A saffron tinge

I was down with a high-fever when I created Sri Lanka’s first online response against Islamophobia, back in April 2012. News reports of a violent mob in Dambulla, led by the then Mahanayaka of the Rangiri Dambulu chapter Inamaluwe Sumangala thero, proceeded to deface and destroy a mosque they deemed illegal. The basis of the illegality was highly questionable, but this didn’t stop the monks who were part of the mob engaging in a violence that beggared belief. As flagged on a hastily setup site I created to gather signatures against the violence and the very real threat, at the time, of its spread and escalation, there was a member of the sangha who disrobed and exposed himself, in public, in front of the mosque. In one video, still online, Ven. Inamaluwe Sumangala thero suggested that the maniacal mob was actually a shramadaanaya, and that destroying the mosque was something that they should in fact be helped by the (then) government. In a video broadcast in a television news segment at the time, there is a particularly chilling exchange between the erstwhile Chief Prelate of the Dambulla Temple and a Hindu resident of the area. The female, who is not once disrespectful in her submissions to the Prelate, says that from when she was small, she had worshipped at a Kovil in the area. In a menacing Sinhala idiom that loses a lot of its original venom and violence in translation, the Chief Prelate threatens to either remove the Kovil, or have it removed along with the homes of the Hindu residents, noting that they are all there illegally. The Chief Prelate goes on to note, through a Sinhala adage, that not only are the crows attempting to fly over their heads, they are now attempting to enter the nest as well – a clear reference to the Hindus and Muslims in the areas. The woman assures the Chief Prelate, with great deference even in light of an incendiary expression, that there is nothing for him to fear about their worship. However, the Prelate’s answer is again menacing in Sinhala, noting that she can take her gods wherever they want to, but away from the sacred ground of the Temple.

At the time, the petition generated around one thousand six hundred responses from a wide section of society. All of the comments and signatures, coming to around two hundred pages, were printed, bound and delivered to all relevant line ministries, the Dambulla Temple and the President’s Office with a covering note expressing the need for the State to respond to the violent extremism. The only response from the President’s Office was a letter acknowledging the receipt of the petition. Other initiatives followed by those concerned around the growing fascism including the Rally for Unity, a collective of young individuals who created a platform that attracted, at the time, a diverse group of people to champion diversity, tolerance and co-existence. The late. Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero was one of the movement’s first supporters, against what at the time was the heady rise of BBS violence, and with near total impunity. The tragic 2014 anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama cemented the perception that the government at the time was closely linked to the BBS, which instigated the violence, if only because for an incredible length of time – around three days – no mainstream newspaper in Sri Lanka dared to report on the scale or the full import of the violence.

Much was expected from the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in holding the fascism of the BBS at bay, at least, soon after being elected to power. The erosion of that optimism has been steady, and not all that slow. In 2014, leading up to and as a platform to mount opposition against the incumbents in power, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunge launched a public appeal for tolerance, pluralism and diversity, which at the time, the UNP signed up to and very publicly committed to uphold. The document was also placed in the public domain for comments, and was one which the former government was also approached with. The many collectives on Facebook in particular in support of the BBS at the height of its frothing hate campaigns transformed into anti-Sirisena, anti-Wickremesinghe groups at the Presidential and Parliamentary elections respectively. The votes of those who are partial to extremism were never those courted by, or given to the current government. Which adds to the tragedy around the degree to which it has pandered to the likes of the BBS. Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa became the new champion of extremism in government, enjoying a degree of impunity as he openly championed, courted and coordinated statements and actions with the BBS that clearly suggested he was supported by others, and by powerful, covert power blocs deeply embedded in a government that was overtly still opposed to racism.

Three key studies around dangerous speech online, and in particular on Facebook in Sinhala, conducted from 2014 to 2016 by the Centre for Policy Alternatives suggest that proponents of extremism – from the BBS to the Sinha-Le movement remained active online, with targets of their campaign focussing on leaders of the present government, as well as minority faith and ethnic groups. The calls to violence aren’t just against brick and mortar structures like mosques. They are thinly veiled calls to maim, kill and destroy individuals, groups and communities the campaigns clearly identify as being existentialist threats to the country, and its card-carrying Sinhala-Buddhist credentials. The continuous manufacture of this dangerous speech online generates a high-level of engagement through ‘likes’ on Facebook, sharing and commenting. The inability of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration to give political leadership to stem extremism has strengthened a fringe lunacy online into a more mainstream discourse that appeals to, and first reaches, a politically active demographic.

In just the past weeks, the documented violence against business establishments and mosques resulted in unequivocal statements from the Canadian, US, UK, EU and UN representatives in Sri Lanka around the need to secure Sri Lanka’s democratic potential against extremism. Sadly, strong political leadership in 2017 seems to clearly come from the diplomatic community and multi-lateral organisations more than Parliament, the President or Prime Minister. Despite an arrest order and a ban on travel last week, the leader of the BBS remains at large, with rumours openly published in the media – to date uncontested by government – which suggest he has sought refuge in a safe house belonging to a powerful member of the Cabinet. And so, the farce continues. In the North, Tamils and hapless families of former combatants, as well as those who have no clue about the fate of their loved ones who were forcibly abducted or disappeared, are denied the space to mourn, and worse, treated as suspects. The simple act of a name in carved in stone as a way to remember is enough to raise national security fears. In the South however, the violence instigated by the BBS and the continued support for this extremism from within government passes muster. There is a clear, real problem.

We have a President, Prime Minister and IGP, who with the full weight of State apparatus, still cannot arrest a fascist monk. This is a script that allows extremism to seed, spread and succeed, through the theatre of the absurd. And we are all hopeless spectators in it.

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First published in The Sunday Island newspaper, 28 May 2017.

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