has become more fragile, fractured and polarized following the Easter Sunday
bomb attacks as the country’s Muslims are harassed and subjected to violence by
mobs of Sinhala Buddhists who form the majority of the island’s population.
those targeted by jihadist violence on Easter Sunday were the island’s
Christians, it has been Sinhala Buddhist mobs led by saffron-clad Buddhist
monks that have been at the forefront of the ongoing attacks against Muslims.
The Easter Sunday atrocities have simply served as a convenient excuse to
revive the anti-Muslim violence that plagued the island in 2014 and again in
In the wake
of the Easter Sunday carnage, hundreds of Muslims have been arrested under the
Prevention of Terrorism Act, which gives sweeping powers to the police to
arrest and detain civilians without a warrant or evidence. On May 23, the Sri
Lankan newspaper Divaina, known for its pro-Sinhala Buddhist nationalist
stance, published a front-page article alleging that a Muslim doctor secretly
sterilized 4,000 Sinhala Buddhist women. Two days later, despite the absence of
any evidence to support this wild allegation, the doctor, Segu Shihabdeen
Mohamed Shafi, was arrested. The police then took the unusual step of calling
for evidence after the arrest.
executive director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), Mario
Gomez, fears that such actions by state forces will lead to the radicalization
certainly have gained a momentum of their own with several Muslim properties
being destroyed by marauding mobs.
May, a Buddhist monk, Athuraliye Rathana Thero, called for the two Muslim
provincial governors and a Muslim government minister to be sacked on the
unsubstantiated grounds that they were linked to the Easter Sunday carnage.
Another Buddhist monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, head of the hardline Bodu
Bala Sena (BBS), or “Buddhist Power Force,” threatened to escalate the protests
if these men were not sacked.
first time, the Muslim leadership acted decisively – all government ministers
and the two provincial governors handed in their resignations in protest. Rauff
Hakim, a senior member of the cabinet and leader of the Sri Lankan Muslim
Congress (SLMM), a partner of the government, was forthright in articulating
that the action was taken in order to not capitulate to xenophobic forces and
force the government to contain them. What was unsaid was that the government
of which he was part was complicit in allowing anti-Muslim violence to
continue. It was clear that the mobs had the support of high-ranking government
officials, members of the police and security forces who had turned a blind eye
when the mobs were attacking Muslim property – mosques, homes and shops.
complicity became blindingly obvious when In the midst of the ongoing anti-Muslim
violence, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, the head of BBS, who had been
imprisoned for six years for contempt of court, was pardoned by Sri Lanka’s
president on May 23 and allowed to continue with his hate speeches instigating
Hakim’s demand that xenophobic forces be contained is unlikely to be heeded as
giving into “minority demands” will only strengthen the hands of the
opposition. This is because Sri Lanka’s post-colonial history has been shaped
by an ideology that seeks to promote Sinhala Buddhist hegemony and any party
seen to be “soft” in upholding this ideal is at a disadvantage in the next
elections. With the Asgiria prelate’s order in place, the government is
unlikely to take any measure to contain anti-Muslim sentiments or actions.
On June 18,
the prelate of the Asgiriya Chapter, Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana, upped the
ante by calling for the stoning of Muslims and the boycotting of Muslim-owned
shops. Anti-Muslim violence has now been officially sanctioned by no less than
the head of the Asgiriya Chapter, one of the two most influential Buddhist
orders in Sri Lanka
independence in 1948 and July 1983, mob violence was frequently unleashed
against the Tamils of the island to contain their demand for self-rule as this
was thought to undermine Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. More to the point, any
sitting government’s effort to seek accommodation with the Tamils was seized by
the opposition as a sell-out, a move actively supported by the Buddhist clergy.
The unprecedented level of violence unleashed in July 1983, since known as
Black July, resulted in a mass Tamil uprising, plunging the country into a
civil war that was put down with genocidal brutality 26 years later.
Muslims, although disadvantaged by the Sinhala Buddhist hegemony that was
integral to Sri Lanka’s majoritarian rule, sought to manage the situation not
by demanding rights but by joining both major political parties and obtaining
concessions for their community. This was an acceptable arrangement for both
Sinhala-dominated political parties, the center-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party
(SLFP) and the right-leaning United National Party (UNP). The Muslim leaders
delivered Muslim votes en bloc to their parties and were, in turn, offered
positions in government. Later on, this en bloc vote was delivered not along
party lines but largely through a party of their own, the Sri Lanka Muslim
Congress (SLMM). The SLMM helped form a government by joining the party that
was likely to provide the most benefits. The SLMM was not constrained by
leftist, centrist or rightist ideology. During the war between the Sri Lankan
state and the Tamil people, the Muslim community, although Tamil-speaking, took
a position in line with the Sinhala-dominated state. This strategy helped the
community survive the war and even prosper.
Muslim community’s non-confrontational, subservient and ingratiating approach,
it had earned the wrath of Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, who believed that
this community had also become a threat to Sinhala Buddhist supremacy on the
Sri Lankan state’s anti-Tamil actions, both legislative and administrative,
were based on the notion that they were disproportionately represented in the
public service and universities, the anti-Muslim sentiments are the product of
a premise that Muslim population growth is much greater than that of the
Sinhala Buddhists and could erode Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. Additionally, it
is believed that Muslims hold more economic power than is warranted by their
population, that they are trying to convert people, and that they are an alien
group that has not integrated with mainstream Sri Lanka.
best explanation for the anti-Muslim sentiments since 2014, five years after
the Tamil rebellion was put down, is triumphalism. The victory over the Tamils
appears to have given the Sinhala Buddhist hardliners the impetus to subjugate
another non-Sinhala Buddhist group and re-assert Sinhala Buddhist hegemony.
notions of hegemony, apprehension and triumphalism, Sri Lanka’s Buddhists may
resort to further violence pushing the Muslims into violence of their own that
may well break up the already fragile polity that Sri Lanka is.
Ana Pararajasingham is an independent researcher
focusing on political developments in the South Asian region with particular
emphasis on geopolitical developments impacting Sri Lanka and India. He was
director of programs with the Switzerland-based Centre for Just Peace and
Democracy between 2007 and 2009.
Source: Asia Times