Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Prez poll: Muttur result signifies Muslims’ mood




by Shamindra Ferdinando

Former army commander and Opposition candidate, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, comfortably secured the Muttur polling division, in the Trincomalee district, at the Jan. 26, 2010 presidential poll. Fonseka polled 32,631 votes (59.09 %), whereas UPFA candidate, Mahinda Rajapaksa, obtained 21,002 (38.03 %).

Fonseka couldn’t have bagged the predominately Muttur electorate, without the support of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). SLMC leader, Rauff Hakeem, threw his full weight behind Fonseka in accordance with an overall Opposition plan meant to deprive Rajapaksa of a second presidential term. Although the SLMC delivered Muttur, as well as several other predominantly Muslim electorates, the margin of victory in those areas weren’t adequate for the war - winning army chief to take the lead. Rajapaksa easily set off his losses in the Northern and Eastern electoral districts, with super gains made in other districts.

At the recently concluded presidential poll, the SLMC delivered Muttur to Opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena with the former SLFP General Secretary obtaining a staggering 57,532 votes (87.54%), whereas Rajapaksa secured 7,132 (10.85%).

Rajapaksa’s heavy defeat at Muttur reflected the general mood of the entire Muslim electorate. An overwhelming majority of the Muslim electorate exercised their franchise against Rajapaksa. They felt the overriding need to deliver a knockout blow to the then President, seeking a third term.

The failure on the part of the previous government to rein in Bodu Bala Sena, even after the organization went on the rampage in Alutgama and Beruwela, in June, last year, paved the way for a consensus among registered Muslim political parties and other organizations. The SLMC and Commerce and Industry Minister Rishard Bathiudeen’s All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) led the campaign. The the then President’s refusal to take tangible measures against those propagating hate among communities facilitated the SLMC’s move.

In fact, the SLMC fully exploited the President’s weaknesses to lure more Muslims to Maithripala’s camp. Had the government acted swiftly, and decisively, in the wake of atrocities committed by the BBS, even if the SLMC switched its allegiance to Maithripala Sirisena, Muslims would still have voted for Rajapaksa. SLMC leader Hakeem discussed ways and means of tackling the situation with the then Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, over a week after the Aluthgama mayhem.

BBS activists caused massive damages to property owned by Muslims during during rioting on, June 15, 2014.

Rauff meets Gotabhaya

Minister Hakeem suggested to Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, that an institutionalized mechanism be established to prevent recurrence of religious violence.

Hakeem met the Defence Secretary, at the Defence Ministry, on June 24, 2014.

Having briefed the party of his meeting with Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, Justice Minister Hakeem told The Island that he had got an opportunity to discuss the entire gamut of issues, relating to recent violence at Alutgama and Beruwela with the Defence Secretary (Curbing racial violence: Hakeem informs Gotabhaya of need for institutionalized mechanism-The Island, June 25, 2014), asserting that nothing could be as important as having an institutionalized mechanism to meet any eventuality.

Hakeem warned that in the wake of the Alutgama mayhem, the government shouldn’t resort to ad hoc measures to prevent another bout of violence.

Hakeem reiterated the allegation that the BBS was responsible for attacks on the Muslim community. The Minister quoted the Defence Secretary as having pointed out that there were other groups, beside the BBS, under scrutiny.

Hakeem said that they had also discussed the need to take tangible measures to prevent hate speech as well as inflammatory statements.

Hakeem said recent violence pointed to the need for an ‘early warning system’ to ensure the government could act swiftly and decisively before disaster struck. The Minister said that he had informed Defence Secretary Rajapaksa of that need and pointed some shortcomings in security set-up during the recent disturbances.

The then US ambassador in Colombo, Michele J. Sison, as well as British High Commissioner, John Rankin, gently pushed Hakeem to take a stronger against the government over its failure to rein in the BBS. Although, both the US and the British missions asserted that the US and the British representatives meeting government personnel was routine, they obviously exploited the situation. The previous government did nothing to arrest the situation. In fact, an influential section of the government believed that the deteriorating situation could help Rajapaksa to attract the Sinhala Buddhist vote. The SLFP leadership refused to heed dire warnings.

SLMC Chairman Cegudawood warns

Among those who had demanded immediate government intervention was SLMC Chairman and the then Productivity Promotion Minister, Basheer Cegudawood, who warned President Rajapaksa of dire consequences unless he stepped in (Rein in violent elements or face the consequences’: Vast majority of Sinhalese won’t tolerate extremist sentiments -SLMC Chairman-The Island, June 26, 2014).

The following is The Island front-page lead story: "SLMC Chairman and Productivity Promotion Minister Basheer Cegudawood (Batticaloa District MP) has warned that the ruling coalition will have to face catastrophic consequences unless tangible action is taken immediately to rein in extremist Sinhala organizations.

Parliamentarian Cegudawood has asserted that President Mahinda Rajapaksa will lose the support of the vast majority of the Sinhala Buddhist electorate, which abhorred sentiments propagated by organizations such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Ravana Balaya (RB), besides losing the backing of the Muslims, as well as other minorities.

The SLMC Chairman made these observations while addressing the 64th Annual General Meeting of the Young Men’s Muslim Association (YMMA) at the auditorium of Madeena National School, at Madawala.

Referring to recent violence against Muslims living in Alutgama, Beruwela, and some adjoining areas, Cegudawood emphasized that failure to neutralize the threat posed by extremists would render President Mahinda Rajapaksa vulnerable at the next national level election.

Cegudawood urged the Muslim community to join hands with those among the Sinhalese community, opposed to extremism, as well as Tamils genuinely interested in peace, to face the challenge posed by the BBS, Ravana Balaya, as well as the Sihala Urumaya. In the face of growing extremist challenge, the Muslim community couldn’t ignore the pivotal importance of having close rapport with the majority community, Cegudawood said.

The YMMA should intervene and work closely with civil society organizations, which represented the Buddhists, Hindus, as well as Catholics, he said.

Pointing out the growing use of social media by all communities, MP Cegudawood said that they couldn’t be emotional in handling the crisis. The SLMC senior said that whatever the challenges and threats faced by the Muslims, the community would have to depend on existing state institutions to resolve the crisis. Cegudawood strongly opposed to the Muslim community acting in isolation, at a time they should work with those who have been opposed to extremism.

Recollecting the struggle waged by the Tamils against successive governments, Cegudawood asserted that their campaign could have taken a different path had there been a genuine effort to inform the majority community of the injustices caused to them. Having realized the need to win the confidence of the majority community, the LTTE launched a Sinhala newspaper, the MP said. However, the LTTE action would have made a difference had the group acted much earlier, he said.

Referring to atrocities committed by the LTTE against the Muslim community during the Eelam conflict, Cegudawood vowed that whatever the challenges faced by them they would never flee the country. Cegudawood said: "We will not seek refuge in Europe, Middle East or any other country, including India. Neither will we allow anyone to exploit us."

The president ignored Cegudawood’s sound advice.

BBS attacks SLMC

Having allowed the BBS to run riot, the government directed the armed forces to rebuild shops and houses, belonging to Muslims. The government conveniently ignored the need to punish those responsible for the massive damages caused to civilian property. Instead of rounding up the perpetrators, the government spent taxpayers’ money to rebuild Alutgama and Beruwela. Both President Rajapaksa and his government had to pay a heavy price for playing politics with an extremely sensitive issue.

Having caused irrevocable damage to the relationship between the Sinhalese and Muslims, the General Secretary of the BBS, Ven Galabodatta Gnanasara, declared, on July 2, 2014, that the SLMC could be behind religious violence. The allegation was made outside police headquarters after having given a statement to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) as regards his alleged involvement in the Alutgama violence (BBS leader alleges SLMC responsible for ethnic strife-The Island, July 3, 2014).

For some strange reason, the previous government simply ignored the need to conduct, at least, a background check on the BBS. The revelation made, in July last year, that the British government had refused to issue a visa to Ven Galagodaatte Gnanasara thero surprised many.

British Parliament was told that visa application from Ven Gnanasara Thera would be considered in accordance with immigration rules. Asked whether the government planned to ban Ven. Gnanasara Thera from entering the United Kingdom, Minister of State for Crime Prevention and Antisocial Behaviour Reduction, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, said though the Home Office did not routinely comment on individual cases, he could confirm that any visa application from Ven. Gnanasara Thera would be considered, in accordance with the Immigration Rules.

He also said: "Under the Prevent strategy, the Unacceptable Behaviours policy has prevented a cross section of extremists from entering the UK.

This includes individuals for public speaking or publishing material that foments, justifies or glorifies terrorist violence or fosters hatred which might lead to inter-communal violence in the UK or otherwise can be demonstrated as providing support for extremists."

"Coming to the UK is a privilege we refuse to extend to those who would subvert our shared values," the official added.

Ven. Gnanasara acknowledged that the issue had been raised in British parliament in the wake of the US State Department withdrawing a five - year multiple entry visa granted to him.

Ven Gnanasara visited both Norway and the US before the formation of BBS. According to the Norwegian Embassy, the visit to Oslo took place before the Ven Thero’s affiliation to BBS was known, actually, before the Embassy was even aware of its mere existence. "The trip to Oslo was organized by an organization called Norwegian Peace Building Resource Centre (NOREF), which invited a group of eight Sinhalese from Sri Lanka, among them five prominent Buddhist priests, to meet a group of Tamil Diaspora, in Norway, from 20-26 October 2011. The delegation consisted of the following members: Ven. Galagodaatte Gnanasara Thera, Ven. Aluthwewa Ananda Thera, Ven. Dapane Sumanawansa Thera, Ven. Welimada Shantha Thera, Ven. Witharandeniye Nanda Thera, Dilanthe Withanage, Pujitha Wijesinghe and Mark Antony Perera." The Norwegian Embassy said that the Worldview International Foundation (WIF) facilitated the project (Gnanasara Thero: I didn’t seek UK visa’-The Island, July 8, 2014).

The BBS caused irreparable damage to the previous government. The former President may not want to accept the responsibility for the situation. The former SLFP leader should realize that the sentiments of the Muslim community remained hostile towards his in spite of him giving up the leadership consequent to the presidential poll defeat. The SLFP shouldn’t forget that remedial measures should be taken in the run-up to the next parliamentary poll, likely to take place in June this year.

The SLFP may not like to admit that the party hadn’t done absolutely nothing to mend its relationship with the Muslim community since the conclusion of the presidential poll. Perhaps, the SLFP should inquire into its humiliating defeat in the background that it was the SLFP and the UPFA, at the behest of the then President, as well as the SLFP leader that called for a national level poll, two years ahead of schedule. Such an inquiry would help the SLFP to establish the circumstances leading to the unprecedented defeat of an incumbent President. A proper investigation would establish that violence, unleashed on the Muslims, in June, last year, as well as a spate of attacks both before and after the Alutgama mayhem had deprived Rajapaksa of the Muslims’ crucial support. The Muslim factor could be one of the major reasons for Rajapaksa’s debacle. The deterioration of the SLFP’s relationship with the Muslims community automatically strengthened Maithripala Sirisena’s camp.

Overwhelming support, received by Maithripala Sirisena from the Tamil speaking electorate, prompted the UPFA to claim he was rejected by the Sinhalese, a claim strongly denied by the new government. Maithripala Sirisena narrowly won the predominantly Sinhala Buddhist Panadura electorate though many believed Mahinda Rajapaksa could bag with a big majority. That belief was propagated by those who believed that hardline approach towards the Muslims could prompt overzealous response from the Sinhalese. Obviously a wrong assumption, as proved on January 8, 2015, when Maithripala Sirisena proved all surveys, conducted by the previous government, wrong.

To be continued on Feb.18