendment. Analysts say the strange numbering of the amendment is no accident and likely points to a JHU pre-arrangement with the regime, that will bring the 19th and 20th Amendments to dilute the powers of the provinces and finally support the JHU bill, perhaps based on a ‘conscience vote’ to do away with the system altogether.

But all indications are that none of this will be quite the cakewalk the regime anticipated. New Delhi has come down hard on Colombo over its moves to dilute the 13th Amendment and has made it clear both privately and publicly that India would consider any such move a violation of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987.

The scheduled visit of Indian National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon in July will likely focus significantly on the 13th Amendment, while a visit of Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid is also being planned in New Delhi, ahead of the September poll deadline. New Delhi is no longer mincing its words either.

It has hitherto opted for quiet bilateral diplomacy and behind the scenes, manoeuvres to try to get Colombo to live up to its commitments to the Tamil people in the post war context. The statement by the Indian External Affairs Ministry was a public admonishment of Colombo’s attempts to renege on its promises to India and Indian Premier Manmohan Singh’s candid displeasure was not only expressed to the visiting TNA delegation last week but also made public very quickly in the Indian media.

The Left erupts

Yet, the storm building across the Palk Strait is nothing compared the political tsunami President Mahinda Rajapaksa is facing within his own coalition ever since he mooted his proposals to dilute the 13th Amendment. On Tuesday, the ruling coalition’s Leftist parties and Cabinet Ministers went public about their vehement opposition to the move to delay a political solution to the island’s ethnic struggle.

Cabinet Ministers Rajitha Senaratne, D.E.W. Gunesekera, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Tissa Vitharana were joined by SLFP strongman and MP Reginald Cooray and Communist Party MP Chandrasiri Gajadheera at a dramatic media conference at the Lanka Sama Samaja Party Headquarters on Tuesday. Refusing to play nice about their hard-line coalition allies the JHU and the NFF, the Ministers boldly called the move what it was – a blatant attempt to scuttle devolution and assert Sinhala political hegemony over the people of the North.

National Integration Minister Nanayakkara was the most outspoken over the move, saying the JHU and the NFF were opposing the 13th Amendment because neither party could ever contest polls in the north. “Why can’t they? That is because they pursue a Sinhala only ideology,” Nanayakkara said.
The Minister said that the solution of these two parties according to their political ideology was to prevent the Northern election. “Their path to unifying Sri Lanka is to keep the North permanently under the rule of the Sinhala administration. That is why they want a military officer as a Governor of that province. They want a military administered North,” Minister Nanayakkara charged.

The Ministers called for a strengthening of the provincial council system and vowed to defeat the constitutional amendment to dilute the powers of the provinces using a silent majority they claimed resided within the ruling party. The Leftist groups are also expected to hold discussions with the TNA in the coming days regarding the proposals to dilute the 13th Amendment. Less vociferously, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress also remains adamant to oppose the Government move to reduce the powers of the provinces.

Acting with customary bombastic haste, the ruling regime has painted itself into a corner with regard to the Northern poll and the need to dilute the powers of the provincial councils. Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya believes that signs are rampant that a poll will be declared in the coming days and has gone so far as to put a date on the election in the North.
With its options running out, the Government’s only hope may be to go through with the poll and wait until the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo scheduled for November is concluded before it attempts to tinker with the 13th Amendment again.

That is if saner counsel prevails. If on the other hand it chooses to pursue the current more reckless course with regard to amending the 13th before elections in the North, it will put everything on the line – CHOGM, its relationship with New Delhi – and perhaps even the survival of its own coalition. (Courtesy Daily FT)

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