Recent violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka by Sinhala (native of Sri Lanka) Buddhist extremists has temporarily turned the world’s attention away from the persecution the Rohingya Muslims face in Myanmar.
The trouble began with the death of a Sinhala Buddhist man on March 3, who had been attacked in the central hill town Teldeniya near Kandy by four Muslim men, who were later detained. The death however, sparked anger and violence by local Buddhists, 24 of whom were arrested by the police. Radical Buddhist groups with hundreds of supporters from nearby districts converged on the town in protest and after two days of anarchy the government imposed curfew and declared emergency. Noticing the use of social media to spark arson and rioting the government banned its use. In addition to several casualties, scores of Muslim businesses were destroyed and houses burnt during the four days of rioting. Eleven mosques have been left damaged or destroyed by the Sinhalese mobs. The situation was brought under control after heavy military deployment. The government has announced setting up a panel of three retired judges to probe the breakdown of order.
Days earlier Muslim businesses and a mosque were attacked in south eastern town of Ampara. It is evident that the attacks on the town were planned and carried out by Buddhist militants who were brought from outside districts, triggered by rumours spread on social media. The local police were slow to respond, which increased the damage.
Violence against Muslims, who constitute 10 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population is emerging as a pattern. The renewed violence also marks the resurgence of militant Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) that first appeared during 2012-14 with support from the Mahinda Rajapaksa government after the victory over the Tamil militancy. The Buddhist extremists laid low during the first two years of the current government after which they began their attacks on the Muslim community during April-May 2017 and then again in November. The militants were apparently emboldened by the government’s soft approach for the fear of backlash, in prosecuting those guilty of violence and hate speech under the previous regime.
The Muslims, living peacefully mainly in the eastern region, are spread across the island among the Sinhala majority and some among the Tamil population in the north-east. Having neutralised the Tamils to a large extent, Muslims who constitute about 10 per cent of the island’s population, are the primary worry for the Sinhala extremists. There is a latent fear that Muslims, with a faster population increase, are putting Sinhala character of the island at risk. Hence, the burgeoning anger against them.
The government, on its part has done little to address the causes of mistrust between the communities and to control the militant Buddhists who use violence to intimidate the Muslim community. The statements from the political leadership to enforce law against the perpetrators of violence sound hollow when the Buddhist militants remain free to organise the next round of attacks against the Muslims. The government appears afraid of alienating Sinhala voter if they take punitive action against the perpetrators of violence, according to the Brussels based think tank International Crises Group.
The Sri Lankan strand of Buddhism has a unique history that has played a significant role in shaping the Sinhala nationalist identity. Much like the Jews, the Sinhala nationalists believe that they are the Buddha’s chosen people and the island is Buddha’s promised land. This politicised Buddhism has triggered ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese Buddhists and minorities.
The rise of this nationalism beginning with the late 19th century is partly in response to changes brought forth by the colonial administration that emphasised various ethnicities, which has proved fatal for the inter-group harmony on the island. Even feeble attempts at accommodation of minority interests were turned back under pressure from the monks who assumed increasingly political role.
A Pew Research Centre report in 2012 put Sri Lanka among the countries with very high religious hostilities due to violence committed by Buddhist monks against Muslims and Christians.
Buddhism, among all other religions is least associated with violence. Ahimsa — meaning ‘non-violence’ is the primary virtue of Buddhism. Its teachings forbid all forms of violence and yet there is no shortage of historical examples of violence in Buddhist societies. The violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and to some extent in Thailand is related to campaigns in the last few decades to revive Buddhist traditions in these societies and to protect them against the threat Muslims are thought to represent. These campaigns take shape of monastic hierarchies, revivalist education campaigns, laws to protect the race and religion, imposing language to eliminate the community from the mainstream section of the society or simple armed terror.
The challenge lies with the leadership in Sri Lanka to make some tough choices facing up to extremist Buddhist pressure, make inclusive policies, respecting majority rights and to ensure no community is marginalised.
Sajjad Ashraf served as adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from January 2009 to December 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service 1973 — 2008 and was Pakistan’s consul general in Dubai during the mid 1990s.