Sri Lanka: Delineating religious terrorism

Image credit: America’s “Jihad”

N. Sathiya Moorthy  29 January 2019

Muted media reports about the Police seizing a high quantity of explosives and explosions-linked equipment like detonators, should make the nation sit up and take notice. If investigations show that the explosives could be linked to possible acts of terrorism linked to the four Muslims arrested in this regard, discerning care should be taken not to brand the entire community with them and their purported cause, whatever it is.

Credit should go to the national media to handle the arrests and seizures with caution and consideration. They have done well thus far by not seeking to speculate anything more than what the Police may have known and have briefed them, too. There is need for not only the Media but the entire nation to stick to this line even while giving the Police and the Government in whatever needed doing.

According to reports, published more outside the country than possibly inside, the seizures followed the arrest of some Muslim men after local groups had cornered one of those who were fleeing after desecrating a statue of the Buddha. Media reports, quoting investigators, now speak about the existence of a new, radicalised Muslim group in the country. However, no figures or details have been made public.

The seizures were made from a temporary warehouse in the Wilpattu National Park, not far away from north-western Puttalam District could however, be a cause for greater concern. Apart from a substantial number of Muslim populace all through, the region is also house to ‘Muslim refugees’ in their thousands, forcibly evicted by the dreaded LTTE in 1990, with only what they were wearing.

However, the Muslims did not react violently against the LTTE or their Tamil brethren then or since. Even a decade after the exit of the LTTE and the successful conclusion to the nation’s anti-terror war, the Muslim refugees from the North has not been able to return home. Nor have they been returned their properties, left behind in 1990.

Unlike their Tamil counterparts, Muslim political party leaders have seldom talked about the crises facing the community, both in terms of ideology and also monetary losses suffered through the past decades. The more recent ones involved the attacks on Muslim places of worship and trade establishments, allegedly by ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ gangs, starting with the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) of jailed Thera, Gnanasara.

Last year, under the present Government, Muslims faced the unjustified wrath of lumpen elements from the majority community, in Batticaloa in the East and Kandy in Central Highlands. Acting over-cautiously, if it could be described so, the Government proclaimed a state of emergency, which lasted less than a fortnight but it did help bring the situation under control.

Shattering belief

The general belief has been that despite suffering at the hands of the other two ethnicities, namely, Sinhalese and Tamils, the Muslim youth have maintained a greater sense of equanimity than otherwise attributed. In the last months of the predecessor Rajapaksa Government, the security agencies came down heavily on Colombo ‘gangs’ that were mainly comprised of some groups of Muslims.

At the time, the security agencies also uncovered the existence of private radio stations in the heart of the capital Colombo, accessible only within individual localities or even part thereof. Indications were that those radio stations were used to try and ‘radicalise’ the Muslim youth.

The large-scale return of the burka, the Muslim body-cover for women over the past decade and more, in the Muslim localities of the East, was another development often cited against the community. However, no comparisons were made about the continuing dominance of the saffron/maroon robes of the monks of majority Sinhala-Buddhist community, since independence and even earlier.

However, coming up in bits and pieces and at a distance from one another, such reports have been shattering the generally-held belief that the Muslims are Sri Lankan nationals, first and last, and their religious beliefs, though deeper at times than those of other ethnicities, was not a cause for security concern.

Terrorist, ours, and yours

It is easy to dismiss or brand all forms of religious or ideological (including erstwhile Marxist or pan-Tamil) preaching, propagation and practices as terrorism. Even after 9/11 and Sri Lanka’s war on LTTE, both of which were confirmed and accepted as acts of terrorism, there is no self-fulfilling definition for the term. It is being used loosely and casually.

Worse still is the dictum, ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. In Afghanistan, pre-9/11, the US perpetuated the theory of ‘our terrorists and your terrorists’. If the terrorist served the US geo-political and geo-strategic purposes, it was freedom movement. If it hurt you, as with 9/11, they are terrorists, good and proper.

It was/equally so with ‘terrorists’ in Chechenya in the case of Russia, Jammu & Kashmir for the Indian neighbour, Xinjiang for China, et al. Tibetans were/are freedom-fighters for all the world, but not for China. Pakistan, that fountainhead of most terrorist modules operating across the world, and who’s ISI has funded and finances cross-border terrorism in India, is now crying ‘wolf’ from within.

In the era after Second World War, Europe and most parts of the rest of the world are witness to radicalisation of religion, ideologies, and religious ideologies. If more Muslim women wear burqa, so do more Sinhalese, men and women, wear the immaculate white identified with the Buddha, and more and more monks take to saffron or ochre robes. If Sinhalese have a cause for concern in the former, so have Tamils and Muslims in the case of the latter, almost since Independence, if not earlier.

Where fundamentalist practices end, or where radicalisation begins is difficult to distinguish after a point. Where radicalisation ends and extremism begins is even more difficult to fathom. Even in the use of violence, the question arises as to what was hooliganism, militancy, or terrorism. No one can describe Rohana Wijeweera’s JVP or Prabhakaran’s LTTE as ‘hooligans’ or ‘militants’. No one can confer on the BBS, the ‘honourable title’ (?) of ‘militants’ or ‘terrorists’.

Putting the piece together

It will now require Police investigators in the ‘Wilpattu seizures’ case to put the pieces together, and also source the explosives to where they had come from. There has been concern over the possibility of at least a peripheral section of the local Muslim youth going the Al Qaeda way at the height of 9/11. Later, there were allegations, unfounded as they were, about the newer crop of Muslim youth following the IS brand.

The fact that the Police could stumble upon these hidden explosives at such an early stage should owe to luck, pure and simple. Whether this would expose a larger net and network, of would end there, remains to be seen. 

Then would arise the question if there could be individual modules unknown to one another, operating in near-isolation but taking orders and explosives from a common source, either inside or outside the country.

‘Outside’ the country is what should concern the nation and its security agencies even more, not that the other is anything less evil and disastrous. The question would thus arise where the explosives and guns came from, and what routes and modus were employed for smuggling them into the country.

Considering that the forgotten LTTE were past-masters in the game, anyone who had followed their course and career, could pounce as surprise or two at the Sri Lankan State. After a time at the very least, the security agencies could also catch up with the wrong-doers, they having studied the LTTE so very thoroughly, both during the war years and later, too, this time in an academic sense.

ISI angle or what

The common refrain should be that any such seizure should be linked to radicalised Sri Lankan Muslims, who are doing it in the cause of the faith, or against those that have been targeting the community.  Considering the Al-Qaeda/IS angle, it is not unlikely to assume, until proved otherwise, that those groups being thrown out of their original bases in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, may be looking for new operational/storage bases.

If Sri Lanka sitting at the centre of the Indian Ocean sea-lanes is a source of economic power for the nation, it could be so even for terrorists – the LTTE first and others, possibly since. However, needing international political support, the LTTE was careful not to interfere with international sea-trade passing through neighbourhood seas. It need not be the case with other groups, who may have other plans, reasons, and motivation.

In this also comes the possible role of Pakistan ISI, which was known to be involved in promoting possible acts of terror in southern India, from across the narrow Palk Straits that connects Sri Lanka with India. In the past, the ISI was known to have launched cross-border terrorism against India, from other land-locked neighbours like Bangladesh and Nepal.

Island-nations like Sri Lanka and Maldives joined the list later, but no great damage has been done thus far. If anything, alert security agencies have always believed to have thwarted every fresh effort/attempt of the kind, whether involving Indians, Sri Lankans or Maldivians – more of individuals than groups. There again, there was no mention about the presence and seizure of explosives, thus requiring greater validation, if at all any, than social media speculation.

Whatever the modes and methods, whoever constitutes the group or groups and their motives, there is a need for the Sri Lankan investigators to get to the bottom of it all, here and now. Their efforts in turn need to be accompanied by greater and continuing involvement of local Muslim polity and community leadership(s), which have all along seen them only as a vote-bank, and nothing more.

For its part, the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala religious and social leaderships have to put an end to this targeted attacks on one minority community after another, as if it’s all working to a medium to long-term plan/plot. It had started with the Upcountry Tamils, who were summarily disenfranchised in their tens of thousands within months of Independence, followed by the exclusion of Sri Lankan Tamils through the ‘Sinhala Only Act’, leading in turn to war and violence, if only over a period.

The nation cannot afford to have the third minority community to suffer, likewise, and itself pay the price for it. The ramifications could well be more global than whatever global ramifications the nation has suffered when the LTTE dominated the scene and negotiated with guns and explosives, not just on legalities and other niceties.

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