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Updated On: Monday, December 11 2017

The Attack on the Rohingya Refugee Safe House: We Must Hang Our Collective Heads in Shame

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Apart from the fact that the purveyors of hate like Sinhala Ravaya, Ravana Balaya and Bodu Bala Sena are lurking in the background making use of every opportunity to stoke the flames of religious and racial hate, what is even more disconcerting is the fact that new outfits such as Mahason Balakaya and Sinha-le and some others have cropped up taking advantage of the new climate of freedom that the Yahapalana Government has ushered in.

These groups seem to be undeterred by the fact that the country as a whole has spoken up loud and clear on January 8, 2015 rejecting the path of hate and embracing a path of reconciliation on which platform President Mathripala Sirisena and the UNP campaigned.

It is unfortunate that Sri Lanka which has been a model of co-existence and inter-communal harmony over centuries, notwithstanding the brutal armed conflict of the last three decades, is facing the current situation of uncertainty due to the actions of a few who with callous disregard to human values as well as Sri Lanka’s name are acting in this manner.

It is even worse when a few members of the clergy are associated with such mobs who seem to be wanting to take the law into their own hand to achieve their own objectives. This is a continuation of the philosophy of the Bodu Bala Sena who declared and acted during the previous regime as an unofficial police force.

Last week’s incident targeting the Rohingya refugees witnessed the presence of individuals who had been previously arrested and bailed out for similar incidents of hate speech brazenly acting in violation of such bail conditions. The incident also saw the Bodu Bala Sena General Secretary who had been somewhat silent following the recent legal proceedings coming out of the woodwork and adding his bit in support of the attack on the refugees at a subsequent news conference.

As was well known and officially confirmed after the incident last week, these Rohingya refugees did not come to Sri Lanka on their own volition. They had been travelling in a boat to Australia or some such destination and had been rescued by our Navy when the engines in their boat had stalled.
These innocent victims of the horror that is currently being enacted in Myanmar numbering 30 including 15 children and 7 women had been thereafter produced in the Sri Lankan Courts where order had been made by the Magistrate that they be handed over to the UNHCR to be cared for and thereafter sent to another country. It is the UNHCR that had arranged for them to be located in the safe house at Mt. Lavinia.

The members of the mob that targeted these refugees if they were genuinely concerned about the presence of these refugees should have gone like any other law-abiding citizen and informed the Mt. Lavinia Police who would undoubtedly have inquired into the matter and appraised them of the situation. Instead as has been the practice in the past by this group and those of their ilk they attempted to take the law into their hands and terrorise these unfortunate human beings.

Consequently, the authorities have been compelled to transfer them to the Boosa detention camp for their own safety. The situation that the Rohingya refugees are compelled to face can best be described by the Sinhala phrase ‘Gahen Weticcha Minihata Gona Anna Wage’ which translated into English means ‘Like being gored by a bull after having fallen from a tree.”

The action or inaction of the Police officers present at the scene has also come in for criticism by some. In fairness to the Police officers, video footage clearly showed them valiantly taking all efforts to prevent the mob entering the safe house. The mob was heard warning the Police not to lay hands on the clergy and clearly the Police would have been uncertain as to how to handle the situation by arresting the miscreants or taking any further action.

The Police, who are the guardians of law and order and are, therefore, in the frontline in situations of this nature, have to be given clear and unambiguous guidelines by the Government as to how such situations have to be handled. Such directions must be given wide publicity to ensure that those who wish to take the law into their own hands will think twice before doing so. The failure to do so without further delay will leave the Police uncertain as to what would be their fate if they took action in accordance with the law of the land against such mobs and with particular reference to members of the clergy who act in contravention of such laws. This is all the more important because these violent mobs attempt to use the presence of the clergy and put them in the forefront to prevent the Police from acting.

A classic example of such a predicament faced by the Police is the incident before the UN headquarters in Colombo where the Parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa was engaging in a fast unto death during the previous dispensation. A senior Police Officer was taking steps to control the unruly crowd when he was given a phone call and asked to step back by some higher authority. While he was doing so, one of the members of the unruly crowd humiliated the officer by dislodging his cap in the full view of television cameras and the officer had to eat humble pie and take no action.

That the Police are capable of taking action where necessary is seen by another episode. A few months back when there was a spate of attacks on Muslim places of worship and Muslim businesses, the National Shoora Council together with other civil society orgainsations like the Puravesi Balaya and the National Movement for Social Justice made representations to the Inspector General of Police and urged him to take action to prevent the recurrence of such incidents. One of the measures proposed to the IGP was to have mobile patrols in potential trouble spots. The IGP took prompt action. Consequently all the attacks came to an immediate stop.

In arresting this menace of hate-mongering, the behavior of politicians is a critical factor. The Joint Opposition does not seem to be learning from its past and continues to repeat its mistakes which became a contributing factor in their defeat at the last elections. National Freedom Front leader Wimal Weerawansa and another NFF Parliamentarian raised the issue of the Rohingya refugees housed in Mt. Lavinia in Parliament last week without a word of condemnation against the targetting of these refugees.

In contrast, Government Ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Rajitha Senaratne and Lakshman Kiriella condemned the actions of these mobs and called upon the Police to take stringent action. At the same news conference at which Minister Rajitha Senaratne did not mince his words when he condemned the actions of the mob at Mt. Lavinia, Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera chose his words carefully and struck a different note when he only explained that the refugees were here temporarily and would not be given citizenship but carefully avoided any condemnation of the mob attack in Mt. Lavinia.

The JVP too has come out strongly and condemned the incident.

Minister Rajitha Senaratne told the news conference that the matter would be taken up at the next Cabinet meeting. It will be salutary if the Cabinet appoints a Cabinet sub Committee to immediately formulate a plan to address the issues relating to hate-mongering and to suggest ways and means of countering such actions.

The Rohingya refugees are some of the most marginalised people in the world. They are poor and deprived of citizenship in the land of their birth and are being hounded and killed in what the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has described as a text book case of ethnic cleansing. The international community, including the Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu, have unreservedly condemned this unfolding human tragedy.

Yet a mob that includes members of the clergy sought to attack the safe house where these refugees, three fourths of whom were women and children, were housed, without showing an ounce of human compassion for their plight.

As Sri Lankans we must surely hang our collective head in shame at the uncivilised and heartless actions of a few of our countrymen.

If the members of the mob paused for a moment to put themselves in the shoes of the helpless refugees who had been driven away from their homeland, relocated temporarily in alien territory in another country where they did not know the language of the land and depended on the largesse of the UN and suddenly found themselves being targeted by a screaming mob, they may have thought twice.

But they did not consider about the impact their actions had on the unfortunate women and children who must have been terrified inside the safe house. Instead they acted in complete variance with the character of the Sri Lankan nation nourished by the teachings of the four great religions and well known for its hospitable and kind nature.

Even in the dark days of July 1983 it was a microscopic few who attacked and killed the Tamils while large numbers of Sinhalese and Muslims opened their doors to provide protection and look after the victims. But Sri Lanka’s proud standing in the world and as a respected member of the Non Aligned Movement and as a country that stood up for justice and peace took a severe beating due to the actions of a few.

Sri Lanka is only now slowly but surely rehabilitating itself and rebuilding its image in the eyes of the international community. The Government cannot allow its efforts in this area to be jeopardised by the actions of a few who are clearly unconcerned about what is right and wrong or as to what happens to the image of the country. The Government must act now before it is too late.

(javid This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

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