Attacks on minority Muslims in Sri Lanka by Buddhist nationalists, which began earlier this week and have continued in the ensuing days, have prompted officials to declare the first nationwide state of emergency since 2009, when a 26-year civil war fought against the island’s Tamil minority ended. Observers have expressed mounting concern that the intercommunal violence in the central district of Kandy may spread and have pointed to parallels between this crisis and others throughout the Buddhist world, where tensions between Buddhist majority countries and their Muslim minorities have been growing.
The new cycle of violence began on March 3 after a Sinhala Buddhist man was reportedly attacked in central hill town of Teldeniya by four Muslims, all of whom were taken into police custody, after he refused to let them overtake him on the motorway. The man later died of his injuries. Local Buddhists responded with limited violence the day after his death, including setting fire to a Muslim shop, which lead to the arrests of 24 people connected to the arson. Buddhist ultra-nationalists were quick to seize on the incident to foment generalized anti-Muslim sentiment; radical Buddhist groups converged on the town with hundreds of their supporters from other districts, demanding the release of the men and later attacking mosques and Muslim businesses and homes.
This recent outbreak of violence began just days after a mosque and Muslim businesses were attacked in the southeastern town of Ampara, where Buddhist agitators had claimed a local Muslim restaurant was mixing sterilization pills into the food to limit Buddhist reproduction.
The violence since Monday has claimed at least two lives, including that of a Muslim man who was apparently killed when his home was set on fire. According to Sri Lanka’s Hiru News, the Terrorism Investigation Division of the government has arrested 10 suspects, and 71 people who had engaged in vandalism have also been detained by the police.
“As a nation that endured a brutal war we are all aware of the values of peace, respect, unity & freedom,” tweeted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Monday after the violence began. “The Govt condemns the racist & violent acts that have taken place over the last few days. A state of emergency has been declared & we will not hesitate to take further action.”
According to the Hindustan Times, Lakshman Kiriella, Member of Parliament for the Kandy District where the most of the recent violence has taken place, claimed this week that Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders in the area had agreed to settle the matter amicably, with businessmen from both communities agreeing to pay compensation to victimized families, but militant outsiders had provoked the people to violence. “I am ashamed as a Buddhist, and we must apologize to the Muslims,” Kiriella said in Parliament Monday.
Some have claimed, in line with Kiriella’s comments, that the anti-Muslim violence is the result of a concerted nationwide effort of Buddhist ultra-nationalists. The current violence appears to mark the resurgence of militant Buddhist groups that grew in popularity between 2012 and 2014 with the covert support, now widely acknowledged, of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. Having ceased during the first two years of the current coalition government, attacks on Muslims resumed in April, May, and November 2017, with militants apparently emboldened by the government’s failure to prosecute those responsible for violence and hate speech under the Rajapaksa government.
“The present Sri Lankan government won elections in 2015 on the promise of ending ethnic strife, ensuring accountability for conflict-related crimes, and taking steps towards reconciliation,” Meenakshi Ganguly of the international nonprofit Human Rights Watch told Tricycle. “Unfortunately, all these pledges are stalled, perhaps allowing militant Buddhist groups to believe that they will not be held to account for any abuses.”
Fear and resentment toward Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, who make up around 10% of the population, have been growing in recent years. Gehan Gunatilleke, Research Director at Verité Research in Colombo, Sri Lanka, recently told Al-Jazeera that this is a symptom of the “entitlement complex” of Sinhala Buddhists.
“The Sinhala majority is signaling that their dominance is not to be messed around with,” he said. “The moment a minority demonstrates economic success—as with the Muslim community—or struggles for autonomy like the Tamil community, or is accused of conversion like the Christian community, the moment there is some kind of threat to that dominant status, there is a tendency for violence to be used to re-assert that dominance.”
The increase in Buddhist majoritarian fear and resentment toward Sri Lankan Muslims follows a pattern that has also been seen elsewhere in the Buddhist world in recent years. Majority Buddhist Myanmar has been carrying out atrocities and repression with “the hallmarks of a genocide” toward its Rohingya Muslim minority, following years of systematically limiting access to healthcare, marriage, freedom of movement, education and food with a brutal campaign of violence that has caused nearly 800,000 to flee into neighboring Bangladesh since August 2017. In southern Thailand, a crisis between the Thai Buddhist and ethnic Malay Muslim minority has led to over 6,000 deaths in both communities and allegations of continued human rights abuses by the Thai government in managing the crisis.
“Unfortunately, too many populist leaders around the world are exploiting the fear of terrorist attacks or of immigrants by engaging in hate-mongering against Muslims,” said Meenakshi Gungaly of Human Rights Watch. Buddhist radicals in Sri Lanka regularly accuse the Muslim community of forced conversions or vandalism of Buddhist holy sites. Gungaly said she is not aware of any evidence of such attacks having actually taken place.
Some Buddhist monks, such as those who founded the far-right nationalist organization Bodu Bala Sena, which has been linked to anti-Muslim incitement, have had a role to play in the increase of Islamophobia. Although the Sinhalese sangha appears to be generally opposed to violence, some say it has not yet done enough to address the situation.
“Buddhist monks often see themselves as the guardians of the Sinhalese Buddhist ethnoreligious identity and the legitimators of the Sinhalese Buddhist claim to a privileged position in the island’s affairs,” Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, renowned scholar-monk and founder of Buddhist Global Relief, who lived in Sri Lanka for 24 years, told Tricycle. “While I would hope the great majority of monks condemn the violence against minority groups, there are factors that prevent them from playing an effective role. One is that, even when they condemn violence, they still adhere to the premise that Sri Lanka as a modern nation essentially belongs to the Sinhalese Buddhists, while the other residents of the island have perpetual guest status. A second is that they don’t condemn the violence often and forcefully enough to drive home the message that violence should be avoided. And a third is that they don’t put sufficient stress, in their sermons, on the need for inter-communal harmony and respect for other religions.
“There are also small but vocal groups of monks who whip up the antagonism of the lay Buddhists toward other communities and even incite them to act violently. This is driven by the imagined fear that other communities are out to take control of the country and push the Sinhalese Buddhists into a marginal position.”
Thus far Sri Lankan civil society has acted with some effectiveness to push back against the violent nationalism in its midst, as shown by the election of the current governing coalition, which this week also blocked social media to prevent the spread of anti-Muslim posts believed to be stoking the violence. After Buddhist hardliners agitated for the deportation of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar last year, says Gungaly, “Sri Lanka’s civil society and political leadership acted immediately to criticize the campaign and ensure refugee protections.”
Time will tell whether Sri Lanka will respond effectively to the new surge of violent Buddhist nationalism or slide back into a state of conflict from which it was once so happy to escape.
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