09 June 2017

Is the Government pressing the ‘Snooze’ button on arson?

Inaction on ‘Aluthgama’, near silence on Bodu Bala Sena (BBC) rhetoric and a government servant (Gotabhaya Rajapaksa) not being taken to task for accepting an invitation to open the office of a political organization (BBS), and other acts of omission and commission raised the ire of Muslims in Sri Lanka.  That was during the tenure of Mahinda Rajapaksa and some claim that all this pushed the Muslims of the country to vote for Maithripala Sirisena en bloc.  

Crime and punishment, one can call it.  Not through accepted legal processes but through the vote; the crime being complicity by way of silence/inaction.  

But that was a long time ago.  That government was defeated.  The new government, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe outfit I mean, vowed to end all that. For a while it seemed that they were half way serious.  Not any more.  

Ven Galabodaaththe Gnanasara Thero, the voice of the BBS is still at large although there’s a warrant for his arrest.  Is this purely incompetence on the part of the police or is there some truth in the rumor that a powerful minister in this government is protecting him?  We don’t know.  

Meanwhile, Colombo Telegraph puts the problem in graphic terms: ‘

A shop, a day’.  That’s one Muslim-owned shop being torched every day.  That’s a rate of violence.  That’s a rate of violence that has a communal signature.  

Let us not be hasty and point fingers just yet.  We cannot say ‘the BBS did it’ although their rhetoric and past record clearly indicates ‘incitement’ which could have spurred someone or several people or even an organized group to indulge in arson.  ‘Incitement’ is not a crime since we don’t have anti hate speech legislation and probably cannot have such ‘safeguards’ without also banning religious texts such as the Old Testament and the Quran. We can ask why the Mahanayaka Theros have been silent on Ven Gnanasara Thero because they are mandated to apply the vinaya rules on the bikkhus, but non-application (for whatever reason) is no crime.  

We an leave all that aside if we want, but it is still a discussion that needs to take place.  

However, if we stick to the basics of law and order and choose to be blind to the communalist mark of these violent and increasingly disturbing acts, we still have to ask ‘what is this government doing about all this?’  

As of now, the only logical answer to this question (What is the government doing?) is, ‘nothing’.  

When ‘Aluthgama’ happened, in an editorial published in ‘The Nation,’ I made certain observations where I blamed the then IGP for irresponsibility and called for his resignation.  A quick recap could be useful and for this reason I reproduce the following sections of that piece:

If there was convoluted justification of last Sunday’s violence and if justification spurred further violence the blame falls squarely on the IGP for making the following (irresponsible) statement: ‘Three Muslims in a trishaw assaulted the driver and the Buddhist monk. The Buddhist monk was in hospital receiving treatment for two days and then discharged.  He was to be taken to the temple in a procession when the incident occurred.’ 

The IGP offered speculation as fact. That’s incompetent and irresponsible. Yesterday the Muslim-owned ‘No Limit’ outlet in Panadura was torched.  While it is not clear how it all happened, it is clear that the sequence of events prompt people to connect dots and reach conclusion, wrong though they may be.  Tinkering with the truth and lying outright causes friction, throw out sparks and cause infernos that are hard to put out.

It is wrong to blame it all on one person, but it is equally wrong not to point out those who provided fuel and matchstick, tossed in extra firewood and refused to douse it even though they had all the water necessary to do the job.  We have to take issue with the IGP.  He must resign forthwith.

There are dots here and they will be connected.  Wrong perhaps, but disturbingly, perhaps correctly too.  All the more reason to err on the side of caution. All the more reason to spare no pains to ensure that culprits are brought to book not because this is the most effective way of insuring against future attacks of this kind (it may be or it may not be) but because it is the right thing to do and what this government solemnly pledged to do.  

We can of course debate about one extremism feeding off another and ponder the chicken-or-egg conundrum.  One could argue that this is a relevant discussion and I will not disagree.  One can say that extremism should be objected to and insist that such objection should be lawful.  That is however a different matter as far as the rights of citizenship and the responsibilities of relevant state agencies are concerned.  

The Police must act.  The Ministry of Law and Order must act.  The Minister must act.  The primacy of the law should be clearly evident.  This is not the moment for sloth (if that’s the case).  It is certainly not the moment for sweeping things under the carpet (as seems to be the case) and especially not for purposes of political convenience (a government with an abysmal performance rating needs distraction — this we know).  Failure to do so would see ‘useful distraction’ bleeding into inter-communal violence and eventually to anarchy.  

Alright, let’s say ‘that’s going a bit overboard’.  Fine.  Still, if are required to be stone cold sober and leave ‘the political’ out of it, we still have a question of blatant disregard for the law.  Arson is a serious matter.  Destroying private property is a serious matter. When the destroyed properties happen to belong to members of a particular community it is an even more serious matter.  

“Arrest this!” 

This is what we have to demand of the government at this point, even as we (as citizens) remain alert and support all efforts to a) prevent such acts and b) support the law enforcement authorities in their work.  

“Tomorrow, where?” is a question that many are probably asking.  If it is not answered, tomorrow we will see a report saying “here”.  Surely, this government can do better?  It must. Or else, its complicity will be suspected.

This article was first published in Colombo Telegraph on June 9, 2017