Notwithstanding all the glib assurances by Sri Lankan politicians, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa, on the cohesiveness of its people in this island nation, ground realities tell another story.
The Tamil nation, whose struggle for a separate homeland began in 1983, were long targeted by government forces until the massive military maneuvres by the Sri Lankan armed forces came to a head and defeated their representative military unit, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in 2009.
An estimated 100,000 civilians were killed in the 26-year struggle, and there have been charges of war crimes against the Sri Lankan government during the final phase of the battle where an estimated 40,000 civilians were indiscriminately killed.
In 2011, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released findings based on a study by experts of the 2009 events on the island. It indicated that along with the LTTE, government forces “conducted military operations with flagrant disregard for the protection, rights, welfare and lives of civilians and failed to respect the norms of international law”.
There was also a recommendation that an international investigative body be established to bring the war criminals to justice. The Sri Lankan government quickly dismissed the findings of the experts and scoffed at their recommendations.
A US report in 2013 said that the Sri Lankan government’s human rights record was rampant with “major human rights problems”, which included involuntary disappearances and unlawful killings by government security forces and pro-government militia groups.
The US State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2012 stated that “the major human rights problems were attacks on and harassment of civil society activists, persons viewed as LTTE sympathizers, and journalists by persons allegedly tied to the government, creating an environment of fear and self-censorship, involuntary disappearances as well as lack of accountability”.
The government prosecuted a very small number of officials implicated in human rights abuses, but is yet to hold anyone accountable.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2013 identified “Sri Lanka as a country of concern with regard to human rights violation”, and guilty of increasing violent “campaigns against religious minorities”.
Both the US and the UK charged the Sri Lankan government with failing to conduct impartial investigations into the alleged war crimes committed by government forces against Tamil civilians, and that the government’s reconciliation committee was “deeply flawed, and did not meet international standards for such commissions, and has failed to systematically inquire into alleged abuses”. Tamils today are still waiting for justice.
Buoyed by the government’s indifference or perhaps encouragement of the violent crimes against the Tamil minority, a militant offshoot of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority has in recent times set its sights on the other minorities — the Muslims and Christians of the island — who unlike the Tamils have not been involved in any struggle for a separate homeland and have lived peacefully along with all other groups.
These militant Buddhists, operating under the banner Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and headquartered in the capital city of Colombo, have organized many campaigns and acts of violence against the island’s Muslim and Christian minority groups.
In February this year, the BBS general-secretary Galagoda Gnanasara warned that “this is a government created by Sinhala Buddhists and it must remain Sinhala Buddhist. This is a Sinhala country and Sinhala government. Democratic and pluralistic values are killing the Sinhala race”.
Through campaigns of terror, the BBS and their militant followers have looted, burned and defiled religious citadels of both minorities. Their aim is simple. They want to rid the island of anything or anyone that is not Sinhalese Buddhist, and protect the island’s Sinhalese-Buddhist character.
In a sharp departure from the normally peaceful teachings of Buddha, these religious terrorist Buddhists are not averse to violence against individuals of other faiths and exhort their followers to do the same.
Writer Don Manu warns: “From the first virulent flow of vituperative slime that cascaded from the steps of the BMICH — where they [BBS] held their first convention last year in July — to seep into the nation’s collective thought stream, their venomous flood has continued unabated and, though it irrigates hotbeds of faith’s animalistic fervor sprouting violent passions and threatens to rip the fragile fabric of religious harmony, no serious effort has been taken by the government to dam its ebullient tide.
“For a nation still convalescing from the horrors of a 30-year war provoked by racial discrimination to complacently accept in its stride the potential birth of another war, this time based on religious acrimony, borders on criminal negligence. To acquiesce and watch it grow unchecked, to look askance while its parasitic tendrils that have lost its taproot spread around to ultimately throttle the body politic is to invite disaster on an unimaginable scale.”
At present, all the positive vibes coming from Rajapaksa’s government on his stern actions against the Buddhist militants lack credibility as actions against minorities indicate otherwise. The BBS are the new Buddhist terror group and their actions will undoubtedly give rise to the normally placid Muslim and Christian and force them into acts of defiance, with no other means of survival.
The policies of the present government prefer to sweep the antics of the BBS under the carpet at the expense of the abuse suffered by its minorities. It is the president and his cohorts who should be brought to book, or else the island will soon sink into another sectarian conflict that could well last for decades.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena
This article first appeared in Gulf News, a leading newspaper of the UAE. Click here to go to the original.
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Former US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, Senior Research Professor at John Hopkins University Dr. Daniel Markey, Ikram Sehgal and other foreign policy experts hold a candid discussion on Pakistan-US relations.