The fresh challenge of overcoming extremist violence – by Dr. Jehan Perera 

For the past 10 years, the government has dealt with concerns over political grievances and human rights violations stemming from the nearly three decade long war. But in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, it must contend with a problem that is yet unfolding – and its ability to engage in political reform is likely to be limited.

There is heightened pre-judice and uncertainty among all sections of the population, and in every part of the country. In this context, ethnic and religious polarisation is likely to escalate, and efforts to engage in political reform that promotes ethnic, religious and minority rights will be more difficult to sustain.

So far, the increase in communal tensions has been fed mainly by electronic and social media, and based on the premise that the Easter Sunday bombers were not a fringe group of extremists but rather, had substantial support from the larger Muslim community.

During the first weeks of panic, the media contributed to the consternation of people by repeatedly displaying images that gave the impression of swords being found in a multitude of mosques, generating a fear that an assault by sword wielding Muslims was imminent.

But in reality, such swords were only found in two mosques. The suicide bombers themselves came from three families. This suggests that those who planned and carried out the bombings were few in number and the entire Muslim community can’t be blamed for their acts.

Those who took to violence weren’t necessarily known to the larger Muslim community. To draw a parallel, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection of 1971 caught the nation by surprise. In a matter of weeks, over 90 police stations had fallen to the rebels. Therefore, it is neither fair nor constructive to blame the larger Muslim community for allegedly keeping a secret to themselves and conniving with the suicide bombers.

There are politicians who wish to exploit societal fears to maintain uncertainty. They may believe that this is beneficial to them as it would lead people to reject a government that cannot restore stability, and law and order.

The anti-Muslim unrest that spread through the North Western Province provided ample evidence of being organised riots – as has been the case since the anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983. Many of those arrested were affiliated to nationalist political parties. And politicians were seen mingling with the mobs even as they took the law into their own hands.

There’s also been a deliberate fostering of fear of further bomb attacks. The discovery of a parcel of bombs inside a school could have created another wave of panic even as children were returning to schools, having stayed away for fear of being subjected to violent attacks.

In this case, it was fortunate that the school security guard noticed a man running away in a suspicious manner. He was reported to be a political activist and subsequently taken into police custody. If this bomb had exploded and caused injury to schoolchildren, it would have set off another wave of panic – and perhaps led to another round of organised rioting, as occurred in the North Western Province.

The government’s commitment to giving free rein to freedom of expression and not targeting political opponents is commendable – it is an important aspect of democracy. But its failure to take action against those who spread rumours and misinformation, and deliberately foster fear amongst the people, represents poor leadership.

Amid the state of national emergency at the time of going to press, the government must consider adopting a media
and communications strategy, whereby a segment of news regularly counters the false propaganda and disinformation spread by politically motivated actors in the media.

Some of them including those at the highest levels of the polity have accused civil society and rights groups of pushing for human rights at the expense of national security. Such careless statements by responsible authorities support a mindset that the notorious ‘white vans,’ which abducted people with impunity during the war era, should be brought back.

But this will not provide a solution. In dealing with the present problem of extremist violence, the larger Muslim population must not be alienated.

There may be political benefits for nationalist political parties and their leaders; but there’ll be no solution forthcoming for the country if an entire community is viewed and suspected as potential supporters of extremist violence.