State of emergency in Sri Lanka: 'Supremacism' of Sinhalese Buddhists or ‘segregation’ of Wahhabi Muslims?

Sri Lanka has declared state of emergency for 10 days amid fears that 'anti-Muslim' attacks could increase in several central hill towns of the country. Reportedly, a spate of violence, aggression and systemic attacks on the Muslim minority has been on the rise in Sri Lanka for decades. But the situation has turned worse, as the government imposed a nationwide state of emergency on Tuesday after mob attacks against the minority group in a central district of Kandy.

In fact, the unrest in central Kandy began on Sunday when an angry mob of the majority Sinhalese ethnic group attacked dozens of the minority group's homes and even vandalised a mosque in Digana. Triggered by the killing of a Sinhalese Buddhist driver supposedly at the hands of a Muslim mob, the violence erupted in Kandy resulting in several racially-motivated incidents targeting Muslims, their houses, business and mosques. Nevertheless, many local sources have confirmed that it was an incident of road rage that led to a full-scale communal violence in Kandy.

Tellingly, the fresh attack comes just weeks after similar anti-Muslim riots broke out in Ampara where a Muslim restaurant was accused by locals of mixing sterilisation pills in the food, as Colombo Gazette reported.

Regrettably, the communal clash between Muslims and Buddhists in Sri Lanka is not an isolated incident. They have been at the loggerheads for decades due to a variety of ulterior religious and socio-political motives. But since 2012, the radical Buddhist groups have been targeting Muslims with a significant degree of regularity. In 2014, Muslims were systematically targeted by the Sinhalese Buddhists in south-western Sri Lanka, after a Buddhist monk was reportedly attacked by a Muslim group. The consequent riots displaced 8,000 Muslims and 2,000 Sinhalese Buddhists. Several mosques and Muslim shops have been vandalised.

Sri Lanka's Buddhists often accuse Muslims of desecrating the Buddhist structures and forcibly converting "the Buddha's devotees" to Islam. Part of the reason behind the communal clash in the region is the Muslim refugees from Myanmar entering the Buddhist-majority country. Many observers often cite the nationalist fervor of the majority Sinhalese Buddhists as the key to fanning the fire of this tension.

But in the latest clash, as the police states, it was not clear why the initial altercation occurred. "Only after the Buddhist driver's funeral on Monday, a Sinhalese mob attacked Muslim shops," the police said.

However, the unrest in Kandy has highlighted the vulnerability of the country which still tries to recover from the civil war. It has witnessed decades of aggression and human rights violations against the religious minorities. A look at the report submitted by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights shows a gloomy past of the country where grave minority rights violations continue unabated.

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

Going by this report, at least 241 anti-Muslim attacks and 69 anti-Christian attacks occurred in Sri Lanka only between January and December in 2013. Fifty-one of the anti-Muslim incidents were violent, involving physical violence against individuals and destruction of their property. Surprisingly, at least 118 of these attacks were perpetrated by politicians. But more shocking is the finding that in almost all these anti-minority attacks, the police and law enforcement officers who were often present at the sites, failed to carry out their duties. They were silent onlookers while basic constitutional and human rights were brazenly violated. They were terribly complicit in limiting the religious freedom of the minority groups' victims. This is what has happened in the latest incident in Kandy.

On 14 February, 2013, it was perhaps the first time when an 'anti-Muslim' wave erupted in the Kandy area. A gang known as 'Keppattipola Parapuyra' in Kandy distributed 'anti-halal' handouts that stated: "You have full freedom to oppose the Halal process". The handout advised Sinhalese people not to consume certain products until the Halal logo is removed from its packaging.

Muslims along with Tamils — the minorities in Sri Lanka — form around 30 percent of the country's population. An earlier Firstpost article stated that after the defeat of the LTTE and marginalisation of the Tamils in the north, the Rajapaksas had overtly encouraged the Sinhala-Buddhists to target Muslims, and even Christians, in a bid to further polarise the country's electorate.

But surprisingly enough, the BBS has distanced itself from the fresh attack against Muslims in Sri Lanka. Speaking to News18, the chief of the BBS and a Buddhist monk Galagoda Aththe Jnanasara said, "The BBS has nothing to do with it. But we are certainly worried about the violence." However, he added that the "BBS advocates the one nation, one religion and one language theory" and that it was committed to Sinhala primacy in every aspect of the life and that "a Buddhist nation Sri Lanka should be run like a Buddhist nation".

However, Hafiz Ehsan Qadri, a leading Sunni Muslim cleric and president of the local Islamic group in Colombo, As-Sunnah Trust, gives a historical background for this unrest. He considers it an indirect result of increasing 'cultural disintegration' of the Wahhabi hardliners in Sri Lanka. Speaking to Firstpost, he recounted: "We have substantial evidence that traditionally Muslims in Sri Lanka were culture-friendly. It is recorded in an [Islamic] book that Sahaba (companions of the Prophet) came to Sri Lanka and they were not opposed to the local people or their cultural ethos. Even when Sufi saints came in Sri Lanka and built 360 mosques, they had no problem with other communities and there was no religious disharmony at all. Sufis actually mingled with everyone in Sri Lanka and did not reject anyone else. Thus, Muslims were very peaceful until lately when they concerned themselves with 'Arab concerns'."

Qadri says that many things have suddenly changed as result of roles played by the Wahhabi ulema. He asks: "Now, if you buy only 'halal' products in Colombo because of a certain logo promoted by these people, won't it worry the non-Muslims? They wonder why Muslims are now segregating themselves even when they go shopping."

The co-founder of the As-Sunnah Trust and a college teacher, Intikhab Zufer told Firstpost: "One of the many reasons for this inter-community tension is that when compared to Buddhists, Muslims in Sri Lanka are better off. They also receive huge wealth from the Gulf and other Arab nations. This is precisely why Muslim shops and businesses, rather than their lives, are particularly targeted by the extremist Buddhists."

He continues: "Now there are hardly normal banks for Muslims in Colombo. They choose to go for 'Islamic banking'. Similarly, they are going to shops only where the halal products are sold. Such things segregate them from others. This segregation of Muslims in Sri Lanka has worried the majority community which fears that Muslims will rule the roost in the future. As for the government in Sri Lanka, it is unlikely to overlook the atrocities being perpetrated against the Muslims, as a large section of the community has voted for it. The government’s imposition of the curfew has been greatly welcomed in the Muslim community. Sri Lankan Muslim politician and state minister, MLAM Hizbullah says that he has discussed the issue with the high authorities, the police and the army. Even though mosques and Muslim houses have been targeted, the government will make sure that the no more damage is done."

In contrast to the Rohingya Muslims' persecution that human rights leaders called 'genocide', the anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka is not the handiwork of mainstream Buddhists or the government as in Myanmar. Even Buddhist monks in Myanmar defendedthe persecution of Muslims and supported the government, calling the Muslim minority a threat to the Buddhist community. But this does not seem the case in Sri Lanka. This is evident from the state of smergency for 10 days. More to the point, President Maithripala Sirisena has made a special statement on the communal clashes. He assured that the government is taking measures to establish political stability, peace among communities and reconciliation in the country. "Stern action would be taken against those who breach peace," he said.

Published Date: Mar 07, 2018 11:42 AM | Updated Date: Mar 07, 2018 11:46 AM

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