The Sri Lankan government declared an emergency on 6 March and closed down access to social media following the mob attack on Muslim business and houses in Kandy. The government is claiming that they have taken this action to control a small mob of racist attackers. In fact it is this government who should take full responsibility for the brutality which was unleashed on the Muslim Community.
The government was aware that religious leaders and mobs were spreading lies and violent rhetoric, but failed to take action. The government is incapable protecting the community allowed the attacked to carry on. And no perpetrators have been brought to justice. As was in the case during the 1956 mob attack against Tamils – or like during the ‘83 Black July days, it is the Sinhala nationalist government who should take the blame both for causing this and for protecting the perpetrators.
Communalist mob attacks in Sri Lanka have always taken place with the backing of the Sinhala nationalist elite. Following the election victory of Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005 a new wave of communalism emerged. Under the coalition government of SLFP(Sri Lanka Freedom Party) and JVP (Janatha Vimukthii Peramuna) communal forces gained new life. This then resulted in the genocidal slaughter of tens of thousands of Tamils in 2009. When Mahinda’s dictatorial regime was defeated in 2015, particularly due to Muslim and Tamils voting against it en mass, a temporary setback faced these communal forces. Even far right outfits like BBS (Bodhu Bala Sena) with its close links to the Mahinda gangs, was apologetic as they feared investigation of their past crimes.
But that period was short-lived. Because the new Maithri and Ranil government neither countered the chauvinism nor brought to justice the war criminals, communalist thugs and others who are responsible for widespread corruption. Instead the so-called ‘good governance’ plunged into further corruption, promoting chauvinism, as a cover to maintain their grip on power. In addition a pro-IMF, anti-working class budget and policies carried out by the UNP-led government led to the further deterioration of the living conditions of the poor workers, peasants and young people in the country.
Due to this inaction the chauvinist forces were allowed to regroup and organise their campaign unchallenged. Mahinda Rajapaksa was able to gain some traction based on fearmongering. By mixing populism with Sinhala nationalism and chauvinism he was able to make a significant gain in the local elections in early February. This success has helped to unleash the chauvinist forces. Far-right elements have gained enough confidence to go on the rampage and attack the Tamil-speaking Muslim community. Once again there are no indications that the current government will take any serious action against these far-right forces. It should be noted here that it is this government that attempted to brutally supress the students and peasants, etc, in the past when they came to the streets to defend education, subsidies, etc.
The capitalist UNP (United National Party) and the very weak government that it leads are facing a huge crisis. There is no more talk about a shining Sri Lankan economy. It is likely that debt payments for foreign loans alone could go above 100% of the total revenue. capitalist competitions have increased – in an economy that is not expanding. Attacks against Muslim businesses are linked to this.
Most Muslims are poor and work in dire conditions. A small rich section from the Muslim community has control of a significant part of the Sri Lankan trade. Rich Muslims, strongly established in the east, are expanding their influence in the north and in the hill country. This is, of course, contested by the small and big business from other communities. It is in these circumstances that the organised mobs are unleashed on workers and small businesses owned by the Muslim community. It is not something new.
In the late 19th century the local merchant population was dominated by Muslim traders and the Nattukottai Chettiars (traders, merchant-bankers and moneylenders). In 1880, in the Colombo suburb of Pettah, trade was dominated by Muslim firms with only a handful of Sinhalese traders among them. During this period, too, Dharmapala, the son of a rich furniture dealer from Pettah, directed an attack against the Muslims. The anti-Muslim, anti-Tamil rhetoric that was propagated and the violent activities that were carried out by that fake monk remain to this day a textbook for all the far-right chauvinists. Dharmapala then mobilised the rural poor demagogically using Buddhist Sinhala ideology, and appealing to the anti-imperialist sentiment that also developed at that time. The violence that spread in 1915 cost many lives. This provided the background for the attack against the Tamil population. In 1983 similar pattern emerged. Under UNP government organised mobs went on the rampage attacking Tamils who lived in the south while government forces stood by. What is happening now in Kanday has many parallel with what had happened in 83.
In the east in Tamil areas the Muslim businesses were able to lend money, buy land, open up new food and cloth shops, etc. This took place at speed during the relative peace that followed the end of the war in 2009. Of course, this is presented as a “Muslim takeover” by the local Sinhala and Tamil businesspeople. Some among them began to spread lies and rumours about how Muslims are confiscating land and abusing women workers, etc. Of course the Muslim leaders, including the leaders of SLMC (Sri Lanka Muslim Congress), in their attempt to control their vote base added to the fuel by using their authority to allocate land on an ethnic basis. Similarly in the hill country and in Colombo and other multi-ethnic places, Sinhala chauvinists supported by the Sinhala business elite propagated all sorts of lies about the Muslim community, the latest being that the Muslim food shops are adding contraception pills to the food to control the Sinhala population.
The lie is propagated that the Muslim population is increasing faster than the Sinhala population and presents a threat to their majority position. In fact the Muslim population stands below 10% and the Tamil population has been dramatically reduced by the 2009 massacre and exodus. Far-right Buddhist Monks spearheaded the campaign of lies. Using their authority as Monks they have so far organised many attacks on the Muslim communities and the left who defend them. Both the physical violence and the filthy verbal abuse propagated by the Monks go unchallenged. In fact they were promoted and used by the Sinhala nationalist elite to mobilise poor Sinhala workers behind them. Faced with the political and economic crisis, the Sri Lankan capitalist class and elite are resorting to their usual tactic of rallying behind Sinhala nationalism to maintain their grip on power. They know that attacks against minority groups have helped unpopular governments maintain power before. This is the reason why the Tamil population in Sri Lanka continues to face attacks and persecution by the Sri Lankan authorities. Following the war the attention has now turned on the Muslim population in particular.
But unlike in the past, even on the basis of Sinhala nationalism, no capitalist party could command a clear majority support. The UNP relied on Tamil and Muslim voters to defeat Mahinda in 2015 election. Their government may take this or that action to somehow maintain the support of minorities. But it is becoming clear for many that this government – or any other government formed by the leading two capitalist parties will not take any decisive action to counter Sinhala chauvinism – they depend on it for their own survival. The Muslim masses, learning through experience, have now taken to the streets to show their anger and opposition.
However, the so-called, self-appointed ‘Muslim leaders’ try to control this and sew illusions in the government forces. This is to justify their on-going rotten collaboration with the Maithripala wing of the SLFP or their equally rotten collusion with the UNP. Their sole aim is to protect their vote base by using Muslim identity. The majority of the Muslim population live in dire conditions. Fake religious leaders have not mobilised a movement against these conditions but have attempted to use them to enhance their influence which only furthers the suffering of the masses.
A similar picture faces the Tamil and Sinhala population. Tamil leaders who have given ‘token condemnation’ to the on-going attacks against the Muslim population are not prepared to mobilise the Tamil masses to stop the attacks. Instead they carry on their cosy deals with the very government forces that are indirectly and directly responsible for the attacks. We must reject these so-called ‘leaders’. These leaders defend the government attacks against the conditions of the Sinhala workers, peasants, poor and students and youth. We must fight for better conditions for all.
What is urgently needed is a mass party that will stand for improving the conditions for Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim workers and young people. Such a party must also organise to oppose neoliberal policies such as the privatisation of health and education. Only the building of such a working class force can push back the chauvinist and racist forces. Trade unions, socialists, and all other progressive sections in the society should come forward to build such a force.
Some who claim to be on the left such as the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna), only uses Marxist rhetoric but in effect plays second fiddle to the Sinhala nationalism that feeds the development of the chauvinist forces. They never challenged these forces directly. The JVP never made any serious efforts to mobilise the masses to counter these attacks. On the contrary, they have at times collaborated with the very same chauvinist forces. A socialist party such as the USP (United Socialist Party, a part of the world socialist organisation the Committee for a Workers’ International), and a few others on the left even with limited resources have attempted to mobilise and unite workers and young people of all ethnic groups against the development of the far-right forces even when they have been physically attacked by racist monks. USP has an outstanding track record of defending the rights of Muslims and all minorities in Sri Lanka.
The Tamil and Muslim masses should treat these organisations as a friendly force, discuss with them and join together, with an appeal to Sinhala workers and youth, to build a mass anti-racist movement and a party of the left. No capitalist party can be trusted to deliver the demands of the masses. Maithri-Ranil government must take the responsibility for the attack against Muslim community. They are now competing with Mahinda Rajapaksa to show that they are more communal. It is why they have not bothered to implement even merger recommendations that they agreed on UN resolution last year with respect to war crimes. The establishment of a strong mass left party that bases itself on a democratic socialist programme will be able to both protect the rights of minorities, the right to practice all religions and none, and national rights, and create jobs as well as take actions to implement a democratic socialist planned economy to improve the conditions for all.
- End all attacks on the Muslim community immediately
- Build a mass anti-racist movement appealing to young people, trade unionists, workers and the poor
- Support the building of multi-ethnic democratic defence bodies involving trade unions, local communities and student organisations against the mob attacks provoked and perpetrated by the BBS. We also need defence against state repression, especially in the areas where Muslim communities live
- The right of an individual to practice any religion or none must be respected, with protection for minority rights in all areas
- We demand compensation and justice for all victims of mob attacks. We demand a public inquiry – to be conducted by democratically elected and accountable representatives that should include the victimised people and trade unions
- Lift the ban on all social media.
- End all cuts and privatisation. For a decent living wage for all.