27 mosques and many Muslim-owned homes, businesses and vehicles attacked by mobs in the Puttalam, Kurunegala and Gampaha Districts in mid-May
In another related sideshow, Batti District MP Sathasivam Viyalendran launched a hunger strike in the East in support of Rathana Thera’s fast
Although Bathiudeen, Hizbullah and Azath Salley quit their posts on the same day at different times, the reasons for the resignations were different
The first few days of this month saw Sri Lanka once again hurtling towards another orgy of anti-Muslim violence. Buddhist monk Ven. Athureliya Rathana Thera who is also a Member of Parliament was on a ‘fast unto death’ in the vicinity of Dalada Maligawa(Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic) hallowed by Buddhists in Sri Lanka and abroad. His demand was that Cabinet Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, Eastern Province Governor M.L.A.M. Hizbullah and Western Province Governor Azath Salley should resign or be dismissed from office. The Thera alleged that the trio – all of them Muslims – had links to the Jihadist organisation that attacked three churches and three luxury hotels on Easter Sunday, resulting in the deaths of over 250 people. Rathana Thera’s action struck a responsive chord in the minds of many others who too were of the same opinion.
Ven. Athureliya Rathana Thera had entered Parliament first as an elected member of Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). He switched sides from Mahinda Rajapaksa to Maithripala Sirisena in 2014-15. He was later nominated as a JHU National List MP from the UNP list. In recent times, he has been chartering an independent course while nominally remaining in the JHU. Rathana Thera’s political image had been somewhat on the decline in recent times prior to the death fast. The sudden decision to launch a fast provided much publicity to the Bhikkhu and brought him very much into the limelight again. The allegations against Bathiudeen, Hizbullah and Salley had already been levelled by members of the Mahinda Rajapaksa led opposition. But Ven. Athureliya Rathana Thera stole a march over all others by launching his fast unto death in support of the demands regarding the minister and two governors.
Another Buddhist monk, Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera, who has an infamous track record of minority-baiting and venomous anti-Muslim rabblerousing too got into the fray. The Bhikkhu who functions as the General Secretary of Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) issued an ultimatum that the Muslim trio should quit their posts by 12 noonon Monday, June 3, or else there would be a ‘Senakeliya’ (carnival) in all parts of the country. Given the fact that 27 mosques and many Muslim-owned homes, businesses and vehicles had been attacked by mobs in the Puttalam, Kurunegala and Gampaha Districts in mid-May this year, only a few had any illusion over what was being implied by the threat of a “carnival.”
The BBS Gen. Secy. issued an ultimatum that the Muslim trio should quit their posts or else there would be a ‘Senakeliya’
It may be recalled that Ven. Gnanasara Thera was earlier serving a prison sentence imposed by the Court of Appeal (CA) for a contempt offence where the BBS Gen Secretary had been convicted for threatening a magistrate in open court. The Bhikkhu had appealed against the order to the Supreme Court which upheld the CA’s ruling. Despite the verdict of the Appeal and Supreme Courts, President Sirisena issued a presidential pardon to Gnanasara Thera in a controversial move that was vehemently criticised by many. Although Gnanasara Thera had been convicted for contempt of court offences, it was widely-known that the Buddhist monk had a history of anti-Muslim activity.
Many fears were expressed at the monk being released in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday carnage. Interestingly enough, it was Azath Salley who met Gnanasara Thera in prison and acted as an emissary of the President in bringing about a release. It was Hizbullah who made a public request that President Sirisena should pardon Ven. Gnanasara Thera. Now, the same Gnanasara Thera was demanding the ouster of the two Muslim governors who helped to get him pardoned and released from prison.
Viyalendran’s sideshow in East
In another related sideshow, Batticaloa District MP Sathasivam Viyalendran launched a hunger strike in the East in support of Rathana Thera’s fast. Viyalendran, a member of the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), had contested the 2015 polls on the House symbol of Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) and won as a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP. The PLOTE is a constituent of the TNA. Viyalendran defected from PLOTE/TNA in October last year and joined the short-lived ‘illegitimate regime’ of Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa. He has been functioning independent of the TNA as a Mahinda acolyte ever since. The ex-TNA MP was supported by Ven. Ampitiya Sumarathana Thera of Batticaloa’s ‘Mangalaramaya’ Vihara. Viyalendran’s sideshow was intended to demonstrate to the world that both Sinhala and Tamil MPs were jointly demanding the ouster of the Muslim trio and action against them for alleged involvement in terrorism. The insecurity and sense of fear felt by innocent Muslim people after Ven. Athureliya Rathana Thera’s fast was further aggravated by the forced closure of shops and businesses in Kandy and wildcat strikes paralysing transport in the region. It appeared that if anything untoward happened to the politician-Bhikkhu or even if rumours to that effect started spreading, all hell was likely to break loose on a helpless numerical minority again. Protests and transport strikes in other parts of the country aroused fears of an islandwide pogrom as in ‘Black July’ with Muslims instead of Tamils being the targets now. It was a dark, bleak situation for the country in general and the Muslim ethnicity in particular.
Mercifully, there was no eruption of violence as feared. The volatile socio-political climate underwent a rapid change after it was known that the two Muslim governors had tendered their resignations. Both Hizbullah and Azath Salley had submitted their resignations on Monday which were accepted by President Sirisena. Unlike Rishad Bathiudeen who was elected as MP in 2015, both Hizbullah and Azath Salley had contested and lost in the August 2015 parliamentary elections. Hizbullah who first entered Parliament as a Muslim Congress MP in 1989 was appointed as a National List MP by President Sirisena and made a State Minister. In January this year, Hizbullah was appointed by President Sirisena as Eastern Province Governor.
Likewise, Azath Salley too was appointed Western Province Governor by President Sirisena in January 2019. Earlier, Salley had been the Colombo Deputy Mayor and also a Central Provincial Councillor. He contested from Batticaloa in the 2015 parliamentary polls and lost. Salley who failed to get elected in the local authority polls of 2018 was made governor the following year by President Sirisena.
Both Hizbullah and Azath Salley were appointees of President Sirisena. When Rathana Thera announced his demands, President Sirisena had told both Hizbullah and Salley that they were free to take their own decisions and that he would neither remove them from office nor ask them to resign. Both governors seemed determined to stay put in their posts despite the death fast. But when Rathana Thera’s fast commenced and the orchestrated support for it gathered momentum, President Sirisena received an intelligence report that made him change his stance. The report apparently predicted a major communal conflagration. Furthermore, the SLFP also asked him to remove both governors. Thereafter, Sirisena requested Hizbullah and Azath Salley to resign saying the country would burn if they clung to their posts. After some bickering, both Sirisena’s appointees tendered their resignations. Azath Salley claimed he had resigned on his own and that President Sirisena had not pressurised him to do so. Hizbullah in a statement observed that he had resigned to safeguard the security of the Muslim people.
Ven. Athureliya Rathana Thera
Once Hizbullah’s and Azath Salley’s resignations were accepted by President Sirisena, the news was conveyed to the fasting Rathana Thera. It was Central Province Governor Maithri Gunaratne who personally told the Buddhist monk around 2.30 p.m. on Monday that the governors had resigned. Although there was no news about Rishad at that time, Rathana Thera called off his four-day hunger strike at about 2.45 p.m. He was taken by ambulance and hospitalised. After a thorough check-up, Ven. Athureliya Rathana Thera was pronounced safe and released from hospital soon (he had been consuming liquids while fasting). With the fast being called off, the prevailing tension and anxiety began de-escalating to some extent.
Now the focus shifted from the Muslim governors to Rishad Bathiudeen, the Muslim Cabinet Minister. Will he resign voluntarily or will he be removed from office? What if Bathiudeen refuses to quit and continues to remain? Will there be another round of anti-Muslim violence on that count? All these troubling questions were lingering in the air. And then came the bombshell announcement! Not only Rishad Bathiudeen, but also eight other Muslims in the government were quitting ministerial office. In an unusual display of principled solidarity, nine ministers in the government – four Cabinet Ministers, four State Ministers and one Deputy Minister from three different political parties – resigned en masse. Once again, a possible pretext to unleash anti-Muslim violence was removed and potential havoc averted.
Interestingly enough, it was Azath Salley who met Gnanasara Thera in prison and acted as an emissary of the President in bringing about a release
The four Muslim Cabinet Ministers who resigned were Kandy District MP and Minister of City Planning, Water Supply and Higher Education, Rauff Hakeem; Wanni District MP and Minister of Industry and Commerce, Resettlement of Protracted Displaced Persons, Co-operative Development and Vocational Training and Skills Development, Rishad Bathiudeen; Kegalle District MP and Minister of Highways and Road Development and Petroleum Resources Development, Kabir Hashim; Kandy District MP and Minister of Postal Services and Muslim Religious Affairs, Abdul Haleem. The four Muslim State Ministers who resigned were Batticaloa District MP and State Minister of Social Empowerment, Seyed Ali Zahir Moulana; Batticaloa District MP and State Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Rural Economic Affairs, Sihabdeen Ameer Ali; Ampara District MP and State Minister of Provincial Councils and Local Government, H.M.M. Harees; Ampara District MP and State Minister of Health, Nutrition and Indigenous Medicine, Faizal Cassim. The Muslim Deputy Minister who resigned was Trincomalee District MP and Deputy Minister of Ports and Shipping, Abdullah Mahrooff.
The party-wise breakdown of the ministers who tendered their resignations is as follows – Cabinet Minister Rauff Hakeem along with State Ministers H.M.M. Harees and Faizal Cassim were from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress who contested on the UNP ticket. State Minister Ali Zahir Moulana of the Muslim Congress contested directly on the SLMC ticket. Cabinet Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, State Minister S. Ameer Ali and Deputy Minister Abdulla Maharoff were from the All Ceylon Makkal Congress who contested on the UNP ticket. Cabinet Ministers Kabir Hashim and Abdul Haleem were from the United National Party who contested on the party ticket. It could be seen therefore that among the nine ministers who resigned, four were from the SLMC, three from the ACMC and two from the UNP. All nine were elected MPs.
When pressure was being mounted that Rishad Bathiudeen should resign or be removed from office, the ACMC leader and Wanni District MP was determined not to give in. Bathiudeen took up the position that he was not guilty of having any link to the NJT/IS or having aided and abetted terrorism in any way. His party MPs strongly backed him. It appeared that if Bathiudeen were removed from ministerial office, he and his four other party MPs would quit government ranks and sit with the opposition. Had this happened, Rishad and the ACMC would have lost their positions but their political stock would have risen high among Muslims.
This status quo was transformed due to the efforts of Parliamentarians Harees, Ameer Ali and Mujibur Rahman. This trio acted as emissaries between the Muslim leaders and party stalwarts with a view to evolve a common position on the matter. After immense spadework done over the weekend, the Muslim ministers and MPs met at the residence of veteran Muslim leader A.H.M. Fowzie on June 3 morning to finalise matters and arrived at the decision to resign en masse. However, they would continue to sit as backbenchers in Parliament and support the government. This decision was conveyed to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and several ministers like Mangala Samaraweera and Mano Ganesan who in turn asked the Muslim leaders to reconsider their decision. Consequently, a second meeting was held at the residence of former Colombo Mayor and ex-envoy to Malaysia, A.J.M. Muzammil where the earlier decision was reviewed, re-affirmed and confirmed. Subsequently, the decision to resign was announced at a media conference on June 3 evening.
The mass resignation of nine Muslim Cabinet, State and Deputy Ministers has rocked the nation and shocked many people. Some are astounded and others genuinely confounded. Never before in the history of Muslim politics in this country has such an event unfolded. For the first time since independence,there is no Muslim holding ministerial office in the government of the day. This is a country where Muslims have in the past been accused of enjoying the powers and perks of Cabinet portfolios in a manner disproportionate to their actual strength of population on ground when compared to the other two minority ethnicities. For instance, prior to the resignations, there were four Muslim Cabinet ministers in the government but only two Indian Tamil Cabinet ministers and none from the Sri Lankan Tamils.
Absence of Muslim Ministers
The absence of Muslim ministers was keenly felt at the first Cabinet meeting held on June 4 after the mass resignations on June 3. The total withdrawal of Muslim Parliamentarians from the government is not a welcome development. It certainly does not augur well for the future. There may be some ill-informed, misguided elements in this country who would be happy at this turn of events. “We only targeted one but now we have got an unexpected bonanza by way of nine quitting the government,” they may very well gloat. But all level-headed people who think correctly (they are still the majority in Sri Lanka but are silent, silenced or drowned out by other raucous voices) are troubled by this and would not wish this state of affairs to be prolonged indefinitely. However, it is of importance to note that none of the nine will be quitting government ranks. They have only resigned their posts and presumably will sit in Parliament as backbenchers and support the government.
Sri Lanka is already plagued by inter-ethnic polarisations and resignation of Muslim ministers is likely to widen this gulf further. A silver lining in the dark cloud seems to be Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s decision of not appointing replacements to the vacated positions. This suggests that there may be a return to the earlier status quo much sooner than expected. Moreover, the prelates of the three Buddhist chapters have expressed their disappointment over the mass resignations and urged the Muslim MPs to resume their ministerial responsibilities again. Besides, the Muslim leaders have always been more pragmatic in their political approach than their Sri Lankan Tamil counterparts. This column is therefore optimistic that the Muslim ministers would be back in their saddles by ‘Esala Perahera’ unless there is an election, eruption of anti-Muslim violence or replay of terrorist attacks.
All these raise some important questions: Why did the Muslim representatives in the government headed de jure by President Maithripala Sirisena and helmed de facto by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe adopt the drastic course of resigning their posts en masse? What were the underlying reasons that compelled four Cabinet Ministers, four State Ministers and a Deputy Minister to pull out of the government together? What were the important factors in current Muslim politics which influenced these Muslim MPs from the SLMC, ACMC and UNP to cut across party lines and embark upon this exhibition of solidarity together? This two-part article would attempt to explain the undercurrents in prevalent Muslim politics that caused or led to this remarkable phenomenon.
Safety and Security of Muslims
The basic or fundamental reason for the mass resignation of Muslim ministers was the safety and security of the people they primarily represent in Parliament – the Muslim community. Whatever people may say now with the wisdom of hindsight, it cannot be denied that orchestrated violence targeting Muslims was very much on the cards as the Buddhist monk’s death fast continued. Also, it is important to note that this anti-Muslim violence may not have been spontaneous or committed at random but could have been pre-planned and well-coordinated. ‘Mobile mobs’ may have attacked mosques, homes, businesses and vehicles of Muslims with great impunity.
What many members of Sri Lanka’s majority community do not seem to understand or recognise is the very real fear of communal violence prevalent among minority communities. The Tamil people underwent violent attacks in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983 during comparatively-peaceful years. They suffered innumerable deaths, destruction and displacement during the war years from 1983-2009. After the war against the LTTE ended, it was the turn of the Sri Lankan Muslims to experience sporadic violence directed against their community. Mawanella, Aluthgama, Beruwala, Ginthota, Ampara, Digana, Negombo, Chilaw, Nattandiya, Bingiriya, Kuliyapitiya, Hettipola, Panduwasnuwara, Nikaweratiya, Minuwangoda – the lengthy list seems open-ended.
With an orchestrated campaign underway for the ostensible purpose of compelling a Muslim Cabinet Minister and two governors to resign there was much anxiety that the Muslim people in Kandy and elsewhere were going to be attacked again. Many Muslim friends in Canada kept asking me whether anti-Muslim violence would erupt. They were worried about family, relatives, friends and fellow Muslims back home.
Sri Lankan Tamils who experienced such emotions in the not-so-distant past know how troubling this anxiety is and certainly can empathise with it. Therefore, as responsible representatives of their community, the Muslim ministers could not have remained indifferent or passive to what was likely to occur. They could not take chances, hence their resignations en masse. In order to comprehend the prevailing situation more clearly, a brief re-run of past events needs to be related.
Easter Sunday falling on April 21 was a dark terrible day for Sri Lankaas a group of comparatively-young Muslims engaged in suicide bomb attacks. Explosions occurred in three luxury hotels, three churches, a travel lodge and a deluxe residential apartment in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa. 254 people were killed and over 450 injured. A faction of the National Tawheed Jamaat (NJT) aligned to the international Jihadist organisation now known as the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility.
Although the terrorists responsible for the carnage operated under the IS label, they were essentially an indigenous, homegrown outfit with wide-reaching links at multiple levels. One factor upsetting many Sri Lankans was that some of the suicide bombers were from the upper-crust of Muslim society and were wealthy and educated.
Against this backdrop, the accusing finger began pointing to others who had supported or were suspected of supporting the NJT/IS terrorist group. 2,289 were arrested on suspicion. Of them, 1,665 were freed or released on bail. 423 are kept remanded. 211 are detained for interrogation by the TID and CID. Given the acrimonious nature of politics in Sri Lanka, it was inevitable that a political twist or twists would be given by interested parties to exploit this situation and undermine their political adversaries. This is what happened and soon some Muslim politicians were singled out and attacked. There were calls for their arrest.
Bathiudeen, Hizbullah and Salley
Initially, there were five Muslim politicians who were so targeted. They were Muslim Congress leader and Cabinet Minister Rauff Hakeem, Makkal Congress leader and Cabinet Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, Western Province Governor Azath Salley, Eastern Province Governor M.L.A.M. Hizbullah and UNP Colombo District MP Mujibur Rahuman. Gradually, the campaign against Hakeem and Rahuman ceased but a vicious campaign against Bathiudeen, Hizbullah and Azath Salley was pursued with vigour on a widespread scale. It was alleged without any tangible evidence that the trio were linked to the terrorists responsible for the Easter Sunday carnage and that they should quit their posts or be removed and that they should be probed and penalised. This campaign was promoted by opposition party elements in association with some Buddhist organisations and sections of the media. A no-confidence motion against Bathiudeen was submitted to the Speaker.
What is noteworthy here is that there is little in common among Bathiudeen, Hizbullah and Azath Salley apart from the fact that they are Muslims and are being listed together by their detractors as having links to the NTJ/IS organisations. Bathiudeen is an elected Member of Parliament while the other two contested and lost elections in 2015. Both were appointed as provincial governors by President Maithripala Sirisena. Although all three have been heaped together by those demanding action against them, the circumstances relating to ex-Cabinet Minister Bathiudeen and the two former governors are vastly different at this point of time. Besides, the key figure involved in the mass resignation exercise is Bathiudeen and not the two governors. Although all three quit their posts on the same day at different times, the reasons for the resignations were different.
Since this article relates to the mass resignation of Muslim ministers, the focus will be more on Bathiudeen and less on Hizbullah and Salley at this juncture. Also, it has been Rishad Bathiudeen who has been at the receiving end of sustained vitriolic attacks in recent times. More importantly, it is against Rishad Bathiudeen that a no-confidence motion has been mooted with 64 MPs as signatories. It is this singular offensive against Bathiudeen that has influenced the resignation response adopted by Muslim ministers in the government. The mass resignation was more due to the Bathiudeen factor and not the other two.
All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader and ex-Cabinet Minister Rishad Bathiudeen is a prominent Sri Lankan politician who has very often been in the news for the wrong reasons. The 46-year-old Bathiudeen served as Minister of Industry and Commerce, Resettlement of Protracted Displaced Persons, Co-operative Development and Vocational Training and Skills Development. Bathiudeen hailing from Dharapuram in the Mannar District is an engineer by profession. Known widely as Rishad, he was first elected to Parliament from the Northern Wannielectoral district in December 2001. He has been consistently elected as Wanni MP since then in 2004, 2010 and 2015. Rishad has also served continuously since January 2007 as Cabinet Minister in the governments of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena.
Caught up in controversies
Rishad Bathiudeen has frequently been caught up in controversies in the past. Chief among them was the charge that he had deforested areas of the Wilpattu National Park and constructed a housing scheme to settle displaced Muslims in those cleared lands under the auspices of an ‘Uthuru Wasanthaya’ (Northern Spring) project. The Centre for Environmental Justice filed a petition against the move in 2015 and initiated legal proceedings. Last February, the Court of Appeal fixed the petition for judgment to be delivered on August 6. However on May 28, the Court of Appeal decided to take afresh the case from July 31 onwards before a two-judge-bench comprising Justices Janak de Silva and Nishshanka Bandula Karunaratne.
The problems and hassles faced by Rishad Bathiudeen in the past have paled into insignificance after the Jihadi terrorist attacks on April 21 this year. As stated earlier, Rishad Bathiudeen has been virtually singled out by his critics and detractors as being linked to the NTJ/IS groups held responsible. After a bitter campaign demanding his ouster from Cabinet and/or arrest, the Mahinda Rajapaksa led opposition presented a no-confidence motion against Rishad Bathiudeen in Parliament. It was signed by 64 MPs. The text of the motion was as follows –
Whereas it has been stated by the Commander of Sri Lanka Army to the ‘Silumina’ newspaper on May 5 that pressure was exerted on him to release the suspects apprehended in connection with the terrorist attacks known as the Easter Sunday terrorist attack on nine locations including Christian churches and hotels on April 21; (3)
And whereas the factory owned by Imshan Ahmed Ibrahim who carried out the suicide bomb attack on Cinnamon Grand Hotel has been supplied with empty cartridges by the Ministry of Trade and Commerce in breach of procedures;
And whereas reasonable suspicions have arisen that there had been political influence by allowing the workers of the company which is believed to have been used for manufacturing bombs to be released on bail on 06.05.2019 by not producing them to the court under the Prevention of Terrorism Act by the Sri Lanka Police which produced war heroes to court under the Prevention of Terrorism Act permitting them to be remanded for more than a year;
And whereas no action was taken against though legal action could have been constituted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act against S.K.P. Alahudeen, Treasurer of the All Ceylon People’s Congress led by Minister Rishad Bathiudeen for not disclosing the attempts of terrorists to authorities despite being aware of the same;
And whereas two sons of Alhaj Mohammad Ibraim Yusuf Ibrahim, a close associate of the minister, had carried out suicide attacks;
Coordinating Secretary to Minister
And whereas Abdul Hanuth, a Pradeshiya Sabha member of the All Ceylon People’s Congress and claimed to be a Coordinating Secretary to the minister has been arrested as a terrorist suspect;
And whereas a Moulavi who claims to be an advisor to the minister has been arrested as a terrorist suspect;
And whereas Rifkan Bathiudeen, one of the minister’s brothers, when handed over to the police after being arrested by the army, was released without producing him before the court as a result of pressure exerted;
And whereas a very strong opinion prevails in society based on the information provided by the officers of the security forces and the police that the minister was exerting undue pressure on the investigations into the Easter Sunday terrorist attack;
And whereas the minister holding the portfolio is deemed to be an obstacle to investigations as the police has so far failed to question the minister in this regard despite the strong suspicion about a powerful link between the minister and the terrorists;
That this Parliament resolves that it has no confidence in the competence of Rishad Bathiudeen to function as a Cabinet Minister any longer.
Baying for Bathiudeen’s Blood
The opposition led by Mahinda Rajapaksa is baying for Bathiudeen’s blood like a wolf pack. They are demanding his ouster and seeking further action against Rishad. But what would be the position today if the ACMC leader had thrown in his lot with Mahinda Rajapaksa during last year’s October 26 anti–constitutional power grab? Rishad was much in demand then and ardently wooed. Furthermore, why is the opposition spearheaded by Mahinda gunning for Rishad Bathiudeen alone instead of the entire government? All these and more related matters would be delved into in the forthcoming second part of this article.
D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org