Relatives pay their respects in front of the graves of the victims of recent bomb blasts at St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo on April 28, 2019, a week after a series of bomb blasts (AFP)
After Easter Sunday attacks, Civil society calls for peace, cautions against repression and reprisals
The Human Rights Commission (HRC) of Sri Lanka has urged all citizens to refrain from engaging in hate speech or inciting violence, and to act responsibly against all forms of extremism, in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday terror attacks on churches and hotels that killed over 250 persons and injured hundreds more.
Issuing a statement on 26 April, the HRC said the main challenge ahead was to restore normalcy, and to ensure that trauma and pain was not converted into counter-violence. “We cannot build a hopeful future through hatred and violence. It is us, the citizens, who should give leadership to build a society in which we can all live in human dignity as equals,” the statement, signed by HRC Chairperson Dr. Deepika Udugama, said.
The HRC urged people to “refrain from engaging in hate speech and inciting violence”, while noting that the best response to extremism was to work towards a just social order.
It warned that anti-social elements could exploit such situations to further their narrow political gains, while noting that: “We have learnt from history that one form of extremism breeds other forms of extremism. It is the average citizen who suffers from such cycles of hatred.” The HRC also vehemently condemned the attacks, and offered their condolences to the bereaved families, while saluting all security personnel who died in subsequent investigations.
The HRC statement comes amidst a series of similar statements from civil society organisations from around the country, calling for peace, justice and accountability amidst the trauma and destruction caused by the Easter Sunday attacks. Here is what some of them had to say:
The Friday Forum (FF), expressed its solidarity with all who had condemned the blasts, and extended their condolences to all victims, local and foreign. In a statement issued on 25 April, the FF said it appreciated all religious and community leaders who had publicly rejected extremism, while calling for interfaith solidarity. “This response exemplifies the admirable capacity of our people, despite the fact that we come from diverse communities,” the FF said. In contrast, the FF noted there were “appalling lapses in national security” and held the political leadership responsible for this. “We must hold them accountable and demand explanations,” the statement, signed by the FF collective, stressed. The body demanded that the President, Prime Minister, Defence Secretary and Police Chief explain why preventative action was not taken despite intelligence warnings.
"No political party should be permitted to exploit this horrific experience to promote a divisive and authoritarian political agenda : Friday Forum"
The FF asked several questions related to government lapses, including why the National Security Council (NSC) had ignored the summons of the PM, and why the President had left the country without appointing an Acting Defence Minister. In this light, the FF called for a strong and effective system of national security that respected the core democratic values enshrined in the constitution. However it cautioned against the idea that the country needed a strong, authoritarian and dictatorial leader. “No political party should be permitted to exploit this horrific experience to promote a divisive and authoritarian political agenda,” the FF stressed. The statement also highlighted weaknesses in the presidential system, and called for its dismantling through a constitutional amendment.
The Women’s Action Network (WAN), a collective of eight women’s organisations in the North and East, called for healing and survival to build a united, just and peaceful future. “This is not a matter of politics, even in this election year,” the collective stressed, adding that the country must rethink how we move forward, while building trust among and between communities. While condemning the “despicable attack” WAN noted that “every community in Sri Lanka feels the trauma”, as the suicide blasts evoked memories of war among the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities, and women, men and children.
WAN further noted that Muslims, who had faced ethnic violence in the recent past, feared retaliation, and longed for all to see that the bombings did not represent Islam. The collective added that the Tamils feared the attacks would be used to deny them transitional justice, and that outsiders would again associate Sri Lanka with “bloodshed, discrimination and fear.” WAN also called for strength in unity, while noting that: “History teaches us that division and hatred sow only violence and loss.” The collective urged the State to protect all citizens from malicious rumours and hate speech, and to take measures to prevent innocent civilians from further attacks and retaliation.
WAN further noted that Muslims, who had faced ethnic violence in the recent past, feared retaliation, and longed for all to see that the bombings did not represent Islam
Another women’s group, Women and Media Collective issuing a joint statement with the Women’s Resource Centre, said they were concerned with reports of reprisals against Muslims in some localities, and urged all Sri Lankans to affirm their commitment to “multi-ethnicity, pluralism and co-existence”. The statement noted that many communities had worked hard to rebuild their lives and livelihoods after the 30-year civil war and two insurrections. “Though it has not been a smooth road, many have tried to rebuild trust and move forward on the road to accountability and justice,” the statement said. “The violence on Easter Sunday will have an immense negative impact on all our efforts as civilians belonging to all communities, to find paths towards peaceful coexistence and equality,” it added.
The group urged the State to prioritize human rights, and to ensure that no community is marginalized, or have their rights violated. “We urge the State to seek solutions beyond the expansion of executive powers, and military and security apparatus, which could open doors to abuses of power which lead to human rights violations,” the statement noted, while concluding with an appeal to civilians to remain calm and show solidarity to each other. “We must work together to ensure we do not enter into another war or ethnic or religious conflagration,” the statement said..
"Our grief is never a call for retribution. Our grief is a call for coexistence"
The National Peace Council (NPC)also noted that the attacks could distance communities from each other and harm peaceful relations, while affirming that, “the vast majority of people wish to live in tolerance and amity with their fellow co-religionists.” The NPC also noted with shock, the lack of coordination within the government, and urged all leaders to co-operate with each other in the national interest.
With incidents of localized clashes being reported, the NPC called for constant dialogue and interaction between communities as the attacks would lead to “increased inter-religious tensions”. Commenting on the media, the NPC said: “We call on the state television stations to carry the same discussion topics on their Tamil channels as they do on their Sinhala channels instead of showing films, music and sports thereby undermining the desire of Tamil-speakers to be one with the nation in its suffering,” while requesting that such programmes be translated for all to understand. “We are confident that the resilience and wisdom in our society will prevail over the forces of division and hate,”, the statement concluded.
Meanwhile the Kandy Forum (KF) said in a statement that terrorism had no place in Islam, and that Islam is a religion of peace. “We would like to openly state that this barbarous terrorist group is not Islamic but anti-Islamic in their ideology and actions,” the KF stressed, adding that terrorists have no religion and no place in humanity. The group appealed to all political parties, religious groups, civil society organisations and the public to work jointly to eradicate terrorism, and to foster harmony and reconciliation to build a bright future for Sri Lanka.
The KF also urged all Muslims to help the families of victims rebuild their lives and heal their psychological trauma. While urging the government to take strong action against the perpetrators of the “barbarous terrorist attacks” the KF appealed to the government to avoid indiscriminate arrests especially under the PTA which could “contribute to
worsen the situation”.
The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) also warned of a “danger of executive overreach” as the President proclaimed a state of emergency. While declaring that the Easter Sunday attacks were the worst terrorist acts since the end of the war, and that the government had to respond to terrorism, the CPA stressed that: “It is critical to ensure that emergency powers are not allowed to completely extinguish the balance between freedom and security.”
The CPA further emphasized that the government’s response to terrorism should not alienate any minority group, should not exceed the constitutional limits of the law, should not restrict fundamental rights, should not undermine safeguards against torture or inhumane treatment, should not evade parliamentary oversight and should remain consistent with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). “We earnestly hope therefore that these powers are exercised with prudence and restraint, and that the current state of emergency is terminated as soon as exigencies permit,” the CPA stressed.
"The vast majority of people wish to live in tolerance and amity with their fellow co-religionists: NPC"
Meanwhile, the inter-denominational statement by Christians in Jaffna (CIJ), while mourning those killed on Easter Sunday, also remembered all those who lost their lives in the war. “Never again should we waver in rejecting the violence of any actor that takes innocent lives,” the CIJ pledged, while condemning the attacks and resolving to put “life” before any agenda. “We appeal to all our fellow citizens to stand for a life for all communities that is free from fear, repression and violence,” the statement said.
The CIJ called for patience and peace, and rejected all those who sought “social, economic, religious and political gain” from the tragedy, while demanding measures to protect vulnerable communities from riots or acts of violence. “Our grief is never a call for retribution. Our grief is a call for coexistence,” the CIJ concluded.
Meanwhile, a petition by Sri Lankan Muslims against Extremism and Terrorism in the name of Islam condoled with all victims and emphasized that the Muslim community stood in solidarity with them all. “We are all hurting, grieving and deeply traumatized by these events like every other Sri Lankan citizen,” the petition said. “Sadly, this terrorist attack has been carried out by an extremist religious group in the name of Islam; who also claim to operate under the fanatic international group ISIS” it added, while reiterating that such actions have no place in Islam.
“We have lived in peace in this land for more than a thousand years and this act of terrorism in our mother land, in the name of our religion, has brought us immense shock and grief,” the petition said, concluding that: “As peace loving citizens, we vehemently condemn this crime against humanity”.