Number of Organisations Create Disunity in SL
By Buddhika Samaraweera
There are a number of organisations operating in Sri Lanka that have been instrumental in creating disunity between different races and religions. In this context, the mandate of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) required it to identify persons, organisations, who aid and abet actions which cause racial and religious disturbances disrupting the social integrity.
The PCoI earlier identified the Sri Lanka Jamaat-e-Islami (SLJI) and SLJI Students’ Movement (SLJISM) as extremist Islamist organisations that should be banned. Additionally, the PCoI identified Wahhabism as an ideology that should be banned. The PCoI, in its final report, states that Wahhabi organisations operate in Sri Lanka as Thowheed organisations.
The bombings on 21 April 2019, Easter Sunday occurred in the context of ethno-religious disharmony that has been prevailing in the country in the aftermath of the war. The reconciliation measures introduced since then were basically focusing on rebuilding trust and confidence of the Tamil community.
The PCoI states in its final report that all governments appointed took progressive steps towards achieving sustainable peace by introducing administrative systems, establishing institutional mechanisms, and developing necessary legislative and legal frameworks. However, the recent development in the country on Islamist extremism that was spreading across borders from Syria and Iraq has not been sufficiently recognised.
The PCoI discusses the sudden eruption of ethno-religious disharmony between a handful of Sinhala-Buddhist and Muslim communities living in Sri Lanka for nearly 1,000 years within a peaceful coexistence. There are reasons and grievances for both the communities to agitate, suspect each other, criticise, and even act violently on some occasions.
The PCoI states that extremism within the Muslim community first appeared in the early 1990s with the advent of Wahhabism. This resulted in fighting among Muslim groups over sectarian differences, which targeted the Sufi Muslim community. Thus, violent extremism erupted within the Muslim community first before violent extremism was directed at the Muslim community by extremist Buddhist groups.
Previously, the Muslim community in the country voted for a party representing the majority, either the UNP or SLFP, their colours and symbols. The electoral process of Sri Lanka has examples of where Muslim politicians were voted into power by a majority Sinhala electorate.
The changing landscape of the electoral system that was introduced with the 1978 Constitution brought about a change with the advent of religious based political parties such as the formation of the SLMC in 1981, Sihala Urumaya in 2000, and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) in 2005.
The electorate was asked to think on religious lines in casting their vote. The PCoI heard testimony of a meeting held in Kalmunai on 24 June 1983, where the SLMC Leader addressed a gathering of Muslims and emphasised that the Muslim community has not gained anything by being with the major political parties and that they should contest as a community and obtain a share of the seats so as to bargain.
This development adversely affected the harmony among the two communities, as the politically united Muslims became divided. Once divided, it is obvious that many differences in the social, cultural, religious, as well as economic spheres are of concerns to both the communities. The notion of Islamophobia came into the Sri Lankan society as an outcome of this new political culture. More fuel was added with the Wahhabi ideology that began to grow from the early 1980s, along with many other recent developments such as Halal certification, Sharia law, and proliferation of Thowheed mosques, Madrasas, and Arabic Schools, which led to worsening the situation and a dangerous form of Islamophobia was inculcated in the minds of opponents of the Muslim community.
This situation was presented to the PCoI by many witnesses and a witness who had lived in Kattankudy for long years prior to the eruption of LTTE war testified on the Oluvil Declaration and its core of a Muslim Nijabima concept (separate State for Muslims) in the Eastern Province. He went on to state with great pain of mind, that this new political culture was instrumental in beginning division among historically united Muslims and other communities, in particular the Sinhalese.
Mohamed Qasim Mohamed Zaharan alias Zaharan Hashim, a Wahhabi, was spreading Islamist extremism since 2009 in Kattankudy in the Eastern Province through religious sermons. He not only created animosity among some Sinhala/Buddhist community, but also within his own community of Sufi Muslims. When Zaharan’s agenda and the mission became well known to the opponents he himself made, they foresaw the danger of Islamist extremism and informed the authorities as revealed by some members of the Sufi Muslim community who appeared before the PCoI. However, no action was taken.
On the other side, Buddhist extremist organisations such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) became vocal critics of Islamist extremism and Wahhabism in particular. However, they did not stop at that, and went beyond by targeting the Muslim community in general with hate speech. The speeches of Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera contained comments aimed at the Muslim community in general and fuelled anti-Muslim fervour. They contained, without any doubt, hate speech. In particular, the PCoI examined the speeches made by Ven. Gnanasara Thera on 17 February 2013 in Maharagama and in Aluthgama on the day following Poya Day in June 2014.
The PCoI is of the view that parts of these speeches can form the basis for a prosecution in terms of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act No. 56 of 2007 and recommends that the Attorney General (AG) consider filing charges against the Venerable Thera. Such hate speech no doubt ignited extremist groups within the Buddhist community to target Muslims and their business establishments.
This provided a fertile ground for people like Zaharan to prosper. He used it as a base to attract recruits and succeeded. As a result, many extremist elements in the society received an inducement to come forward with their own extremist ideologies, forming organisations in the name of religion and race.
On the other side, Razik Rafaideen alias Abdul Razik of the Ceylon Thowheed Jamaat (CTJ) contributed on a massive scale to bring disharmony among the Sinhala-Buddhist and Muslim community in Sri Lanka. He made hate speeches criticising the Buddha. His public protest calling for Sharia Law, and many extremist speeches went viral on social media and the extremist elements in the Sinhala-Buddhist community took advantage to retaliate.
The PCoI has examined religious based extremist organisations which could be of hindrance to ethno-religious harmony, coexistence, and unity among all communities of Sri Lanka. There has been an increase of such organisations after the war ended in 2009. The founders of those organisations pretend to be nationalistic, humanistic, and patriotic, but in reality by observing what they talk, do, and what they publicise on social media, they are not so. Their motives, behaviour, and actions are building animosity among communities.
Many are not registered, no office-bearers are elected, but few individuals are operating on social media and not visible on the ground. However, whenever necessary they are ready to mobilise groups for mob attacks, public rallies, protests, and destroying unity among people. Their strength in terms of funding and membership is not that significant, but if left to operate as they have been doing over time unattended by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, they can be a threat to national security, as extremism in any form, in any community, can end up in terrorism in the long run.
In the aftermath of the war, there has been a movement of a few Buddhist monks, lay ideologues, and social media activists propagating anti-Muslim sentiments in the country. There have been several violent incidents relating to anti-Muslim sentiments.
In June 2014, organised violence was carried out in Aluthgama, Dharga Town, Welipenna, and Beruwala in the Kalutara District. In 2017, there was violence against Muslims in Gintota in the Galle District, and in 2018, there were two incidents, one in Ampara on 27 February, and in a more serious manner, a series of attacks against Muslims in Digana and Teldeniya in the Kandy District in March 2018.
In addition to the agitations of some Buddhist monks and a handful of lay people in Sinhala-speaking areas of the country, there were some speculations in the country with regard to growing anti-Muslim tension in Tamil-speaking areas of the North and East as well. During wartime, with the massacre of Muslims in the Eastern Province in 1990, some Muslim youths were chosen for the paramilitary arm assisting the military, and provided with weapons to safeguard the Muslim community from LTTE attacks. This has been the reason for propagating anti-Muslim sentiments by some anti-social lay organisations such as Shiva Sena Movement, also known as Eelam Shiva Sena Movement operating in the North and East.
Nevertheless, it was evident from Zaharan’s orders to kill two Policemen in Vavunathivu to find weapons, that the jihadist group did not have weapons. However, in the aftermath of the attack, a large amount of swords was recovered from the custody of some Muslim community, including mosques. This has led to aggravation of agitation against Muslims in the country as “Jihad by Sword” is an Islamic religious belief entertained by Islamist extremists that is widely spoken. Thus, the story of emerging Muslim militancy and the danger foreseen is in the minds of all non-Muslim communities of the country.
It is in evidence that Milhan and Rilwan requested Mohomed Shifas Saththar to find them some swords, which was done, and the swords were then sent to Beruwala and Kurunegala. The Masjid Dul Cader Jumma Mosque was given 50 swords with the participation of Moulavi Mohomed Ghouse Mohomed Fahim and Mohomed Arshad, who was a member of the Colombo Municipal Council.
It is in this context the PCoI observed that complaints against Zaharan’s religious extremism was not brought to the notice of law enforcement authorities by Muslim elite groups including politicians who were holding high office under all successive Governments.
When former President Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were summoned before the PCoI, they were examined as to whether the Muslim politicians of the coalition Government discussed with them the spread of Wahhabism and associated religious extremism and its danger to national security. The answer was in the negative by both the leaders.
The PCoI further questioned from them to ascertain as to whether there was any progressive discussions from Muslim politicians even after the speech made by Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, the then Minister of Justice and Buddha Sasana on 16 November 2016 on IS penetration in Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan Muslim youths travelling to Syria to join IS. The answer was in the negative again. However, the PCoI observed through other evidence, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) and some Muslim politicians have diverted the attention by criticising Minister Rajapakshe as spreading untruths against Muslims. They went on to say that IS is an American ideology and there are no Muslims of Sri Lanka involved in IS.
Therefore, this group of Muslims is partly responsible for the distrust and suspicion that the majority community is having in their mind on Islamist religious extremism that was proven with the terrorist attack on 21 April 2019.
Also, the PCoI has examined the information available on certain Buddhist and other religious organisations. Accordingly, it recommends that the BBS be proscribed and the activities of the other organisations be closely monitored and legal action taken upon findings, if any, of extremist activity.
1. Sinhala Rawaya: An anti-social Sinhala Buddhist movement - Convener Ven. Magalkande Sudatta Thera and the organisation collaborate with BBS.
2. Mahason Balakaya: Sinhala Buddhist movement led by Amith Weerasinghe together with Ampitiye Sumanarathana Thera and reported as rioters of Digana-Teldeniya incident in Kandy in 2018. Very active on social media campaign to recruit members in the name of safeguarding Buddhism. Its role in the Digana-Teldeniya incident in Kandy in 2018 must be fully investigated and criminal proceedings initiated if there is evidence of wrongdoing.
3. Sinhale Jathika Balamuluwa: It is an anti-social Sinhala-Buddhist movement set up and operated by some Buddhist monks and lay members from different parts of the country and led by Ven. Arambepola Rathanasara Thera. According to the evidence, this group is provoking hate against Muslims by urging the Sinhala-Buddhist community to boycott Muslim business ventures, eating places, and not to sell lands to Muslims.
4. Sinhale Jathika Sanvidanaya: a Sinhala-Buddhist Movement led by Dan Priyasad, a retired Army soldier and Amith Weerasinghe’s (leader of Mahason Balakaya) wife.
5. Shiva Sena Movement: a Tamil organisation operating in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of the country. The motto is to protect Tamil lands and Tamil community and finding a lasting political solution to the ethnic problem.
It must be emphasised that there is no evidence to suggest that the Muslim population at large in Sri Lanka is linked with Islamist extremists or terrorists, even though there were such speculations in the society ignited by anti-social movements in the country operating against Muslims and the irresponsible social media publicity. In this regard, it must be reiterated that the safe house in Sainthamaruthu was initially located by the Police, on information given by the Muslim community in the village who confronted the occupants.
It is therefore timely to initiate action for reconciliation among all communities in Sri Lanka, since the tension created among communities due to the terrorist attack in April 2019 and isolated attacks against Muslim communities in May 2019 in Kurunegala and Gampaha Districts may still linger in the minds of some groups.