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Human Rights and Reconciliation Challenged in Dambulla and by Disappearances

[Groundviews, Thursday, 26 April 2012 14:43 No Comment]

rock_cave_temple_-_dambulla In more ways than one, a sleeping Buddha in Dambulla Rock Cave Temple. Courtesy University of Peradeniya

Whilst the country awaits the decision of the regime regarding which recommendations, if any, of the LLRC report it will implement, human rights and reconciliation continue to be challenged, by disappearances and now, the ugly spectre of religious intolerance.

From October 2011 to March 2012, there have been some 56 cases of disappearances and abduction recorded.  Some 29 of these have been in February and March of this year and 19 happened whilst the UNHRC was in session.  Of the 29 cases, 16 have been reported from Colombo and 08 from the Northern Province.  Five of the cases reported from the north are said to be ex-LTTE cadre who had been detained, released and then abducted. Egregious cases include that of

  1. Mr Ramasamy Prabhakaran who was abducted in Colombo two days before his fundamental rights petition was to come up before the Supreme Court. He had been held for 28 months and tortured.

  2. Mr Sagara Senaratne, an in – law of Minister Jeevan Kumaratunga, who alleges that he was released once the President and Defence Secretary were informed of his abduction.

  3. Mr Ravindra Udayashantha, the UPFA chairperson of the Kolonnawa Pradeshiya Council who alleged that the attempt to abduct him was foiled by his supporters surrounding the white van sent for this purpose only to discover that it contained army personnel. The latter were later released and the officer in charge of the police station transferred according to authorities on grounds unrelated to the incident.

  4. The Gunaratnam and Atygalle cases, which were preceded by the disappearance of Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Murugananthan in Jaffna – nothing being heard of the last two since they were disappeared.

The issue is as to what the regime is willing and able to do about disappearances and abductions and increasingly, to dispel the perception that in some of these cases at least, it is complicit – a perception that is lent credence to by the Senaratne and Kolonnawa cases.   Were this to be entirely erroneous a perception or accurate to the extent that there could be rogue elements in the law and order and security establishment at lower levels who operate without the knowledge and to the detriment of the hierarchy, it begs the question of the extent to which the hierarchy knows what is going on.  Assuming that none of this has anything to do with persons in the law and order and security establishment, the question still remains as to what credible steps they are willing and able to take to stop the institutionalization of an egregious human rights violation as a common place occurrence in the country.

It is not clear as to the seriousness and priority with which the regime treats this. The sensitivities of being seen to bow to international opinion on human rights post –Geneva notwithstanding, there is the danger of this becoming a political issue that could haunt the regime and erode its standing nationally.   There was a time when the questions -who is this man? what is he doing?- came to be catch phrases for a dark phase in our recent history. As a columnist put with regard to the Senaratne case – how did they know whom to call? Will that question be the catchphrase of today, tomorrow and tomorrow……..?

Dangerous and frightening is what is going on in Dambulla – the most recent example of religious intolerance but certainly not the only one in recent times.   The legality of both the Hindu and Muslim places of worship aside, the key question, given the need of the hour being reconciliation is as to why the issue was allowed to be dealt with, with violence, intimidation, gross contempt and insensitivity to religious coexistence and tolerance which the peoples of this country have upheld through decades of war and before.

Did anyone know that this incident was being planned? Why was it allowed to proceed and result in the cancellation of prayers at the mosque on Friday?  Questions are constantly asked and accusations hurled at those who have spoken out post –war at majoritarian triumphalism and the muscular assertion of the majority Sinhala- Buddhist identity.  All of this was on display in Dambulla, with the threat to expand the space for it throughout the island.  Particularly tragic, is that the area in which this demonstration of thuggery was enacted in the name of historic religious rights, with its Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu places of worship, has been a testament to religious tolerance and coexistence – not for over a century as the monk sarcastically inquires of the girl who says she worshiped at the Hindu shrine when she was a child – but for decades.

Available evidence suggests that the regime will resolve the issue in favour of the majority.  One can only hope and pray that whatever the resolution of the issue, that it will not lead to further violence and spread. Most importantly, that it will not sow the seeds of religious conflict.  Reconciliation requires that the seeds of conflict along any axis are not sustained or reproduced.

Dambulla is also telling for the deafening silence of those who feel the patriotic compulsion to regularly mouth off on the indignities and subversion of traitors and conspirators within and without.  I have yet to see an editorial in the media on this, denunciation of this blatant violation of the tenets of Buddhism by leading prelates, monks, members of civil society and politicians, except for a handful of the latter and those of us who have been labeled as traitors for upholding basic human rights.  Is criticism of members of the Sangha taboo even when it focuses on blatant violations of the teachings of the Lord Buddha and the overarching imperative of reconciliation to which these teachings are so integral and pivotal a part of?  What of the discipline of the priesthood?  Was the behavior of the monks in Dambulla in keeping with it?

It is time for civil society, its religious and lay components, to step up to the plate of their responsibilities to rid this country of ugly and altogether unnecessary tension and conflict.  It is highly likely that if they do, a populist regime will in turn take the lead from its followers, as populist regimes are wont to, to stay in power.

It would seem that as criticism of members of the Sangha is taboo, so does the minister who threatened to break my legs, enjoy impunity.   We are told by First Brother Basil that he has done good deeds in Kelaniya and that only His Excellency the President can remove him – from the party- that is.  His Excellency appears to be unmoved.

Would it have been any different if he carried out his threat, in this country and regime like no other?

(Dr. P. Saravanamuttu)

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