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Above: People work at a blast scene at St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 21, 2019/Photo: Xinhua/UNI

Ever since the suicide bombings last month, Sri Lanka has gone into an overdrive and imposed emergency with unprecedented powers to the army and police. Are the bad old days back again?

 By Seema Guha

Sri Lanka remains on edge following the co-ordinated terror attacks on Easter Sunday that killed over 250 people. Having failed to prevent the carnage despite a tip-off from Indian intelligence, the government is now in an overdrive to root out Islamic terror from its soil. Colombo has implemented several tough measures to combat terror which could have serious implications for human rights and individual freedoms.

This has raised concerns about the country going back to the old days when the government and the army assumed extraordinary powers to tackle the onslaught of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This resulted in widespread human rights abuses in the name of fighting the terrorists. Many believe that this could happen again.

In the last ten years since the war against Tamil separatists was won and especially after the defeat of strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 elections, democratic institutions were restored in the island nation. The Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe coalition government got the country back on track. However, the fallout between the two top leaders and Sirisena’s attempts to get Rajapaksa as prime minister destroyed the equilibrium. The terror strikes have given the security forces the opportunity to once again be the saviours of Sri Lanka.

According to reports from the island, human rights activists are being blamed for terrorism by the president himself, who now sees much virtue in Rajapaksa. Not to be outdone, the Army Commander, Lt General Mahesh Senanayake, added his voice to the discourse by saying “too much of freedom” and “too much of peace” had been drivers of the recent terrorism. Considering the trauma of the terror attacks, people at large have not rejected these assertions. There was little pushback from the public. Are the bad old days back?

For one, emergency, which was lifted after decades, is back now. Hours after the Easter Sunday massacre, emergency had been imposed. Emergency regulations allow the security forces and the police unprecedented powers of search, arrest and killing of alleged terrorists. While the immediate threat has been eliminated, there is no talk of the emergency being lifted.

The latest of a slew of measurers announced to tackle the crisis affects the lives of Lanka’s Muslim minorities. First was a ban on Muslim women wearing either the burqa or the niqab as it makes identification difficult for the police and security forces. This will be a blow to many conservative Muslims who have been covering themselves as part of their religious and cultural practice laid down by the Koran.

Sri Lanka is not the only country which has banned Muslim women from covering their faces. France was the first European country to do so as early as 2004. It began with a ban on students in state-funded educational institutions. This was extended in 2011 when a total public ban was announced by then President Nicolas Sarkozy. Women can be subjected to a fine of 150 euros and instructions in citizenship for breaking the ban. Anyone who forces a woman to cover her face risks a 30,000 euro fine. With Islamic terror becoming a real threat to security, many other countries have now enforced either a partial or complete ban. Belgium and Switzerland do not allow the burqa. Netherlands does not have a general ban, but burqas are not allowed in schools, hospitals and public transport. In several parts of Spain, the ban is in force. After terror strikes on Chad and Niger, the veil was banned. The clamour for a ban has also started in India after the Sri Lankan announcement.

And on May 10, a Friday, the government ordered that the authorities must have a copy of the sermons that are delivered to the congregation in mosques for approval. The Ministry of Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs said mosques must not be used for radicalising congregations. “In view of the prevailing situation in the country, the ministry directs all trustees of mosques not to engage in or permit any gathering to promote or propagate hatred or extremism in any form,” a press release issued by the Ministry said.

In an interview to a local paper, Senanayake, the army commander, called for better monitoring of mosques. “Those responsible for monitoring and supervising them are not doing anything to stop the propagation of extremist ideology,” he said. Senanayake added that large stocks of swords had been found in mosques and contradictory statements about the detections were being made.

The ISIS has claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday killings. Sri Lankan authorities have named the National Thowheeth Jamaath (NTJ), a little-known radical Islamist outfit, as the local group that carried out the almost simultaneous strikes. The army and the police immediately fanned out to raid all known hideouts of the group, which is suspected to be a more radical version of the existing Sri Lanka National Thowheeth. All those closely associated with the terror plot have already been eliminated. Some have blown themselves up in suicide bombings, while the army has raided several hideouts and killed many of those who were part of the terror plot.

The Sri Lankan army is well-equipped today to eradicate a group like the NTJ. Having fought a sophisticated terror group like the LTTE for decades, it is now a professional force able to deal with all internal security issues. In the early years, the army was mainly a ceremonial force. But since then, it has gained valuable experience in dealing with terror outfits. Massive arrests have been made and questioning has further pinpointed the location of arms and ammunitions. The army commander has said that the immediate threat is over. Now it is time to ensure that Muslims in the country do not get radicalised. For that, the government would have to closely monitor the internet and keep a check on the messages that reach the youth in the form of inflammatory speeches which incite violence against non-Muslims.

Reports of attacks on Muslims have come from several areas as anger and frustration mounts over the deadly attacks. Most Sinhalese realise that there is no sympathy for terrorists among the Muslims, unlike the support that the LTTE received from Tamils. This is also because of the discrimination faced by Tamils in an attempt by the ruling dispensation to please the Sinhala Buddhist majority. But Muslims have not faced that kind of discrimination, perhaps because they are a small minority. However, with the latest terror attack, Muslims may have to face more Sinhala wrath. These could escalate as presidential elections are slated for the end of the year, and candidates may play the strong leader card. South Asian nations love strong leaders, internal security and ultra-nationalism.

Hopefully, the Sinhala chauvinists will have learnt a lesson after decades of ethnic violence on the island. But, hotheads hardly take note of history, and these are likely to grow in number as parties prepare for the presidential elections. What is of concern is that chauvinism and strong-arm tactics will come to the fore.

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