By Izeth Hussain
There has been much comment on the so-called Dambulla incident, which might have more appropriately been called the Dambulla outrage, not incident. In this article I want to focus on aspects that have not been brought out adequately, or not at all.
The incident is not unusual as seems to be assumed, but is part of a pattern of anti-Muslim action that has been going on since 1975. In that year there took place the Puttalam mosque massacre, the result of the shifting of a bus stand which was clearly meant to provide advantages to Sinhalese traders at the expense of Muslim ones.
Thereafter, until about 2002, there were incidents practically every year ranging from minor ructions to serious rioting as in the Hulftsdorp riots of December 1993. All those ructions and riots have to be seen as the expression of anti-Muslim racism. But the Dambulla incident could be set in a special context – that of Sinhala Buddhist triupmphalism consequent on the 2009 victory over the LTTE. I will not go into details about what has been happening since then, but instead refer the interested reader to the writings notably of Latheef Farook.
The Dambulla incident was not therefore something unusual, but the reactions to it most certainly were. Earlier, anti-Muslim action received very little publicity in the mainstream media, and almost invariably it was made out that it was no more than fracas between thugs without any ethnic dimension to it at all. I must state that after my retirement from Government service in 1989 I wrote several articles in the Lanka Guardian pointing to that ethnic dimension.
After a three-year spell abroad I wrote a weekly column in the Tamil-owned Weekend Express for a period of two years starting in 1998, availing of every opportunity to point to the anti-Muslim racism behind several incidents. But all that was very exceptional. I must state however that sometime after 2000 an excellent detailed report on the anti-Muslim incidents was published by MIRJE – Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality. It showed that at least some Sinhalese were willing to recognize the existence of anti-Muslim racism
The reactions to the Dambulla incident have been very striking in their contrast. The reaction was immediate and widespread, covering the Muslims, the Tamils, and the Sinhalese as well. The disapproval expressed was strong, the tone was sometimes indignant, and there was no question of any one denying the ethnic factor behind the incident. There was one stunning development, which is that even the Muslim politicians spoke out for the Muslims! That was stunning because over many decades Muslim politicians had refused to speak up for their fellow-Muslims whenever anything controversial was involved.
What is the explanation for the contrasting reactions? I suspect that the American resolution at the UNHRC has served as a catalyst bringing about recognition among many Sinhalese as well as others that unsatisfactory inter-ethnic relations could spell dangers for Sri Lanka. The focus of the resolution was mainly on what was seen as the unsatisfactory treatment of the Tamils. Sri Lanka’s plight could become worse if it is seen that the Muslims are also subjected to unsatisfactory treatment.
There are two curious facts about the Dambulla incident that require explanation. Why did it happen at this time? It has been shown that the Muslims have perfectly valid title deeds to the mosque, where they have been praying for the last sixty years. Apparently, President Premadasa had declared that Dambulla was a sacred area sometime in the ‘eighties, but no area was demarcated forbidding the building of mosques. Anyway, the Muslims continued to pray there peacefully in the ensuing decades as well.
We must note also that the incident was not a sudden and spontaneous eruption of Buddhist outrage that the Muslims were desecrating a Buddhist holy place. It was clearly a meticulously planned operation. The vandals were led by a well-known monk of the area, but the vandals themselves were outsiders.
A further relevant fact is that there was instant media coverage, with the most interesting material becoming available on the internet straightaway. The obvious question to be posed is whether powerful Buddhist personages were being manipulated by sinister forces out to discredit the Buddhists and Sri Lanka.
It is relevant to recall that the Australian High Commission was clearly complicit with Gunaratnam who was up to some merry pranks in the North. The other curious fact that requires explanation is that the Dambulla incident suddenly erupted and died out equally suddenly. The probable explanation is that the Government alerted the Buddhist hierarchy to the possibility of manipulation by sinister forces. All this has been happening while – as a consequence of the American resolution – many powerful countries are closely watching Sri Lanka’s inter-ethnic relations.
Manifestations of anti-Muslim racism are an old and dreary story, something that has been going on since 1975. External interest in the subject is something new, something that has to be taken seriously because it carries the potential for causing much damage to Sri Lanka.
Rauf Hakeem, Feizer Mustapha, and doubtless other Muslim politicians have sagely advocated that the Dambulla incident be treated as a purely internal problem, without involving foreigners. I feel sure that that notion is shared by 95% or more of the Sri Lankan Muslims.
I see no danger of intervention by the OIC – Organization of the Islamic Conference – which has an impressive record in some ways, but a very sorry record in helping Muslim minorities. We can think of the Russian savaging with total impunity of Chechnya, and shudder. The danger comes from possible Western interest in the Dambulla incident.
Such Western interest has of course to be expected in the aftermath of the American UNHRC resolution. We can be certain that every Western Ambassador in Colombo would have dispatched to his Foreign Office meticulously detailed reports, trying to make scrupulously fair-minded assessments of the Dambulla incident. We can be equally certain that every one of them would have made some points in common.
The Tamils fought a separatist war. The Muslims, on the other hand, supported the Sinhalese side against the Tamils steadfastly from pre-Independence days, for which they even suffered terrible ill consequences such as the driving out of Muslims from the North.
If hatred against Muslims can be manifested with total impunity as at Dambulla, can we really expect the Colombo Government to be fair-minded to the Tamils? Can we really expect the Government to proceed towards ethnic reconciliation through a credible implementation of LLRC recommendations?
What should the Government do? Obviously it should take measures to show that the Muslims are being given fair and equal treatment. That means that the laws should be seen to apply impartially. And in concrete terms that means that the monk who led the vandals should be prosecuted under the law. But can anyone see that happening?
Let us face some hard facts. I hold, along with many other Muslims, that of all our leaders President Rajapakse has been the most sympathetic to the Muslims. But even he, I believe, will be bound by a strange compulsion. The hard fact is that all our leaders have felt compelled in the last resort to side with the Sinhala Buddhist extremists.