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by Anura Gunasekera

Extremism is a virus. It spreads exponentially. In most societies extremism exists at the fringe but, often ignites the centre by appealing to commonly held shibboleths. Not infrequently, due to the indifference of liberals and moderates, public apathy, and both implicit and explicit political support when expedient, extremism drives the central narrative. The ugly reality is that the spread of extremist ideology is catalyzed by common cultural, religious and ethnic prejudices and other related fissures in multi-cultural and multi-ethnic societies. Extremism thrives in conditions of hatred, intolerance and suspicion. No society is free of these malignancies but in some societies they are more obvious and unapologetically expressed, at regular intervals. Often, extremism is conflated with religious doctrine, ethnic-tribal consciousness and related exclusivities, and then manipulated by unscrupulous politicians seeking power, mandates or an effective political lever. A superficial assessment of such incidents suggests that examples of extremism are more common in Asian and African countries than in other parts of the world.

The recent, gruesome public torture and murder of Sri Lankan Priyantha Diyawadana in Sialkot, Pakistan, was a tragic example of extremism, in a country in which the public narrative is often quite openly driven by extremist ideology. Apologists may posit that it is unfair to judge a nation by one tragic incident but that contention has to be viewed in perspective. The Pakistan Penal Code, the country’s main criminal code, penalizes blasphemy against any recognized religion, with penalties ranging from fines to the death sentence. However, there are no published statistics to indicate whether this law has been invoked in the case of alleged blasphemy against any creed, other than Islam. Whilst it is unclear whether any person found guilty of blasphemy has been judicially executed, between 1987 and 2017, over 75 people so accused are reported to have been murdered by vigilante squads. That apart, lawyers representing those accused of blasphemy and those speaking against the severity of the blasphemy laws have also been victimized.

Two infamous examples of the above merit mention. In 2009 Aasia Bibi, a Christian low-caste woman in a small village in the Punjab, was attacked by fellow women of her village for drinking water at a village well, from a cup that did not belong to her; Aasia, a Christian had used an utensil reserved for Muslims. This act, which supposedly rendered the water ” Haram” ( forbidden) and the ensuing quarrel led to Ms Bibi being convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death. After years of incarceration she was finally freed and permitted to emigrate to Canada, a rare happy ending in cases of the kind. However, two of her supporters, politician Shabaiz Bhatti and Governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer were less fortunate, paying with their lives for their championship of Aasia’s cause, both being assassinated, the latter by a member of his own security.

In 2017 Mashal Khan, a 23 year old Muslim student of the Abdul Wali Khan University, was beaten and shot to death by his fellow students, for alleged blasphemy.

Pakistan- officially the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan”- is a country birthed in the illiberal concept of an insular Islamic state, in response to the demand of Islamic nationalists as articulated by the All India Muslim League led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah. What followed, in the partition of British India in 1947, was a chaotic population transfer between the land declared as Pakistan and the nascent State of Independent India, a process accompanied by about two million deaths resulting from religious differentiation- Hindu versus Muslim. Since its violent birth two motifs have defined the central narrative of Pakistan; the position of Islam as the religion of the State, overriding all other relevancies, and its paranoia of India. The result has been the regressive Islamization of the country’s political discourse, its laws, educational curricula and the conditioning of general societal attitudes; in totality an ideal nursery for radicalism and extremism.

Hussain Haqqani, former Pakistan ambassador to both USA and Sri Lanka, and scholar at Hudson Institute, Washington, has quite categorically declared that the Pakistan state has empowered and indulged extremists for years, perpetuating violence in the name of religion, instead of protecting its victims.

Pakistan Prime Minister, Imran Khan was quick to vehemently denounce the killing of Priyantha, conferring one of the country’s highest bravery awards on Malik Adnan, a work colleague of the victim who had tried to prevent the assault. Over 200 of the alleged attackers have been arrested. However, Khan’s Minister of Defence, Pervez Khattak, has trivialized the incident, suggesting that ” murders can happen when youngsters get emotional”, a “boys-will-be-boys” kind of equivalence, absolutely unforgivable under the circumstances. Khan’s government had also recently lifted the ban on the Tehreek-e- Labbaik Pakistan( TLP), the extremist organization linked to the outrage. Therein lies the ambivalence of the Pakistani State towards extremism; as defined by Haqqani, a clear case of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, a stratagem both overtly and covertly emulated by every single regime in Pakistan since Ayub Khan.

The Sialkot tragedy comes with a message, that the dynamic of extremism unleashed by a small minority can engulf the majority in the flames that it ignites. Whilst we condemn Pervez Khattak for his attempt to justify the murder of Priyantha by Islamic extremists, let us not forget the observation- “the justifiable anger of the Sinhalese”- of J.R. Jayewardene, a former president of this country, rationalizing the destruction visited on the Tamil communities of this country in July 1983 by largely Sinhala-Buddhist mobs. Whilst we condemn the horrific manner of the killing of Priyantha in Sialkot, let us not forget the many innocent, helpless, living Tamils who were consigned to similar funeral pyres in Colombo and its suburbs in July 1983. They were not killed for blasphemy, or for any other real or imagined crime, but simply because they spoke a different tongue and worshipped different gods. Whilst justifiably condemning the dreadful murder of Priyantha by a group of Pakistani citizens, we Sri Lankans, as a nation, are in no position to occupy moral high ground.

In more recent times in Sri Lanka we have the real life scenarios of anti-Muslim violence, reportedly orchestrated by the ” Mahason Balakaya”, and the “Bodu Bala Sena”, the latter led by Galabodaatthe Gnanasara, Buddhist priest-cum-felon, recently appointed by president Gotabhaya Rajapakse as chairman of the “One Country, One Law” task force. The absurdity, the irrationality of that appointment defies logic, unless examined in the context of a devious mind in which logic is conditioned by the conviction of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony. Viewed in that background, the appointment seems designed to provide an ecclesiastical counter to Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, who has been vociferous in his quest of closure for the Catholic dead of the Easter Sunday bombings.

Commencing with the attack on the “Fashion Bug” emporium in Nugegoda in February 2013, the destruction in Aluthgama in June 2014, and continuing with the violence of Gintota in November 2017, Ampara in February 2018 and Digana/Teldeniya in March 2018, we have a seen a series of well orchestrated assaults on Muslim people, establishments and property. In most of these events the active participation of Buddhist priests and the involvement of the above mentioned exclusivist organizations have been reported. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday carnage of April 2019, there were similar attacks on Muslims and related establishments in several districts. In many of these incidents Buddhist priests, some named, others unidentified, are reported to have taken part. However, there has been no official investigation of such allegations. There is also the allegation that in all of the incidents described above, that the Police did not take timely action to prevent the escalation of the violence and the destruction.

What is evident is a scary similarity, between the lukewarm official response to the intermittent anti-Tamil pogroms , commencing in the aftermath of the enactment of the Sinhala Only Official Languages Act in 1956 and culminating with the atrocities of 1983, and the anti-Muslim actions of the last decade. Absence of a pro-active response by law enforcement in the face of racially motivated criminal violence implies complicity. When such violence is preceded by hate speech delivered by men in yellow robes, and justified by the same individuals after the events, there is no alternative to the presumption of extremism embedded in religion. When men in yellow robes are accorded a veneration not merited by their conduct, and when such individuals are seen as immune to the normal law of the land, what results is an unacceptable social, moral and legal disequilibrium.

In Pakistan and elsewhere, extremism driven by the distortion of the tenets of Islam will continue, despite both internal and international condemnation, as long as the law of the land permits religious dogma to override civil law, acceptance of diversity and tolerant interaction. It will continue as long as political leaders permit themselves to be dictated to by religious leaders or religious extremists. It will be no different in any other country in similar circumstances, whether the majority religion is Buddhism or Christianity or any other creed. That is what we in Sri Lanka need to guard against. Religion and politics makes for a toxic brew. Religion and government are two isolated propositions and cannot merge comfortably within governance.

The example of the influence of theocracy in governance as seen in Iran, and the power of fundamentalism demonstrated in Afghanistan, are convincing paradigms of the incompatibility of democratic principles, equality of sexes and tolerance of diversity within such regimes. In Sri Lanka, over the years, we have witnessed the many tragic consequences of the lack of tolerance between the majority ethno-religious group and the minorities. Despite assurances for reconciliation and consensus given by our leaders, both within the country and internationally, our minority communities continue to protest against marginalization. Whilst making allowances for the often unrealistic expectations of small minorities living alongside large majorities, it is still not an imagined grievance but a response to extremist and intolerant thinking. It is a great pity that the latter should be conflated with the Sinhala-Buddhist mindset but that is also the reality.

Radical, extremist thinking demands the invention of enemies to reinforce its radical mandate. In Sri Lanka, with the suppression of the Tamil-LTTE military threat, Muslims have been catapulted to that empty space. This writer has said it before and would say it again. Retaliation from Islamic extremists will be a war without boundaries and a war we will never win. Examples, worldwide, are too numerous to merit mention. The Easter Sunday carnage may have been the beginning of that unwinnable contest in Sri Lanka.

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UK support for govt.’s pragmatic reconciliation process



Lord Ahmad with GL

By Jehan Perera

The government would be relieved by the non-critical assessment by visiting UK Minister for South Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth, Lord Tariq Ahmad of his visit to Sri Lanka. He has commended the progress Sri Lanka had made in human rights and in other areas as well, such as environmental protection. He has pledged UK support to the country. According to the President’s Media Division “Lord Tariq Ahmad further stated that Sri Lanka will be able to resolve all issues pertaining to human rights by moving forward with a pragmatic approach.” The Minister, who had visited the north and east of the country and met with war-affected persons tweeted that he “emphasised the need for GoSL to make progress on human rights, reconciliation, and justice and accountability.”

Prior to the Minister’s visit, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had announced in Parliament that his government had not violated nor would support “any form of human rights violations.” This was clearly an aspirational statement as the evidence on the ground belies the words. Significantly he also added that “We reject racism. The present government wants to safeguard the dignity and rights of every citizen in this country in a uniform manner. Therefore I urge those politicians who continue to incite people against each other for narrow political gains to stop doing so.” This would be welcome given the past history especially at election time.

The timing of Lord Ahmad’s visit and the statements made regarding human rights suggest that the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, commencing on February 28, loomed large in the background. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be presenting a written report on that occasion. A plethora of issues will up for review, including progress on accountability for crimes, missing persons, bringing the Prevention of Terrorism Act in line with international standards, protecting civil society space and treating all people and religions without discrimination.

The UK government has consistently taken a strong position on human rights issues especially in relation to the ethnic conflict and the war which led to large scale human rights violations. The UK has a large Tamil Diaspora who are active in lobbying politicians in that country. As a result some of the UK parliamentarians have taken very critical positions on Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad’s approach, however, appears to be more on the lines of supporting the government to do the needful with regard to human rights, rather than to condemn it. This would be gratifying to the architects of the government’s international relations and reconciliation process, led by Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris.


In the coming week the government will be launching a series of events in the North of the country with a plethora of institutions that broadly correspond to the plethora of issues that the UNHRC resolution has identified. War victims and those adversely affected by the post war conditions in the North and livelihood issues that arise from the under-developed conditions in those areas will be provided with an opportunity to access government services through on-the-spot services through mobile clinics. The programme coordinated by the Ministry of Justice called “Adhikaranabhimani” is meant to provide “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.”

Beginning with Kilinochchi and Jaffna there will be two-day mobile clinics in which the participating government institutions will be the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them. Whether it is by revising 60 laws simultaneously and setting up participatory committees of lawyers and state officials or in now launching the “Adhikaranabhimani” Justice Minister Ali Sabry has shown skill at large scale mobilisation that needs to be sustained. It is to be hoped that rather than treating them as passive recipients, the governmental service providers will make efforts to fulfill their need for justice, which means that the needs of victims and their expectations are heard and acknowledged.

It will also be important for the government to ensure that these activities continue in the longer term. They need to take place not only before the Geneva sessions in March but also continue after them. The conducting of two-day mobile clinics, although it will send a message of responsiveness, will only be able to reach a few of the needy population. The need is for infusing an ethic of responsiveness into the entirety of the government’s administrative machinery in dealing with those problems that reaches all levels, encompassing villages, divisions, districts and provinces, not to mention the heart of government at the central level.

The government’s activities now planned at the local level will draw on civil society and NGO participation which is already happening. Government officials are permitting their subordinate officials to participate in inter-ethnic and inter religious initiatives. It is in their interest to do so as they would not wish to have inter-community conflicts escalate in their areas which, in the past, have led to destruction of property and life. They also have an interest in strengthening their own capacities to understand the underlying issues and developing the capacity to handle tensions that may arise through non-coercive methods.


Many of the institutions that the government has on display and which are going to the North to provide mobile services were established during the period of the previous government. However, they were not operationalized in the manner envisaged due to political opposition. Given the potency of nationalism in the country, especially where it concerns the ethnic conflict, it will be necessary for the government to seek to develop a wide consensus on the reconciliation process. The new constitution that is being developed may deal with these issues and heed the aspirations of the minorities, but till that time the provincial council system needs to be reactivated through elections.

Sooner rather than later, the government needs to deal with the core issue of inter-ethnic power sharing. The war arose because Sinhalese politicians and administrators took decisions that led to disadvantaging of minorities on the ground. There will be no getting away from the need to reestablish the elected provincial council system in which the elected representatives of the people in each province are provided with the necessary powers to take decisions regarding the province. In particular, the provincial administrations of the Northern and Eastern provinces, where the ethnic and religious minorities form provincial majorities, need to be reflective of those populations.

At the present time, the elected provincial councils are not operational and so the provincial administration is headed by central appointees who are less likely to be representative of the sentiments and priorities of the people of those provinces. In the east for instance, when Sinhalese encroach on state land the authorities show a blind eye, but when Tamils or Muslims do it they are arrested or evicted from the land. This has caused a lot of bitterness in the east, which appears to have evaded the attention of the visiting UK minister as he made no mention of such causes for concern in his public utterances. His emphasis on pragmatism may stem from the observation that words need to be converted to deeds.

A video put out by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office confirms a positive approach with regard to engaging with the Sri Lankan government. In it Lord Ahmad says “the last three days illustrated to me that we can come together and we can build a constructive relationship beyond what are today with Sri Lanka. We can discuss the issues of difference and challenge in a candid but constructive fashion.” Lord Ahmad’s aspiration for UK-Sri Lankan relations needs to be replicated nationally in government-opposition relations, including the minority parties, which is the missing dimension at the present time.

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Yohani…teaming up with Rajiv and The Clan



I know many of you, on reading this headline, would say ‘What?’

Relax. Yohani, of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ fame, is very much a part of the group Lunu.

But…in February, she will be doing things, differently, and that is where Rajiv and the Clan come into the scene.

Rajiv and his band will be embarking on a foreign assignment that will take them to Dubai and Oman, and Yohani, as well as Falan, will be a part of the setup – as guest artistes.

The Dubai scene is not new to Yohani – she has performed twice before, in that part of the world, with her band Lunu – but this would be her first trip, to Oman, as a performer.

However, it will be the very first time that Yohani will be doing her thing with Rajiv and The Clan – live on stage.

In the not too distant past, Rajiv worked on a track for Yohani that also became a big hit. Remember ‘Haal Massa?’

“She has never been a part of our scene, performing as a guest artiste, so we are all looking forward to doing, it in a special way, during our three-gig, two-country tour,” says Rajiv.

Their first stop will be Dubai, on February 5th, for a private party, open-air gig, followed by another two open-air, private party gigs, in Oman – on February 10th and 11th.

Another attraction, I’m told, will be Satheeshan, the original rapper of ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

He will also be a part of this tour (his first overseas outing) and that certainly would create a lot of excitement, and add that extra sparkle, especially when he comes into the scene for ‘Manike Mage Hithe.’

Yohani and her band, Lunu, last performed in Dubai, a couple of months back, and Satheeshan, they say, was the missing link when she did her mega internet hit song – live, on stage.

There was a crowd to catch her in action but it wasn’t a mind-blowing experience – according to reports coming our way.

A live performance, on stage, is a totally different setup to what one sees on social media, YouTube, etc.

I guess music lovers, here, would also welcome a truly live performance by Yohani de Silva.

In the meanwhile, I’m also told that Rajiv Sebastian plans to release some songs of the late Desmond de Silva which he and Desmond have worked on, over the years.

According to Rajiv, at this point in time, there is material for four albums!

He also mentioned that he and his band have quite a few interesting overseas assignments, lined up, over the next few months, but they have got to keep their fingers crossed…hoping that the Omicron virus wouldn’t spike further.

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Multi-talented, indeed…



Thamesha Herath (back row – centre) and her disciples (students)

We all know Trishelle as the female vocalist of Sohan & The X-Periments, so, obviously it came to me as a surprise when it was mentioned that she is a highly qualified Bharatanatyam dancer, as well.

What’s more, she has been learning the skills of Bharatanatyam, since her kid days!

And, to prove that she is no novice, where this highly technical dance form is concerned, Trishelle, and the disciples (students) of State Dance Award winning Bhartanatyam Guru, Nritya Visharad Bhashini, Thamesha Herath, will be seen in action, on January 29th, at 4.00 pm, at the Ave Maria Auditorium, Negombo.

Said to be the biggest event in Bharatanatyam, this Arangethram Kalaeli concert will bring into the spotlight Avindu, Sithija, Mishaami, Nakshani, Venushi, Veenadi, Amanda, Sakuni, Kawisha, Tishaani, Thrishala (Trishelle), Sarithya, Hewani, Senuri, Deanne and Wasana.

In addition to her singing, and dancing skills, Trishelle has two other qualifications – Bachelor in Biomedical Science, and Master in Counselling Psychology.

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