Sri Lankans are now engaged in a battle to save the country’s soul. The horrific Easter Sunday attacks were terrible in their brutality, but the systematic targeting of the Muslim community in at least three districts this week was not necessarily a result of the bombings, but rather an escalation of violence fuelled by intolerance that has existed for years. It is frightening in its reach, organisational capacity and complexity, with a concentrated long-term effort now needed from all stakeholders to find ways to rebuild communal relations.
The Easter Sunday attacks, which were claimed by Islamic State, were carried out by a small radicalised group. Some of them were upper middle class, but one thing investigations have shown is that they were operating with a small membership of less than 200 people. Using these attacks to justify hurting the moderate Muslim community, that had no connection whatsoever with the attackers and condemned them widely, should be condemned in the harshest terms.
In the days after the attacks, there was a moment when the inter-communal dialog focused on the real issues, which was the spread of extreme ideologies across all the main religions in Sri Lanka, including the Buddhists. But this was swiftly submerged by the tsunami of vile, narrow, and racist sentiments that flooded the public space, especially on social media.
The chance to have honest, national reflection and dialogue was stolen by the standard disingenuous, misleading, and outright racist positions large tracts of people were encouraged to take. Almost before Sri Lanka could draw a collective breath after the tragedy of the Easter Sunday attacks, it was plunged into the dark, painful quagmire deliberately created by organisations that many believe have some level of political backing. They fed on the fear created by the Easter Sunday attacks, and spewed super-charged anti-Muslim venom with terrifying efficiency.
Several stakeholders, including Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, have pointed out that several well-organised groups were behind the attacks. The same has been said by the Police, who have been severely criticised along with the military for standing by and doing nothing. These criticisms are clearly justified, but eyewitness accounts and reliable reporting from the affected areas indicate that the groups, some over a thousand, overwhelmed the scattered security forces, at least in some locations. In one location, two policemen were left to guard one mosque when 500 people turned up.
These groups were obviously well-briefed, and were capable of melting in and out of locations, sometimes as far apart as 20-30 km within the space of one or two hours. Many were on motorbikes, and had their faces covered. Police and army units were inadequate at best. However, reports indicate that in Kandy, police were able to nip these extremist groups in the bud by arresting Mahason Balakaya leader Amith Weerasinghe. It is these sort of decisive actions that are needed to root out these organisations.
There is no doubt of political involvement in these attacks, but isolating it will be difficult. Namal Kumara has shadowy links to the political sphere, and some of the Buddhist priests who have been spewing hate speech are linked to the United National Front (UNF) coalition members. The involvement of SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera remains questionable. But the Government must act, and it has to root out racist elements with a zero-tolerance policy, even when they are within their own ranks. The public has to reach out to the hundreds of families affected by the violence, and help in whatever small way they can to help them rebuild their lives. It is time for the people to show they are above politics and hatred.