When carnage struck Serendip on Easter Sunday, BBC Today presenter Nick Robinson, contrary to world opinion, came out with the startling suggestion that the attack might have been the work of Sinhala Buddhists. His lone voice was drowned in the cacophony of Islamic terrorism theories.
After the suicide bombings that left 258 people dead and more than 500 wounded, Sri Lanka witnessed a surge in fake news and the government shut down internet access to the people in the island nation. Information now available in public domain raises serious questions about President Maithripala Sirisena and his actions since the carnage.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party, constituted a Parliamentary Select Committee with Ananda Kumarasiri, MP, as chairman. Sirisena convened an emergency Cabinet meeting to oppose the PSC. The President, who is leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in the present ruling dispensation, sacked Sisira Mendis, chief of national intelligence, for testifying before the PSC.
Halfway through his testimony, the live telecast of the proceedings was stopped abruptly on orders of the President. According to sources close to Mendis, the President wanted him to own responsibility for suppressing intelligence warnings about the Easter bombings and promised a plum ambassadorial posting. At the same time, he disallowed the police, military and intelligence personnel from testifying before the PSC.
The President is holding the Defence portfolio. To add to the confusion, Dayasiri Jayasekara, general secretary of the SLFP, in a television programme on Derana TV, made a startling disclosure that Taj Samudra Hotel in Colombo was also included in the list of places to be attacked on the Easter Sunday morning of 21 April, but did not detonate the bomb because there was a certain group of people there to be saved.
“We know who they are. I will reveal it later. I can clearly state that there was a foreign force behind this terror attack,” Jayasekara said. It beggars the imagination as to how much the politicians in power knew in advance and did nothing to defuse the situation.
Depositions before the PSC has revealed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was complacent while his military unit worked closely with the National Thowheeth Jamaath and even financed it. Zahran Hashim, mastermind of the 21 April bombings, campaigned for Sirisena in the January 2015 presidential election. Contrary to public perception, Sirisena has been in cohort with Rajapaksa although he contested against the former President and won.
Hashim is credited with preaching Wahabist extremism and influencing Muslim youth to terrorist activities. Consequent to the carnage, a saffron- draped Buddhist monk who is also an MP belonging to the UNP, The Venerable Athuraliya Rathana Thera, after going on a “fast unto death” outside Kandy’s sacred Dalada Maligawa, issued an ultimatum to the government demanding, among other things, all Muslim Governors and ministers should resign forthwith, failing which, he warned, there would be sanakeli (fireworks).
ALAM Hizbullah and Azath Sally, Governors of the Eastern and the Western Provinces respectively, and nine ministers belonging to the minority meekly submitted their resignations. Only after the resignations were accepted, the monk called off his “fast unto death.” An official gazette notification was issued by the Presidential Secretariat on the resignations of nine Muslim ministers, state ministers and deputy ministers who “voluntarily quit their portfolios,” effective 3 June.
A lone Buddhist monk is all it took to relegate the political power of the Muslim community to a secondary status in Sri Lanka. Rathana Thera was released from prison only a fortnight earlier on a pardon by the President. He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for contempt of court, but had served less than 10 months.
A fortnight after the resignations, two Muslim ministers, Kabir Hashim and Abdul Haleem, both belonging to the UNP, were reinstated. The other seven sacked ministers belong to the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress or the All-Ceylon Makkal Congress. The only prominent Sinhala politician to challenge the Buddhist monk was Mangala Samaraweera, Sri Lanka’s finance minister.
Though Sri Lanka has been a bastion of syncretic multiculturism, hegemonic tendency is writ large in the DNA of every Sinhalese Buddhist. The millionstrong mostly Hindu descendants of Indian plantation workers were the first victims of the majoritarian arrogance of Buddhist hegemony in Sri Lanka. By a simple stroke of the pen they were deprived of their citizenship soon after Sri Lanka attained independence from Britain in 1948.
Only after Lal Bahadur Shastri became Prime Minister in 1964, India stepped in to bail the stateless victims out by arranging repatriation of a majority of the hapless people. The Tamils, who constituted one-fifth of Sri Lanka’s population and have been in the island nation as long as the Sinhalese have been, were left to the mercy of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism.
Their fight for their equal rights through peaceful, Gandhian methods for a quarter of a century yielded no results. Only after all peaceful attempts failed, the Tamil youth took to arms and the LTTE came into being in 1976. A 30-year civil war ended in the annihilation of the LTTE and the Tamils have lost their right to self-determination.
Successive Sri Lanka governments show their hostility to the Tamils by celebrating 9 May as Victory Day. It was on that day in 2009 the LTTE leader Prabhakaran was killed and the LTTE annihilated. The same trend is witnessed now in the way Islamophobia is deployed in the politics of Sri Lanka to put the Muslims in place. Addressing a public meeting in Mullaitivu on 9 June, the last bastion of the LTTE where it was vanquished by the Sri Lankan Army with the support of India, Sirisena urged the people not to leave any room for a “Muslim Prabhakaran” to be born.
With the presidential election due in December, to be followed by parliamentary and provincial elections, Sinhala Buddhist fundamentalism is consolidating itself as the ultimate trendsetter in Sri Lanka. The Buddhist fundamentalists or the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony are very well organised. After 2009, more than 230 Buddhist temples have come up in the Northern Province where none existed before nor were there any Buddhists. Recently, they transported a big Buddha statue to Mullaitivu where a Hindu Pillaiyar temple is situated.
If the Sri Lankan military occupying the entire Northern and Eastern Provinces wants to have Buddhist temples for its soldiers, it could do so within its bases. But that is not the real reason for planting temples in non-Buddhist areas. The government and its armed forces are actively involved in accelerating the spread of Buddhism.
Tamil residents of the strategic Thennaimaravadi village bordering the Northern and the Eastern Provinces in Trincomalee district are facing Sinhala colonisation and Buddhicisation of Tamil heritage sites. Both the legal avenue and political appeals have limited value as the authorities are acting under Emergency Regulations.
Former Chief Minister of Northern Provincial Council Justice CV Wigneswaran has written to the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, urging him to appoint a United Nations Monitoring Mission to record ongoing human rights violations in the North-East of Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lanka military has put up 10 check-posts between the Tamil-dominated areas of Vavuniyaa and Jaffna. These checkposts have become sites of countless human rights violations, mainly targeted harassment of Tamil women and arbitrary detentions, Justice Wigneswaran said in his letter to the UN Secretary-General.
(The writer is a veteran journalist and former Director of The Statesman Print Journalism School)