Tuesday, 3 February 2015

MR pays heavy price for Aluthgama mayhem




N.K. Illangakoon, the Inspector General of Police (IGP), received a timely warning on a planned Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) protest at Aluthgama, on the morning of June 15, 2014. The warning was given by National Unity Alliance (NUA) leader, M. Azath S. Salley, a strong critic of the previous administration. Salley sent a letter warning of BBS plans to go on the rampage, to the IGP, with a copy to senior DIG, in charge of the Western Province, Anura Senanayake.

The police had ample time to thwart the BBS protest. Police could have easily deployed the elite Special Task Force (STF), in addition to the police strength available there. In spite of having the wherewithal to disperse the BBS, the then government allowed the situation, in the Aluthgama electorate, to develop. The local police turned a blind eye, believing the BBS, had the backing of the then government. In fact, a section of law enforcement authorities went to the extent of backing the BBS much to the anger of the Muslim community.

Colombo Mayor, A.J.M. Muzammil, reacted angrily to the UPFA’s failure to rein in the BBS. Reacting to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Aluthgama, Muzammil told the writer, on the afternoon of June 15, 2014, that the UPFA had caused irreparable damage to its relationship with the Muslim community. The Rajapaksa government would have to face the consequences, the veteran politician thundered, alleging that the BBS was pursuing an agenda extremely hostile to the UPFA, though it pretended otherwise. The Colombo Mayor alleged that the BBS had been specifically created to cause the downfall of the Rajapaksa administration. Muzammil was proved six months later.

The writer received a copy of Salley’s letter to Illangakoon. UNP Central Provincial Councillor, Salley, emphasized that the Aluthgama mayhem could have been easily thwarted had Police Headquarters promptly responded to his request. The then senior minister and General Secretary of the Communist Party, D.E.W. Gunasekera, lambasted the government for being a blind to what was happening under its supervision (DEW questions failure to take pre-emptive action with two strap lines, IGP received letter from Azath Salley warning of violence and Two drunken monks among 47 arrested-The Island, June 19, 2014).

The government’s failure to adopt pre-emptive security measures at Alutgama and Beruwala should be thoroughly investigated, Dew Gunasekera said.

Expressing shock and anger over the government’s inaction, the senior minister stressed the need to establish the circumstances leading to the Aluthgama mayhem. Violence claimed the lives of two Muslims and caused injuries to over 80 persons, the vast majority of them residents of Alutgama and Beruwela. The police said that the deceased had many cut injuries, though there were no gunshot wounds.

The clashes left seven policemen, including an STF sergeant, injured. The police commando suffered gunshot injuries.

Among the arrested were two armed Buddhist monks, the police said. Both had been under the influence of liquor at the time of their arrest, the police confirmed.

Senior Minister Gunasekera said the actions of some of the extremist elements were essentially terrorist in nature. Referring to a group of activists, from the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), storming the Trade and Commerce Ministry, in late April 2013, Minister Gunasekera said that he couldn’t understand why the government had remained silent. Trade and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, developed a special relationship with a section of the Buddhist clergy to counter the threat posed by the BBS. Bathiudeen played an extremely dangerous game, though he realized the very existence of his relationship with the SLFP was at stake.

The BBS was looking for Ven. Watareka Vijitha Thera that Jathika Bala Sena Secretary/ UPFA Mahiyangana Pradeshiya Sabha member, who, it claimed, was hiding in that ministry.

Minister Gunasekera claimed that those Muslim countries supportive of Sri Lanka had come under intense pressure at the March 2014 sessions of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to abandon Sri Lanka due to violence perpetrated by extremist elements. The terror campaign had caused an irreparable setback to post-war national reconciliation efforts and brought the government into disrepute, the minister said.

National Unity Alliance (NUA) leader and UNP Central Provincial Councilor, Azath S. Salley, told ‘The Island’ that the Alutgama violence could have been prevented if the police had heeded his plea to prevent a gathering of extremists at Alutgama. Unfortunately, the police, obviously acting at the behest of the government, allowed the gathering, leading to unprovoked attacks on the Muslim community. Responding to a query, Salley said that having urged Senior DIG Anura Senanayake to prevent the gathering, the situation was also brought to the notice of IGP N. K. Illangakoon. Asked whether he identified those planning to gather in Alutgama, Salley released a copy of his letter, addressed to the IGP, in which he accused the BBS, as well as Sihala Ravaya, of planning to go on the rampage. Salley warned the IGP that the gathering in Alutgama was nothing but a planned attempt to cause mayhem.

Police headquarters acknowledged the IGP had received a letter from Salley, warning of an impending attack.

There had been several other incidents outside Alutgama and Beruwela, on June 16. Among those incidents were throwing petrol bombs and distribution of inflammatory leaflets in Horana, damaging a Buddha statue, in Kotiyakumbura, and an arson attack on a shop belonging to a Sinhalese, at Darga Town by another group of Sinhalese. Sources said that a group of persons had thrown burning tyres into a mosque and a house in Horana. The police detained four Muslim youth trying to set some tyres ablaze at Pallimunai. Stones were also thrown at two SLTB buses, at Saindamarudhu, in the Ampara District, damaging them. Police seized petrol bombs and knives from a Buddhist temple and a Muslim shop in Darga Town.

Although ordinary Muslims reacted angrily to the developing situation, the then government had been obviously lulled into a false sense of complacency, due to Muslim politicians, including SLMC leader and the then Justice Minister, Rauff Hakeem, All Ceylon Makkal Congress leader and Commerce and Industry, Rishad Bathiudeen, as well as the then Local Government and Provincial Council Minister, A.L.M. Shaula, assuring the government they would remain (Hakeem won’t quit UPFA over Aluthgama mayhem-The Island, June 20, 2014).

One-time Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Teheran and ex - PA MP, M.M.Zuhair, too, strongly condemned the government’s failure to curb the unprovoked violence, directed at the Muslim community. Zuhair alleged that the previous government was using the BBS as a tool to advance its political strategy. The top SLFP leadership was not in a mood, at least to take remedial action. Instead, it shielded the BBS until the very end when, in January, 2015, the Muslims overwhelmingly voted for Opposition presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena. In fact, the Muslim community would have thrown its weight behind Maithripala Sirisena even if the SLMC and ACMC and the likes of Minister Faizer Musthapha had remained with the then President. It would be pertinent to stress they had no option but to switch allegiance to Maithripala Sirisena or perish at the next parliamentary poll. Surprisingly, the then President Rajapaksa ignored the urgent need to arrest further deterioration of his government’s relationship with the Muslim community, though he was going ahead with plans for presidential poll.

The overwhelming Muslim vote, at the January 8, 2015, presidential poll, ensured Maithripala Sirisena’s victory. A sizable section of the Sinhala Catholics, too, voted against the then President Rajapaksa for atrocities committed by the BBS.

The Aluthgama mayhem had caused tension in other parts of the country, particularly in the Eastern Province. Azath Salley spearheaded the offensive against the then government, though he assured the Muslim community wouldn’t cause disturbances, especially on the first Friday after the Aluthgama mayhem. Salley gave his assurance amidst fears of massive Muslim protests after Friday prayers on June 20, 2014. The Central Provincial Councillor lambasted the government for suppressing protests organized by the community. Salley had been furious over police commandos assaulting the Chairman of the Addalachchenai Pradeshiya Sabha. Salley alleged that the local politician was leading a protest against the Aluthgama mayhem when commandos pounced on the protesting group.

The then government’s relationship with the Muslim community rapidly deteriorated, though the SLMC and ACMC still struggled to reach an understanding with the SLFP. They obviously believed the situation could be improved by punishing the BBS. In fact, they genuinely believed the President would take act to save his government. Unfortunately, the President refused to act. Perhaps, he could no longer control extremist forces that had been set in motion by the administration.

‘The Island’, in an exclusive lead story, headlined MR rejects call for banning groups over Aluthgama mayhem, in the June 21, 2014, edition, revealed the failure, on the part of the President, to at least take some corrective measures. The President’s position further strengthened the hands of the extremists. The President revealed his position, on June 19, 2014, at a cabinet meeting. The President declared that proscription of extremist organizations wouldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be further religious strife. The President indicated that he wasn’t prepared to proscribe the BBS.

The President was responding to ACMC leader, Rishad Bathiudeen, at a UPFA party leaders’ meeting on June 19, 2014, at Temple Trees.

Among those present at the party leaders’ meeting were Ministers, Basil Rajapaksa, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Dinesh Gunawardena, Rauff Hakeem, Wimal Weerawansa, Champika Ranawaka, Dallas Alahapperuma, Susil Premjayantha, Dew Gunasekera, Tissa Vitharana and Prabha Ganeshan.

Minister Weerawansa participated in a Cabinet meeting after having skipped five in a bid to pressure the government to accept the NFF’s 12-point plan to change the direction of the ruling coalition. Weerawansa was obviously trying to exploit the situation.

Referring to a statement made by Weerawansa, at the weekly cabinet meeting earlier in the day, Minister Bathiudeen urged the president to proscribe all extremist groups regardless of their ethnicity. Minister Bathiudeen insisted that extremist organizations should be banned as all agreed to the need for drastic action.

Minister Weerawansa alleged that Sinhala and Muslim extremists were responsible for the Alutgama violence. The NFF leader said that the problem could be solved only if both parties took remedial measures in the wake of the latest bout of violence.

President Rajapaksa pointed out that extremist actions couldn’t be tackled by arresting those violating laws.

The President alleged that there had been some serious violations of the Constitution by some members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Although they could be arrested, such activities couldn’t be stopped, the President said, adding that those undermining the constitution would seek political gains in case the government arrested them. The President was seeking a way out of the crisis.

When the cabinet took up the Alutgama issue, SLMC leader, Hakeem, directly accused the BBS of carrying out the attack. The president pointed out that there were several other matters which contributed to this situation and all parties should act responsibly to defuse the crisis.

Minister Bathiudeen, who had been at logger heads with the BBS leadership for some time, alleged that members of the BBS weren’t behaving like monks. Their actions were an embarrassment to the Buddhist clergy, the minister said. The President stressed the need to settle the issue, while recalling the circumstances under which a certain Muslim religious leader made a disparaging remark about Lord Buddha. Such a statement could hurt feelings, the President said.

Minister Bathiudeen said that Muslim religious leader had been punished by the judiciary and the sect he belonged to also advised him against such talk.

The President said that the government wasn’t responsible for the Alutgama mayhem, prompting Minister Hakeem to say the Muslims held the police accountable for the situation.

Amidst fiery words, Minister Weerawansa proposed a religious conference to iron out differences.

However, Minister Bathiudeen asserted that trouble erupted because the BBS launched a demonstration in Alutgama.

Minister Hakeem blamed the police for failing to take remedial action though posters appeared three days before the June 15, 2014 protest, urging people to join the campaign.

Minister Ranawaka reacted angrily when Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara alleged that the JHU was shielding the BBS.

Minister Bathiudeen reiterated that the BBS demonstration caused mayhem.

Minister Weerawansa pointed out that trouble started after missiles were thrown from a nearby mosque at BBS members as they were leaving after the meeting.

The President said that action would be taken against all those responsible for violence, irrespective of ethnicity. But unfortunately, the government continued to protect extremist elements. For some strange reason, the government never bothered to inquire into Colombo Mayor Muzammil’s claim that the BBS was in fact undermining the government while pretending the organization represented the interests of the government, as well as the Sinhala Buddhists. Muzammil was one of the few Muslim politicians who strongly advised the community not to react to provocations by the BBS. The veteran politician pointed out that the BBS thrived on their protests. The BBS effectively used an influential section of the media, as well as the social media, to propagate an increasingly derogatory message. The Muslim community was depicted as a threat to the Sinhalese. The BBS propagated the deadly message. The previous government flourished on BBS strategy. The despicable strategy was meant to attract Sinhala Buddhist voters, in such large numbers, so as to set off the Tamil speaking vote going Maithripala Sirisena’s way.