Dr. Jehan Perera calls on the government to denounce hate crimes

In recent months, there have been several violent attacks targeting the Muslim community in Sri Lanka with Muslim-owned businesses and places of worship being targeted. These individual attacks on commercial establishments and mosques are only sometimes reported in the media.

Recent violent attacks against Muslims are not by the larger community but appear to be deliberately planned and executed. This is why it is dangerous. The attacks have been accompanied by social media campaigns alleging that Muslims have a long-term plan to take over the country.

Attacks on Muslims have been occurring on an irregular basis for the past several years. They spiked in 2014 with the burning of a section of the Aluthgama town in which the Muslim community was dominant. The danger is that left unchecked by deterrent governmental action, they will lead to an unpredictable eruption.

There are undercurrents of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian sentiment among the larger Buddhist and Hindu populations. This is primarily due to what is seen as expansionist activities of these two communities that take the form of more rapid population growth, economic visibility and evangelisation.

While anti-Muslim violence assumes centre stage, anti-Christian violence has been directed for a longer period against evangelical groups.

According to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, 111 incidents took place in 2014, 90 in 2015, 89 last year and 36 incidents so far in 2017. It notes that although these numbers reflect a slight decline in reported incidents, attacks involving state officials have increased.

The failure of law enforcement officers to apprehend those who have broken the law is at the root of the puzzle. It has led to calls for action by the government to uphold the rule of law. These calls have been made by civil society organisations, political parties, foreign governments and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL).

A statement issued by BASL sets out provisions of the law under which the police can arrest those who perpetrate violence and hate crimes against the Muslim community, and under which the Attorney General’s Department can file indictments in the courts of law.

The puzzle is that the police has been inactive in taking the first step – i.e. to obstruct the violent actions of those who terrorise the Muslim community, and arrest those who have been videoed and documented as having been involved with the attacking parties.

Often, evidence of attacks and the identity of attackers are readily available. Many of those who have suffered violence and destruction at the hands of violent groups have also provided the police with footage of the attacks.

All indications are that the governmental leadership does not believe that this is the time to act as it feels itself to be politically on the defensive. The crowds at the May Day rally of the Joint Opposition were larger than any other, indicating the opposition’s ability to get people power onto the streets. In this context, the government’s instinct may be to delay taking decisive action and hope that the problem will fade away.

The government may fear that opposition political parties and Buddhist nationalist groups will come together if it cracks down on perpetrators of religious violence. Its concern would be that these two powerful forces could combine on the ground and create conflict on the streets in a way that would render the country difficult to govern.

But the government must act decisively. When problems are left unresolved and permitted to continue unchecked, they only become worse. Unless they’re nipped in the bud, it’s difficult for the police to control mob action against minorities once it has been unleashed.

At a fundamental level, anti-minority violence must be seen as a problem in law and order. Local law enforcement officials are also reluctant to take effective action against persons who infringe on the liberties of minority religious groups due to influence and pressure exerted by local Buddhist monks, government officials and politicians.

But the government must uphold law and order. Its leaders need to begin by explicitly denouncing the attacks regularly. They could also emphasise the importance of initiating accountability processes for these crimes and ensuring that perpetrators face justice.

In the longer term, there needs to be education and training of the police and civil society on the value of multiculturalism, pluralism and respect for the law.