Now, ‘Our Fanatics’ and ‘Their Fanatics’?

By N. Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 12 2021
Columns Now, ‘Our Fanatics’ and ‘Their Fanatics’?

By N. Sathiya Moorthy 

In a recent interaction with the Media, Public Security Minister, RearAdm Sarath Weerasekara reportedly declared that the country was not ‘safe from the ISIS threat’ as long as the last terrorist believing in that fanatical ideology remained. “We actually need the support of the Muslims to identify these terror elements within their community. 

They should pass whatever information they come across to the law enforcement agencies,” he said further, adding, “We have made our intelligence units stronger.” In the same vein, the Media also reported, how the Minister’s directive to initiate a Police probe into the alleged threat by ‘sacked’ State Minister for Prisons, Lohan Ratwatte had not been acted upon (at least until long after, if at all). 

Either the Minister is not in charge or control, or Sri Lanka continues to distinguish between our fanatics and their fanatics and our terrorists and their terrorists. This kind of distinction in a way helped the nation to rally even the traditional nay-sayers in the international community to support its post-9/11 efforts to eliminate the LTTE. 

It is also this kind of distinction, post-war, if that still continued to be a distinction that has helped the West to haul up Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. In the hands of the rich and powerful nations, the ourstheirs distinction has become distinguishable, still.

 For sake of credibility, both of self and of the Government of which he is an important Minister, always seen and heard locally and watched by the international community, Weerasekara should take up l’affaire Lohan as a test-case to show to the world that both mean business. That should be independent of the political decision on letting the State Minister continue with whatever residual portfolios still under his care. 

Left or Right, Buddhist still 

Minister Lohan’s may be an isolated incident of a political administrator allegedly whipping up his personal gun and threatening prisoners that he would kill them. Or, can it be argued. 

When such incidents are marked as isolated, if at all, one can claim that there are no ISIS-like fanatics from the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community. In this case, those threatened in the Anuradhapura Prison episode were not ISIS fanatics. They are identified with the LTTE terrorists, since being called political prisoners for long. 

It is another matter that Lohan continues as junior Minister for other portfolios originally entrusted to him. Only the Prisons Department has been stripped from him. Does it all mean that there are no fanatics from among the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community? Maybe, it is not centred on religion proper as understood internationally, but in terms of ethnicity, the traditional Sri Lankan marker acknowledged by the Constitution, they are still there. There is a difference. That is where the unfairness of the system might have started, and already so. 

Just because some members of the Muslim community have deviated from the right path that does not make the entire community to be made to feel that theirs is one of religious fanatics. If anything, the Government should walk that extra mile, to make sure that every citizen, including those Muslim youth who feel estranged from the mainstream, are accommodated and honourably so. 

The Sri Lankan State only needs to remember and recall how such sense of estrangement in the case of the Tamils was fuelled by the Government and the majority community’s majoritarian politics, made their youth militant first and terrorists next. Rather, that branding was reserved for the LTTE, and it fitted the bill, unfortunately. That was when there were still Tamil youth and mainstream polity that thought moderately and acted moderately. 

Their demands were genuine, and there is still the moderate voice, holding high, not to be drowned by a new generation of radicals from within. The succour and support for them has to come from the Government and in the form of a political solution to the larger and long-term demands of the community, based on their unfulfilled aspirations that are still genuine and serious. 

The same applies to the Muslim community, too. But here again, the polity is as divided as the Tamil polity is. There is some sense of united thinking in the Muslim community, after the Easter blasts-2019, and against radicalisation and religious fanaticism, caused by youthestrangement from the mainstream. The likes of Minister Weerasekara talking about fanaticism should not stop with it. 

They should also look at the true causes for Muslim estrangement over the postIndependence era, more so, post-war, and restore the community’s sense of belonging. That and that alone would help. But, yes, Minister Weerasekara may have a point, after all. ISIS is an organisation of fanatics, who kill in the name of religion, the immediate location and cause do not matter. 

However, in the case of the Easter blasts, then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe immediately declared the terrorists were all homegrown. Translated, it denied any ISIS kind of external/international links. There is nothing on record to show that in the past two-plus years, the Nation’s intelligence community has unearthed any evidence that could make the perpetrators of the Easter blasts to be branded as ISIS fanatics. 

Up to now at least, they could be dubbed misguided elements who might have come around if rehabilitated at the right time. That the then Government did not take the community’s own early alerts, both in terms of ideology and on specifics, should show that the shoe is on the wrong foot, after all, and that it would be injustice to the community if such strong terms continued to be used for more such misguided youth, who may still be around. 

Right or Left, Buddhists still 

In contrast, there were the JVP insurgents of the seventies and the eighties. Their own transformation from being a left nationalist militant grouping into a right nationalist militant group between 1971 and 1987 was remarkable. The fact was they swore by an ideology, they were militants, they killed and got killed in turn, by the Sri Lankan State. But no one has branded them thus far as fanatical. 

But the annihilation of tens of thousands of Sinhala-Buddhist youth of both genders in the reproductive age-group during the two JVP insurgencies was also over ideological causes which they espoused and not just orally. 

It is no justification or defence of the perpetrators of the Easter blasts, but for the Sri Lankan State to secure the Nation from ‘em all, it has to have a fair yard-stick for branding of whatever militancy that stands in the way of national peace and prosperity. There is an urgent reason for re-assessing the Government’s considered position on such terminologies, their selective application and the mindset that it triggers.

 Like the Tamil moderate leadership that felt frustrated and cheated by the majority community’s polity and leadership, and this leading to their youth taking to arms in a very big way over years and decades, the nation’s Muslim community is at cross-roads. 

Their divided political leadership is aging, discrediting them may be the easiest way out, but that is not going to help matters, through the medium and long-runs. As the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime acknowledged during the closing months of the conclusive stages of the Separatist War and afterwards, there was then a need to integrate the postwar Tamil youth into the mainstream through accommodation of Tamil aspirations and adjustments to the political and constitutional scheme to make that happen. 

There was also full realisation that similar situation may arise also in the case of the Muslim community, whose youth too, were feeling frustrated, and who were already exposed the ideology and stand-alone methods of the Al-Qaeda. The ISIS was yet to be born. But on neither front, the Sri Lankan State did precious little to make such assessments look serious and genuine. 

It is not only about the Rajapaksa regime, then or now. Even the intervening Government of National Unity (GNU) pulled the wool over the eyes of the minority communities in the country. At the end of the day, for instance, the much-promised new Constitution did not materialise. The fact was that it was not meant to materialise.

 Neo-Right, but…

 It is not as if there are no SinhalaBuddhist nationalist hard-liners after the demise of the militant version of the JVP. Today’s JVP is a moderate and modest self of what was once a violent behemoth. But that position has been taken by the SinhalaBuddhist right militants, who have over the years even pushed the community’s ideological right moderates of the JHU-PHU to the side-lines. 

The question is how to brand these groups, like the BBS, which became less active after the previous Government arrested Gnanasara Thera, and until after outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena ‘pardoned’ him through his special powers under the Constitution and set him free. To be fair to the Thera and his group, they are less militant now than earlier. 

But that is not enough, as their current behaviour too is enough to provoke unprovoked sections of the minority communities, the Muslims in this case, as they are the targets of Sinhala-Buddhist radical groups, though stopping with oral tirades just now. Yet, it needs to be acknowledged the West – whether it is the UNHRC or the EU or whoever – should not be compelling the Sri Lankan State to dilute or take away the nation’s antiterror laws. 

Post-9/11 global climate has ensured that most of these nations have either introduced nonexisting laws against terrorism, or strengthened existing anti-terror mechanisms and legal formulations. At best, they can ask and help Sri Lanka to strengthen authorisation, review and accountability mechanisms for those that enforce those laws, not anything more in these era of troubled global order. 

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected] 

By N. Sathiya Moorthy | Published: 2:00 AM Oct 12 2021

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