Opinion

Aluthagma and the BBS

[ezcol_1third]Given that I am now living outside of Sri Lanka, I don’t often write about Sri Lanka on this blog because I acknowledge that there are limits to what I know about what is going on. Things I am not aware of because I am not on the ground in Colombo to hear or see them that might be factors for example and unreported online.

But it doesn’t change the fact that I am always interested in and affected by what happens in Sri Lanka. I acknowledge my position now as a member of the diaspora but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to know or don’t care. I do.

Which is why the Aluthgama rioting horrifies me. Which is why the Bodu Balu Sena horrifies me. Three people have died and 78 have been injured according to this source.

When they first showed up it was obvious from the start that they had a racist agenda as Indi Samarajiva points out. And you can’t quite dispute that when there are videos like this where their leaders happily vilify and attack those who are different to them.

[/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_2third_end]What you need to know:

  • The  BBS leader stated that Muslims would come to an end  prior to the rally on Sunday, June 15.
  • There was an alleged attack on a monk’s driver by a Muslim but no proof has been offered.
  • Tension broke out at the rally in Aluthgama on Sunday with Muslim owned shops and houses burnt down.
  • Government sources have stated that 3 have died and 78 have been injured.
  • Police protection has commenced at all mosques and the local media has been requested to refer to the situation as a “tense situation” to prevent reprisals. A police curfew has been placed over Aluthgama. [/ezcol_2third_end]

From the Colombo Telegraph, the speech:

For those of you who are not Sinhala speaking:

“This country still has a Sinhalese Police, this country still has a Sinhalese Army. It will be the end of all [Muslims] if a Muslim at least lays a finger on a Sinhalese,”

It’s not that hard to see how what he says could be akin to a threat of genocide. Sir, you are a disgrace to the religion, the country and you are an anachronism from centuries ago.

And from Kandy TV Official’s Youtube channel and the Colombo Telegraph, footage of the riots:

As Indi Samarajiva points out, it is hard to find any information on exactly what is going on from the local media outlets suggesting a possible media blackout with the reports that all Muslim mosques will now have police protection and that media outlets are now being asked to report it as a “tense situation”.

I can understand these moves as moves designed to prevent anything from escalating into another Black July like series of riots and pogroms. But as this post on how social media broke the news during the blackout makes the well justified point that ALL the people needed to hear from their leaders and have access to information not just the minority online on these channels.

I am NOT the only person stating that this something that could easily escalate into the equivalent and that it points to the idea that a lot of racial tension never just disappeared the way people expected it to with the end of the war. I made this point in 2009 – that we would have to rebuild and address a lot of socio-economic issues so that a civil war could never happen again before we could actually properly celebrate the war being over (because for so many people the effects of it are still ongoing) and I got attacked for saying so.

It’s hopeful to think that this event may finally convince people that inciting people to violence is a crime and not just something that can be tucked away under “freedom of speech” or the “right to voice an opinion” or the “right to political and religious expression”. You tend to lose those rights and freedoms the moment you incite people to attack others.

I often get a lot of vitriol in the comments if I blog about Sri Lanka stating that I am a liberal (oh and because I am a woman or because I am a member of the diaspora) and therefore some sort of threat and not really that important (make up your mind please – I can’t be both insignificant with my opinions and yet also dangerous).

But a lot of my ideas, though they may seem dangerous/insignificant to some who blame my liberal attitude, are actually in the Sri Lankan constitution. You know, ideas like equality for all regardless of gender, race, religion and so on.

And so the idea about losing your freedom of expression and speech rights due to the creation of political and racial tension and the disruption of others’ civil liberties? No, that’s not some newfangled Western invention. It’s the one we agreed on putting in the constitution when we became independent. A Western notion? Yes. Best (and possibly depending on your opinion and level of cynicism, only) thing we have done since independence to promote peace? Definitely.

So here’s Article 14 from our constitution:

Freedom of Speech, assembly, association, movement, &c.

  1.  (1) Every citizen is entitled to –

(a) the freedom of speech and expression including publication;

(b) the freedom of peaceful assembly;

(c) the freedom of association;

(d) the freedom to form and join a trade union;

(e) the freedom, either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching;

(f) the freedom by himself or in association with others to enjoy and promote his own culture and to use his own language;

(g) the freedom to engage by himself or in association with others in any lawful occupation, profession, trade, business or enterprise;

(h)  the freedom of movement and of choosing his residence within Sri Lanka; and

(i) the freedom to return to Sri Lanka.

(2) A person who, not being a citizen of any other country, has been permanently and legally resident in Sri Lanka immediately prior to the commencement of the Constitution and continues to be so resident shall be entitled, for a period of ten years from the commencement of the Constitution, to the rights declared and recognized by paragraph (1) of this Article.

So first off, the BBS has it wrong. Muslims are welcome. So are other races and groups and whatever religion they choose to practice. They are welcome and equal.

Here’s where the BBS slips up. Article 15 states that the government can by law restrict the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly of ANY group in Article 14 ONLY if it is a threat to public harmony.

Restrictions on fundamental Rights.

15. (1) The exercise and operation of the fundamental rights declared and recognized by Articles 13 (5) and 13 (6) shall be subject only to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of national security. For the purposes of this paragraph “law” includes regulations made under the law for the time being relating to public security.

(2) The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14(1) (a) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony or in relation to parliamentary privilege, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

(3) The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14(1) (b) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony.

(4) The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14(1) (c) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests, of racial and religious harmony or national economy.

That would be NOT the Muslims but the BBS that would get restricted.

Article 14 and 15 of the constitution is hereThe entire constitution for thy reading pleasure and education is here.

I hope it does lead to an arrest of the BBS leaders but I now wonder if this is going to be tricky to navigate politically without creating more tension because frankly it should have been done when the BBS first showed up on the scene instead of letting the situation get more complicated. If they are arrested, will there be reprisals from their followers? Like it or not, they clearly have followers – people who agree with their ideas and agenda. And that is the scary part of this – it’s not just one or two or a handful of Buddhist monks with racist ideas, it’s a following that have come to believe in the BBS. Take away their leaders and you may leave them scattered with no organisation and no direction or you might have them reacting with violence.

As Buddhist friend once told me “Their name itself tells you what they want and it has nothing to do with Buddhist principles.”

It also makes me hopeful to see so many denounce the BBS because it means that people are openly against racists and racism. It means that there has been a shift in the mindset. Well, kind of.

It’s heartening that so many can clearly see the problem with the BBS including quite a lot of Sinhala Buddhists who are as horrified as anyone else is. But there are still people who think differently (not the least of which are the BBS followers) and that is equally as horrifying.

Because even if the BBS is disbanded and there are no reprisals from their followers, then what militant group with a racist agenda is going to spring up next to take its place? With plenty of followers to choose from who feel disenfranchised and disempowered enough that they will follow blindly the next person who, with rhetoric, promises them a better future that they have been cheated out of and they clearly deserve?

It won’t stop till we figure out a better way of making sure people don’t have any reason to feel disempowered or disenfranchised because they actually have the opportunities and abilities to have a better way of life. Which is why I think it’s important we think about tough things like whether we are actually doing well on the war reparations front, on development, on socio-economic policies that positively affect all levels of society.

You may choose to disagree. Plenty do. But right now it’s the BBS and their consequences of their actions that horrify me. That and the possibility that even if the BBS are disbanded, there will be something else to take its place.

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is currently based in Melbourne.

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