BY FRANCES BULATHSINGHALA
On March 16, an online event was hosted by an international human rights organisation- the Universal Human Rights Council (UHRC–Geneva) and themed Why the UN Resolution is a Necessity?. It was referring to the United Nations Resolution on Sri Lanka. The notice that was circulated pertaining to the event had the following description;
‘Universal Human Rights Council (UHRC) Geneva is hosting the 3rd parallel side event in order to bring awareness to the international community about the Systematic and Progressive Minority Rights violations in Sri Lanka. The Special UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief will also speak at the event.” It was announced that a documentary film titled the Tearful Trail will be screened at this cyber event. This film was about the alleged rights violations in Lanka against the Lankan Muslim community.
Those speaking at the event, included Ahmed Shaheed, former Foreign Minister of the Maldives, who since 2016 has been holding the position of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief.
Rule of law
Before I get to the views expressed by Dr. Shaheed on how Sri Lanka was such a terrible place for religious freedom, let me say that foremost of all that I was saddened that some Sri Lankans should appeal to the world for a UN Resolution on their home country and want foreigners to judge and comment on their nation which ended 30 years of terror and bloodshed. As reiterated previously by this writer who holds no political affiliation of any sort, the fundamentals of sensible governance of any country should revolve on the rule of law being upheld – for all citizens alike.
Obviously this did not happen under the previous United National Party (UNP) led regime – voted in, in 2015 mainly by the ethnic and religious minorities of Sri Lanka but which saw at least four anti Muslim riots and the unparalleled heinous terrorist attacks on one of Sri Lanka’s most peaceful religious minorities – the Catholics and the Christians. Yet the foreign commentators at Tuesday’s human rights events lobbying for the UN resolution on Lanka seemed to think that the five years before the 2019 November Presidential election had made ‘progressive’ changes to human rights.
I like to think that Dr. Shaheed’s personal religious background did not interfere in creating for his mind any bias when he made his comments repeatedly on dwindling Islamic religious rights in Sri Lanka but strangely did not see it fit to extol the need for Sri Lankan Catholics and Christians to pray to their God without fearing being blown to smithereens.
The Human Rights activists who took part in the event should have briefed Dr. Shaheed that there were hundreds of Lankan Catholics and Christians in Sri Lanka who are religious minorities in the country whose lives were fractured, tortured, ruined beyond repair because of that terrorist bombing. Nearly 300 Lankan Catholics and Christians were killed and over 500 maimed. Catholics and Christians who were spared their lives and limbs from the terror attacks are often wishing that they were dead – their lives will never be the same again and there is no Justice for them.
This was a community that never resorted to any religious bias in the country. Why were the rights of these religious minorities not taken up with Dr. Shaheed in a backdrop where Catholics and Christians whose lives were destroyed during the Easter attacks have no rights groups representing them at the UN and certainly no international media interested in their plight – there are stories of parents committing suicide and contemplating suicide; not being able to come to terms with their children’s bodies being blown up in the coordinated terrorist blasts – there are stories of parents whose children were killed now in mental asylums after the terrorist blasts – why do these narratives not get figured internationally?
Easter Sunday bombings
We can echo the words of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran, a Christian, to the Sri Lanka Parliament during the recent debate on the Easter Sunday bombings, that Justice and Mercy are two different things. He said that Sri Lanka’s Catholics and Christians showed exemplary mercy but that they are awaiting justice. What is, however, unfortunate is that Sumanthiran as a panellist at the event Why the UN Resolution is a Necessity – did not think it fit to share with Dr. Shaheed, the Special UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief his emphasis in the strongest possible terms, on the need for justice for Sri Lanka’s religious minorities – the Catholics and the Christians who are fearful of stepping into their churches lest a terrorist unleashes his terrorist mission he falsely believes to be a missive from his God.
It was unfortunate that Dr. Ahmed Shaheed’s attention was not drawn to that marginalised Muslim community in Sri Lanka – the Sufis – who have been for the past four decades – ever since that corrupt ideology -Wahabism rose its head here, been persecuted with a fatwa on their heads. Their houses in Eastern Batticaloa have been repeatedly burnt by Wahabi extremists. Their families socially ostracised from the Muslim community.
They have been publicly denounced as heretics. It would indeed be humane, if Sri Lanka’s human rights activists, especially those of the Islamic faith, invites Dr, Ahmed Shaheed to play out his role as the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief in Kathankudi and after that to see to it that the Fatwa on the Sufi Muslims on Lanka is removed and thereby, ensuring their religious freedom.
It would also be good if he spends time understanding the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) and their evolution of change over the past decades. Possibly once that is done Dr. Shaheed may be in a better position to dissect religious freedom in Sri Lanka. It is best that he also meets human rights activists such as Jezima Islmail who will give him a full history of how global changes such as the oil boom in Saudi Arabia and the Iranian revolution impacted on the drastic change of the culture of Sri Lankan Muslims here and how it influenced inter-religious relations in Sri Lanka.
Without admitting that Islamic radicalisation was indeed happening in Sri Lanka, we will not be able to understand the emergence of groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Only to hound the BBS while unrecognising the full picture connected to religious tension and only blaming the Rajapaksa regime, is not going to help Sri Lanka but distinctly make matters worse.
At the event where the UN Resolution on Sri Lanka was supported, attention was on the recent Lankan announcement that discussions will be taken to consider the ban of the burqa and the full face cover of Muslim women on security grounds. Commenting on this aspect as a panellist representing Sri Lanka was the Australia domiciled economist of Lankan origin and media commentator on Lanka, Dr.Ameer Ali, a scholar of repute.
In his comments at Tuesday’s zoom event, in response to a question by a participant on the announced ban of the face cover, Dr. Ali said that he thought the dress code of Muslim women should be decided by the Muslim community of Sri Lanka and not the Lankan State. One should respect Dr. Ali’s views – he does have a valid point. Yet, it is a subject that one should have given Dr. Ali more time to comment and maybe if so he may possibly have elaborated further.
I now take the liberty to place here the link of my full interview with Dr. Ameer Ali, published in a private Lankan newspaper in 2018. All published materials are public property – that of the Lankan and global readership.
In the panel of experts who spoke was a rights activist who about four years back was sharing in a conversation how that individual feared Islamic fundamentalists in Sri Lanka for the work done exposing some of these elements. However, this side of the coin of truth did not figure in the comments made at this particular human rights event.
Human rights of all
As the foreign representatives, such as Dr. Shaheed, repeatedly claimed, the final objective of the international community was peace in Sri Lanka. If this is the case, they should be concerned not about the human rights of only some communities but the human rights of all communities in Sri Lanka, including that of the Sinhalese Buddhists and their right to uphold the Sinhala civilisation that was an inheritance of the country for centuries.
As Dr. Ameer Ali said in a public speech in Sri Lanka in 2018 and subsequently to this writer in an interview, it is Buddhist compassion which made Sinhala kings give Lankan lands to Arab traders who wished to stay on in Sri Lanka which is a result why we have the Muslim population of the country today. It is the right of any country to preserve its culture. Upholding Buddhist culture is the human right of the Sinhala Buddhists as a world cultural minority.
Without the international community realising this and realising that the damage colonisation did to Sri Lanka and how this is impacting ethnic relations within the country, they will only be systematically making matters more complicated with each passing year. For their part, whatever the Sri Lankan Government should realise that every opportunity should be taken to unite the people and not divide. The cremation of Muslims during the Covid-19 pandemic figured as a key element featured in the event, and used to justifying the UN Resolution on Lanka. The crushing of counter views and dissent was also highlighted.
A perfect governance cannot be seen anywhere in the world. None of these Western countries who take leadership in talking of human rights abuse in Sri Lanka have a perfect governance with equality for all, much as they would like it to be portrayed globally as such, but former colonised countries find it even worse to manage their governance because of the divide and rule policies set in by the colonisers.
In the previous articles I had cited that any unrest – any riot – any violence of any sort, building up against any community within a country spells its doom.Such dangers should be strategically recognised and thwarted at the initial stage as this is the beginning of national insecurity which makes Under the previous UNP regime, there were mysterious burnings of Muslim owned businesses. History will also bear testimony that the 1981 burning of the Jaffna Public library and the 1983 riots were during an UNP regime.
Yet at Tuesday’s UN related event, the foreign representatives described the regime shift that took place in 2019 as one that ended ‘progressive steps’ in the country, creating an impression that the UNP was the saviour of the minorities of Sri Lanka. Following the screening of the film Tearful Trail, an uninformed international viewer could be forgiven for thinking that Sri Lanka was a country of permanent anti Muslim riots 365 days, as footages of these riots dominated the narrative.
There were no footages on the terrorist attacks on Catholic and Christian churches and no connected narrative on the suffering of the Catholics and Christians through this crime. The Easter attacks were covered in the documentary in a passing comment that a terrible attack took place by terrorists. There was no comment on the need to thwart radicalisation.
In the discussion, the proposed crackdown on select places that may be grooming fundamentalism were portrayed as a step planning to ‘close thousands of Islamic religious schools’ but little practical advice was offered how the Government could do this without hurting the religious freedom of Muslims in general.
Since 2019 April, the Muslims of Sri Lanka should have been assisted by all Government and non Government stakeholders to take control of cracking down on religious radicalisation which led to the April 2019 Easter carnage.
After this horrendous crime, there were a couple of events organised by Lankan Muslim organisations I attended shrouded by largely a defensive stance and a keenness to portray the incident as a conspiracy theory.
There was little consideration given to the fact that even if it indeed was a conspiracy of sorts that it took eight Muslims born and brought up in Sri Lanka to blow themselves up. The response to such a question was that these people who blew themselves up were ‘not Muslims.’
It is true that such terror is an absolute mis-representation of Islam – when the word Islam is linked with the word ‘peace’ but the fact is that those who blew themselves up did so with the (wrong) belief that it was prescribed as an act of faith. It is this that should be worrying to any religious group which is carrying out acts of violence in the name of religion. If Buddhists and Christians are doing this, steps should be taken to correct such a stance.
With regard to the Easter attacks, ideally the ACJU and other Muslim groups should have considered suggesting (initiating) the reforms needed and making detailed and genuine recommendations to the Government, to ensure those such as Zahran do not ever again get to mislead Muslim Lankan youth This is something all Lankan Muslim human rights activists and all progressive Islamic thinkers should have proactively begun two years ago. Radicalisation as a germ of extremism has no religious boundaries. A genuine attempt at preventing radicalisation means that this is adequately recognised. The fact remains that the regime is democratically elected. It was the will of the Sri Lankan people in 2019. What seemed lacking in last Tuesday’s UN supported initiative to lobby for the Resolution on Sri Lanka is recognising this fact.
It seemed as if the international bias against the Govrnment dominated the narrative and this may only contribute to hardening hearts and further dividing the Lankan people. Despite peace being the elusive claim, the UN saga played out every year seems to have only allowed the further distancing of permanent peace.
Divided vote base
The Geneva-Lanka dynamics every year has expanded the divide between the Sinhalese and others, and has allowed politicians of diverse hues to further politicise the ethnicity card. It has further divided the voter base in Sri Lanka on ethnic lines. It has not allowed Sri Lanka to move on and has not helped Sri Lanka to see that it needs to move on in a sensitive manner; instead it has only made Sri Lanka more and more self-justifying. Human rights defenders should be protected.
The freedom of expression should be protected. These should be taken as important contributions in considering how certain sections of the society are reacting to government policies. The Government, whatever the Government, should also have an active progressive strategy to engage with these groups to ensure that they represent the issues of Lankans in Sri Lanka before these issues get aired out at the international level. However, it is also the responsibility of such people and groups to reflect all sides of the argument and not make human rights a one sided representation that colludes with vested international politics which will always be one that will pit bigger powers against the smaller and where power and domination will be a key factor.
As MP Sumanthiran maintained at the international event on Lanka as described in this article, the seeking of justice by Lankans through foreign entities is because they fail to have confidence that they can obtain it in their home country. However, he may agree that had Velupillai Prabhakaran lived, Sumanthiran himself may have found his life to be threatened and no international entity to turn to for justice.
It is known that there is some myopia in the international sphere of justice – such as, for example, when the former LTTE Women’s Wing Leader Subramaniam Sivakamy alias ‘Col’ Thamilini surrendered to the Security Forces in the last phase of the fighting between the LTTE and the Government military in 2009, she found herself facing difficulty in getting the needed protection from international agencies committed to do so. She was told by a prominent Lankan Tamil lawyer who had made a career of talking about Tamil rights, that she had to pay if she was to be legally represented by him.
It is a Marxist-oriented Sinhala lawyer who volunteered to represent Thamilini free of charge, along with another Tamil lawyer who agreed to assist them. Sri Lanka has faced incidents that threaten communal harmony, but in the worst of times, there have been an equal amount of humanity and kindness which does not get featured either in the local or international media, because the media as an entity is generally only mentally conditioned to focus on conflict.
This is one reason for the international community’s ignorance on some of the matters it is trying to understand.