Sri Lanka has just experienced the > worst communal violence in decades but you wouldn’t always know it from the behaviour of its politicians. Six members of the main Opposition party went on a fact-finding mission to look into the well-being of the animals in Dehiwala Zoo, in particular the deaths of lions and hippopotamuses. No matter that four humans had just died, 80 injured and hundreds of properties including at least 17 mosques attacked, leaving thousands homeless. A few days earlier, Muslims living near the zoo had been planning to evacuate after wild rumours spread that their houses could also be attacked by the extreme Sinhala chauvinist group, the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Brigade).
In denial Denial has reached surreal proportions in the paradise island. After the media announced a curfew for the troubled areas on Sunday evening there was complete silence on radio, TV, mainstream news websites and even the hyperactive SMS news subscription sites, known for sending out texts every time the Sri Lankan cricket team scores a six. The websites and social media channels of all government institutions just went strangely silent, including those of the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Defence and the Sri Lankan Army site.
“It was literally nothing. It was bizarre. It was unprecedented as a response. It was no response,” says Sanjana Hattotuwa who runs the citizen journalism site, ‘Groundviews,’ in Colombo, who was literally begging the government to react to events. There were a couple of tweets from the President and that was all for three days as the anti-Muslim violence inflamed by the Buddhist monks of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) continued to simmer. The Rajapaksa brothers said nothing publicly and when the President returned home from Bolivia on the fourth day, he just made a few statements about the need for reconstruction after visiting the area. He also presided over the inauguration of a >Buddhist Advisory Council and spoke of the need “to protect Buddhism” from threats and then >told a visiting delegation of Buddhists that it was only those who couldn’t bear to see the island at peace who spread false information abroad.
The government says it will investigate but resists calls to ban or prosecute the BBS for inciting racial and religious hatred. There are reports that Muslims who went to police stations to report incidents have themselves been arrested on suspicion of being involved in the violence. The only punitive action seems to have come from Facebook, which took the BBS page offline after a flood of complaints.
Sri Lankans have been asking why there has been nothing from their own government addressing the grief of thousands of Muslim survivors now sheltering in schools and mosques while there were swift messages of condolence and concern from the U.S. Embassy, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the U.N., Canada, the European Union and religious and diaspora groups.
“This is a community that’s devastated,” says Mr. Hattotuwa, “not just in terms of bricks and mortar but utterly traumatised and now they’re being asked to return to homes that don’t exist. The fear is of a degree I have not encountered before. People talk to you in hushed tones and it’s palpable.”
Many Sri Lankans do not recognise the extremist BBS as embodying Buddhist values at all, but they are increasingly unwilling to speak out about their opposition to it. Recent reports of an attack on a monk who had been critical of the BBS sent shock waves through Sinhala communities; local media initially quoted the police as saying the cleric had been kidnapped and left bound and naked by a river after an attempt to circumcise him with a knife. In a country that holds the Buddhist clergy in the highest respect it was extraordinary that obscene comments appeared on Facebook attacking the monk for being too soft on Muslims, saying he deserved the brutal treatment. Subsequently the police said the monk had confessed that he had staged the attack and self-inflicted his wounds. The monk is to be charged with filing a false complaint to the police.
Element of paranoia
Few want to challenge the BBS because they know it has been nurtured and protected by those in power and therefore had impunity for its actions. The Rajapaksa brothers have openly attended their functions, allowed them to have airtime on television and constantly echo the BBS rhetoric about the need to protect Buddhism under threat. Indeed a cabinet minister, Champika Ranawaka, was >filmed warning that the Muslim population was expanding so rapidly that they would soon take over the country — repeating the refrain of the BBS. This paranoia about Muslim population growth is also shared by Myanmar’s 969 Movement whose leader dubs himself the Buddhist bin Laden and recently befriended the leader of the BBS in Sri Lanka.
On social media, Sri Lankans have repeatedly noted the similarity of recent events to 1983, when the President of the day also remained silent during the pogrom against Tamils — the turning point in the civil war which sparked an exodus of Tamils abroad. The scale might be different this time but there were other parallels. Muslims complained that the mob had local knowledge and generally targeted only Muslim-owned properties and that the police and the paramilitary Special Task Force on several occasions stood by and allowed the attacks to happen. Instead local people credited the Army with finally bringing the situation under control. A few politicians have been asking why the Sri Lankan government allowed the BBS to hold a rally in Aluthgama in the first place and then move through the Muslim quarters when it was so clearly provocative given recent tensions there. Some Muslim groups had actually written to the authorities warning that there could be riots and begging them not to allow the gathering. When so many students, trade union activists and families of the disappeared are denied the right to hold peaceful protests it does seem extraordinary that the BBS was allowed to bus in hundreds of supporters.
Some commentators have suggested that this is all about whipping up nationalist sentiment before the next elections; others that it is about deflecting attention from the U.N. inquiry into Sri Lankan war crimes. One theory is that the plan is to instigate a violent Muslim reaction that could be portrayed as an Islamic terror threat and used to woo back western support, while at the same time not alienating the Buddhist hardline at home. Already there has been talk by government ministers of al-Qaeda infiltration into Sri Lanka and attempts to blame Muslims for attacking Sinhalese. Extraordinarily, an official government communiqué to the U.N. Human Rights Council on the issue failed to mention the BBS at all, and took for granted as fact that there had been a Muslim attack on a Buddhist monk, when that has yet to be established.
Attacking the messenger A handful of brave professional and citizen journalists were responsible for the bulk of the news coming out and they now feel very exposed. They are being attacked in the state media as “vultures” and “trained agents” of subversion, while some reporters received death threats or were physically attacked when trying to do their job. The site ‘Groundviews’ and others did their best to sift, filter and corroborate news, erring on the side of caution for example if the meta data of a photograph caused concern. They constantly had to deny rumours and misinformation, calming panic and calling for calm. “Social media was the only coverage,” says Mr. Hattotuwa, “It was self correcting if there were flaws, but it was mostly in English.”
What has shocked many is how easy it had been to provoke the fears of the Sinhala majority and how deep the racism against Muslims now runs, especially among the young. Sinhala language comment pages online are awash with vitriol. ‘Groundviews’ has been monitoring 35 Facebook fan pages and found the hate speech against Muslims has increased exponentially.
Of course it’s not clear if the venom spewed out on cyberspace actually translates into violent acts in the real world. The bulk of the users are very young Sinhalese, many attending the leading schools of Colombo. Much of what is online in Sinhala chat pages is offensive.
“It's the stuff of nightmares, the glimpse into hate, the sheer bile is mind-boggling,” says Mr. Hattotuwa, adding, “we need to coin a word to describe how bad it is.”
(A former BBC correspondent in Colombo, Frances Harrison is the author of Still Counting the Dead, Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War. )