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Sri Lanka’s renewed ethnic tension June 26, 2013

Posted by nishankmotwani in : By contributor, Future Directions International, Guest authors, Sri Lanka , trackback

Lindsay Hughes

Sri Lanka appears to be moving towards renewed ethnic strife – this time between Buddhists and Muslims.


The Muslim community makes up approximately ten per cent of Sri Lanka’s population of twenty million. Relegated to a back seat during the Civil War between ethnic Sri Lankans and Tamilians, who fought for a homeland, Sri Lanka’s Muslims now appear to have taken the place of the latter. Muslim-owned businesses have been fire-bombed and boycotted. As in Burma (Myanmar), Buddhist groups have formed to lead organised protests and violence against Muslims.

Bodu Bala Sena's 'No Halal' protest in Sri Lanka


Four years after Sri Lanka’s civil war ended, ethnic strife again appears to be growing. This time around, it is the Muslims who are the target of ethnic Buddhist Singhalese. A hard-line Singhalese group, the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force, BBS) has taken the lead in attacking and boycotting Muslim-owned businesses. Created in July last year by Kirama Wimalajothi and Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the BBS has specific grievances against Sri Lanka’s Muslim community. According to them, Muslims have increased their birth-rate to take over the country; they demand an end to certain Muslim institutions, such as the ritual slaughter of animals and the wearing of the niqab, the all-enveloping outer garment worn by Muslim women.

The BBS claims that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist nation and it is incumbent upon ethnic minorities to comply with the Buddhist tradition, much as Muslims  Moreover, when Azard Sally, a Muslim politician and former deputy Mayor of Colombo, spoke out against the BBS in May, he was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, allegedly, according to a police report, for instigating communalism. His arrest only compounded the fears of Sri Lankan Muslims, who fear they are being placed in the same position as the ethnic Tamil minority prior to the civil war. The general consensus among Muslims is that when Sinhalese extremists attack Muslims the government stands idly by, but if Muslim politicians speak up on the issue they are arrested and depicted as terrorists.

This is worrying enough,  but the issue is compounded by allegations of covert government encouragement to the BBS. Sally, an outspoken critic of the Rajapakse government and the BBS, alleged that the violence against Muslims was encouraged by the government. Even if this proves to be unfounded, there remains a close link between the BBS and the Rajapakse government. For instance, president Rajapakse opened the Buddhist Cultural Centre, which was founded by Wimalajothi, in 2011. The Secretary of Defence, Lieutenant Colonel Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapakse, inaugurated the BBS’ Buddhist Leadership Academy in Galle, in March this year. For its part, while emphasising it has no political agenda, the BBS states that it will support the government of President Rajapakse, who is it declares, a true Buddhist Sinhalese leader. Furthermore, despite concerted efforts by Muslim parliamentarians to get the Rajapakse government to enact measures to protect Muslims in Sri Lanka, no real action has been taken and no arrests made.

It would be short-sighted to classify the violence as anti-Muslim, though. The current violence appears to be part of a cycle by hard-line Buddhist forces, to ensure the primacy of Buddhism in the country. These forces, made up of Buddhist monks and other groups, pre-date the BBS, thus detracting from arguments that imply the BBS is responsible for the violence against Muslims. Hard-line Buddhist monks have razed Hindu temples and Christian churches since 2009. One church was razed because it was allegedly being used to convert Buddhist Sinhalese to Christianity. If this is correct, it would be no different from hard-line Muslims forbidding the conversion of Muslims to other religions in Muslim-majority countries. A case in point, is the kidnapping of a sixteen year old, Amman Ullah, who converted from Islam to Christianity in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province two weeks ago. He is presumed to have been murdered for his beliefs.

The government of Sri Lanka would be wise to take immediate action to prevent a further escalation of the violence. If it does not, there could be two reactions. On the one hand, Sri Lankan Muslims could find themselves in the same situation as ethnic Tamilians were just prior to the civil war. This could lead to the formation of vigilante Muslim groups, tasked with safe-guarding Muslims and their property. Such a situation, however, could easily lead to a drastic escalation of violence and even all-out ethnic strife. On the other hand, and just as likely, disenchanted Sri Lankan Muslims could receive guerrilla training in militant training camps in Pakistan, Afghanistan and parts of the Middle East. Again, on-going violence against Muslims could attract the attention of al Qaeda-like groups, which are seeking a legitimate platform; violence against fellow-Muslims would be an ideal launch pad for terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka.

This is a dangerous situation and President Rajapakse would be best advised not to let it continue unacknowledged.

Lindsay Hughes is a Research Analyst in the Indian Ocean Research Program at Future Directions International.

This post first appeared on Future Directions International on 19 June 2013.


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