Anti-Rohingya refugee protests:the latest pretext of Islamophobia

Myanmar revokes Rohingya voting

Given Sri Lanka’s recent history as one of the main sources of refugees during the three decades of ethnic conflict and the JVP’s 1988-1989 insurgency, the recent protests against the Rohingya refugees are downright hypocritical. However, they are incorrigible too, for despite all the bluster by ultra-nationalist monks, Sri Lanka currently hosts only 30 Rohingyas.

Three previous groups of Rohingyas who were rescued by the Navy in 2008, 2012 and 2013 have already been relocated to a third country. There are about 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers from different countries, including 30 from Myanmar, according to the UNHCR office in Colombo. That is a fraction compared to 136,605 Sri Lankan refugees and 8,634 Sri Lankan asylum-seekers in various countries in the world, mainly in India, according to the UNHCR’s 2012 figures.

Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, but, it had generally acted in the spirit of the convention. An exception to the norm was seen during the latter half of the Rajapaksa regime, when Colombo, allegedly on the insistence of Pakistan, deported hundreds of members of the Ahamediyya community back to Pakistan, in violation of the principle of non-refoulement, that is a fundamental principle in international law that forbids a receiving country from sending asylum seekers back to a place where they would be in danger of persecution.

Perhaps it is overly idealistic to suggest that Sri Lanka on its own accepts refugees who had fled persecution elsewhere, though one could see the potential for a soft power boost for the country through a limited gesture to that effect.

Religious and ethnic bigots in the past and the present have exploited existing fault lines in our societies, by highlighting the ‘otherness’ of communities living in this multi-ethnic state

Sri Lanka of course does have its own domestic imperatives to rehabilitate the war-torn North and provide housing and a livelihood to thousands of Northern citizens. However, as a country that flooded the world with refugees not so long ago, the least Sri Lanka could do is to show empathy with the plight of the other less fortunate souls. Sadly though, the fringe Sinhala-Buddhist ultra- nationalism is not capable of that empathy. They are a bad advertisement for Buddhism and this country. They do not represent the Sinhalese Buddhist majority or for that matter, the majority of Sri Lankans, yet, when it comes to the crunch, those loud mouthed bigots present themselves as the dominant face of Sinhala Buddhists and hijack the national discourse.

Each society has its own fellowship of a racist political fringe. However, there is a fundamental difference between how a liberal society and a society that got stuck somewhere in that transformation respond to bigots in their midst. In the latter, a wider pluralistic society generally speaks up against bigotry and their voice is generally magnified by progressive media. In the former, such as ours, bigots, even despite their numerical minority tend to dominate the discourse and hold weak political institutions of the State to ransom. Public reaction to that is either apathy or resignation. Civil society in this part of the world is less organized and less civic conscious. Nor could they confront the potential intimidation that the religious and nationalist fringe is capable of unleashing. Perhaps to begin with, to fight back racists, what Sri Lanka needs to develop is something akin to ‘Antifa’ which can restore the balance of coercion.
Sri Lanka’s religious and nationalist fringe is a microscopic minority, in comparable world standards. In the just concluded elections in Germany, the Neo-Nazi loving Alternative for Germany won over 13 per cent of the popular vote, whereas Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist exclusivist parties could barely win five per cent of the popular vote even during the best of their times, though they were far less vitriolic in their ideology than the new phase of ultra nationalism, the Bodu Bala Sena.

Yet in Germany, despite their electoral success, there is a reviled group, whose sympathizers rarely come out of their closets for fear of being demonized in the public eye. In Sri Lanka, however, a religious and nationalist fringe, which could not win electoral representation, still manages to hijack the State policy and subjugate the majority of decent people. That has been happening since the very outset of gaining Independence.

The recent feigned anxiety over the Rohingya refugees is the latest in a long list of sorry excuses used to fuel racism by those groups. In the early 2000s, their main beef was against proselytizing by evangelical Christians. Then, with the advent of Galabodaatte Gnanasara Thera and the Bodu Bala Sena, Buddhist ultra-nationalism took a decidedly anti-Muslim turn — first it was cow slaughter, then the halal certificate, then recently the alleged destruction of Buddhist archeological sites and now the Rohingya refugees. All of that was part and parcel of a broader anti-Muslim campaign.

Religious and ethnic bigots in the past and the present have exploited existing fault lines in our societies, by highlighting the ‘otherness’ of communities living in this multi-ethnic state. (This is the same perilous strategy that was adopted by the Federal Party, which exploited and overplayed Tamil grievances to radicalize the community,finally leading them to a suicidal war.)

What should equally be clear to a discerning observer is that the pretext for each of those campaigns was concocted by the same groups and often faulty and fabricated information was then disseminated through social media and other grassroots campaigns. It is natural for the racist fringe to try to manipulate the public opinion; the problem is when the societies fail to produce a sufficient counterweight to a hate campaign. Similarly, advanced democracies, or for that matter India have strong political institutions that can withstand, moderate and check the regressive impulses of their societies and their own governments. Recently, an Indian judge convicted a popular godman for rape and jailed him for twenty years, while millions of devotees were protesting against the court action. Our institutions do not have that luxury.

But, we have a strong security apparatus which can be deployed to monitor these groups, and also counter terrorism laws that can be used to ensure a higher retributive cost. They are of course not a long-term alternative for a vibrant pluralistic society and stronger political institutions, which Sri Lanka should strive to build. That is however a long haul process. Until then, it should assign the STF and military intelligence to keep a tab on Buddhist ultra-nationalism.

SOURCE: Daily Mirror

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