Attacks on Muslims: Is Sri Lanka now an anti-minority state?

It’s clear that after the defeat of the Tamils, the majoritarian ultra-right wing Sinhala Buddhists have picked on Muslims as their next enemy. Analysts say the ire stems from a mix of everything - ethnic, political and economic.

G Pramod Kumar April 10, 2013 15:29:28 IST
Attacks on Muslims: Is Sri Lanka now an anti-minority state?

The alarm expressed by the US ambassador to Sri Lanka Michele J Sison over the attacks and hate-speech against Muslims in the island nation on Tuesday is the much-needed international voice against the country’s government that is fast turning into an ant-minority autocracy.

This type of hateful sentiment must not be allowed to fester, Sison said, according to an ABC News report. She added that the voices of tolerance must join to defeat extremism. She also said that there were increasing attacks against the media and the perpetrators were rarely apprehended or punished.

In an atmosphere of war-triumphalism and ultra-nationalism since the wipe-out of the LTTE, the dominant political voice in Sri Lanka is that of a resurgent “political Buddhism”, which wants to convert the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country into a Sinhalese Buddhist nation.

At the forefront of this move is an extremist group called Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Army) and its flunkies, and some allies of the ruling SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party). According to reports from Colombo, it is public knowledge that these groups have the blessings of the defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Attacks on Muslims Is Sri Lanka now an antiminority state

A protest by Muslims in Colombo: Reuters

In fact, it was Gotabhaya who inaugurated the leadership academy of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) in Galle a few weeks ago.

The BBS rightwing hooliganism and its anti-Muslim hate-speech shot to prominence in the recent past with its strange campaign against halal certification. Although halal-slaughter is opposed elsewhere in the world for animal rights reasons, in Sri Lanka it was purely political.

With the support of the government, the group was successful in abolishing the certification of domestic meat products. Evidently scared by the threats by BBS, particularly with the patronage of the government, the Muslim clergy represented by the All Ceylon Jamaiythul Ulama (ACJU), agreed to stop the the system of halal certification. In other words, no Muslim in Sri Lanka will be able to choose Halal meat. Religiously, it’s a big blow to them, but they have no choice.

Egged on by this success, the BBS and their cronies next turned their attention to the way Muslim women dressed. There were reports that Muslim women in their traditional robes were teased and physically intimidated at some places. The BBS leaders openly spoke against the Muslims and how harmful they were to the Sinhalese. Muslim business establishments were also among their targets.

The BBS general secretary singled out two successful Muslim business groups - Fashion Bug and No Limit, two garment chains that are popular among domestic budget shoppers and tourists. At a rally in Kandy, he reportedly said that at these shops the Muslims were running harems and exploiting Sinhalese women.

He urged Sinhalese families not to send their girls to work in these shops. Intense hate campaigns were mounted against the shops in other parts of the country as well. The summary of the BBS was straight and simple - the Muslims were a threat to the Sinhala race. Another extremist group, Sinhala Ravaya, said that the No Limit chain distributed sweets laden with chemicals to make Sri Lankan women barren.

The last week of March saw the culmination of the hate-campaign - a Fashion Bug warehouse in the suburbs of Colombo was attacked by a mob which was led by men in saffron. Besides damaging property, vehicles and merchandise, the attackers also injured several staff members. The vandals included three Buddhist monks, who had to surrender because they had been exposed by the CCTV footage that went viral.

Watch a video of the attack here:

However, what followed was shocking - the Fashion Bug management said they had no complaints and all the 17 men arrested were let off by the police. The Fashion Bug management even thanked President Mahinda Rajapaksa for handling the problem!

It’s clear that after the defeat of the Tamils, the majoritarian ultra-right wing Sinhala Buddhists have picked on Muslims as their next enemy. Analysts say the ire stems from a mix of everything - ethnic, political and economic. Some even drew parallels with the beginning of Hitler’s anti-Jew campaign.

The story of Sri Lankan Muslims, the majority of whom are poor, is very interesting. They speak Tamil, but demographically are not considered Tamil. The LTTE was always suspicious of them and even targeted them because they sided with the government and enjoyed ministerial berths and other perks during the conflict.

However, they had suffered large-scale displacement and mass murders at the hands of the LTTE. In 1990, about 100, 000 Muslims had to leave homes from the LTTE controlled areas. In the overwhelming din of the Tamil story, nobody really heard their voices and many of them are still in refugee camps.

Strangely, once the LTTE was defeated, the right-wing proponents of “political-buddhism” and the Mahavamsa ideology, who believe Sri Lanka belongs to Sinhala Buddhists, began training their guns on the Muslims.

This fanatic, exclusivist and militant political doctrine has been at the core of the institutional discrimination of the Tamils since the country’s independence that led to the emergence of LTTE and the decades-long conflict. As political commentator Prof Kumar David noted, “after defeating the Tamils, Sinhala-Buddhist Mahavamsa ideology required a new space.”

The aim of this “politically rigged communal mobilisation,” as Kumar David calls the effort, is clear - consolidate the majority Sinhala Buddhist votes by establishing a rein of political Buddhism. More than 70 per cent of Sri Lankans are Sinhala Buddhists and the only way to get most of them on their side is to ethnically polarise the population.

And the methodology? Target the minorities, scare them and marginalise them. First was the Tamils, now the Muslims and probably Christians next. In fact in 2004, after the death of an outspoken anti-Christian Buddhist monk, Gangodawila Soma thero, there were attacks on a number of churches and christians, because of conspiracy theories that the church was responsible for his death.

“The campaign against the Muslim community will not end there. It will translate, before long, into campaigns against the Christians and the Catholics, their rituals and their places of worship, until every minority is effectively subjugated to majority will,” says columnist Dharisha Bastians in Sri Lanka’s DailyFT.

Unfortunately, the voices of protest within Sri Lanka have been rather muted, probably because of the reign of terror. This is precisely why the US Ambassador’s voice is important. It should have been a right-conscious India that should have spoken out. This kind of state-sponsored bigotry and violence, that too by a country charged with genocide and war crimes, is certainly not good for us.

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