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Emergency in Sri Lanka: President Sirisena must act against radical Buddhist groups or risk emboldening them

Imposition of a nationwide state of Emergency for 10 days in Sri Lanka following violent clashes between the minority Muslims and the majority Buddhists has underlined the fragility and volatility of the country in its post-war phase. Amidst new political and ethnic dynamics, there has been an upsurge in anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka even as the political leadership has been finding it extremely difficult to control the radical nationalist passions of the majority Sinhalese Buddhists.

 Emergency in Sri Lanka: President Sirisena must act against radical Buddhist groups or risk emboldening them

File image of Maithripala Sirisena. AFP

The recent communal clashes in the Kandy district were triggered when angry mob of Sinhalese group attacked businesses and houses belonging to Muslims. There have been reports of some radical Buddhist leaders being present in the areas of violent clashes; these extremist elements have a track record of inciting Buddhists against Muslims.

There was a similar violence in late February when Muslim-owned businesses and a mosque were set ablaze. President Maithripala Sirisena’s government has failed to hold the radical majority groups inciting hatred to account. Lakshman Kiriella, a lawmaker from Kandy, had to say in parliament: “I am ashamed as a Buddhist and we must apologise to the Muslims.”

Muslims in Sri Lanka make up 10 percent of Sri Lankan population. Buddhist population stands at 75 percent and the estimates of ethnic Tamils range between 11 to 13 percent. Sri Lankan Muslims, who speak Tamil, are mostly businessmen or traders.

This is the first time that Emergency has been reimposed in Sri Lanka after it was withdrawn in 2011 following the termination of the three-decade long ethnic conflict in 2009. Although the Tamil insurgency led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was successfully crushed, some underlying causes of the conflict are yet to be resolved. There is a strong sense among many Sinhalese that Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese-Buddhist island, where Muslim and Tamil minorities should behave like second-grade citizens.

Observers feel that Sri Lankan government has failed to win the trust of the Tamil groups as they are desperately waiting for justice and reconciliation. Thousands of Tamil families are still searching for their relatives who'd disappeared during the war years. Their lands, taken by the Sri Lankan Army, are yet to be returned to them. The United Nations has been critical of Sri Lanka’s inexplicably slow progress in addressing war crimes and human rights abuses, particularly during the last weeks of the war.

As the devastating civil war between the government and the LTTE came to an end, Muslims seem to have emerged as the new enemy of Sinhalese Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka. The ‘domino effect’ of the rise of Islamist terrorism and the continuing conflict in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have been felt in those countries with sizeable Muslim population, providing a convenient context in which the Muslims are demonised by the majority community. Sri Lanka is no exception to this trend.

While there have been multifaceted socio-cultural exchanges and ties between the Sinhalese and Muslims, economic tension has increased in recent years on account of politicisation of ethnic identities, increased competition for resources as well as demographic imbalance. Although there have been many instances where ethnic tensions produced in politico-economic domains were brought under control by strong socio-cultural bridges between the two communities, things have taken turn for the worse now.

In June 2014, bloody riots took place between Buddhists and Muslims in towns of southwestern Sri Lanka. The riots followed a protest march by a hardline Buddhist group, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), whose name roughly translates as ‘Buddhist Power Force’ and which enjoyed the patronage of Rajapakse clan. Muslims and their property were attacked by unruly mobs shouting anti-Muslim slogans and hurling gas bombs and stones.

Police inaction led then Sri Lankan justice minister, Rauff Hakeem, to denounce his own government’s ineptitude. Hakeem, the leader of the Sri Lanka’s largest Muslim party, lamented: “I am ashamed. I couldn’t protect my people.” It was during the regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was a staunch Sinhala nationalist and often condoned instances of anti-Muslim violence.

The latest anti-Muslim riots are therefore a direct outcome of the majoritarianism that took roots in sections of the Buddhist groups during the fight with LTTE and after its defeat. When Rajapakse was trounced in the 2015 presidential elections, it led to a de-escalation of Buddhist-Muslim tensions. The last few years, however, have witnessed extreme hate campaigns and violence against Muslims in different parts of the country.

For instance, in September 2017, there was an attack by Buddhist monks on Rohingya Muslims near the capital Colombo. The Rohingya group was kept in a safe house under the protection of the United Nations, following their attempt to enter the Sri Lankan coast. They were eventually resettled in a third country. Hardline Buddhists have been accusing Muslims of forcing Sinhalese people to convert to Islam and destroying Buddhist archaeological sites. It may be mentioned that Sri Lanka’s many religious sites are places where different religions meet and interact, which results in both confrontation and cooperation.

Religious syncretism in Sri Lanka has mostly stressed on the Buddhism-Hinduism interface, which is understandable because of cultural connections between these two religious traditions. The conflicts between Buddhists and Hindus have resulted in increased ethnic polarisation among Sinhalese. Moreover, it need not be forgotten that the Sinhala-Tamil conflicts were not essentially a Buddhist-Hindu confrontation per se. Despite many Buddhist monks supporting the Sinhala army, the Hindu priests decided to remain aloof from the conflict in spite of the LTTE’s persistent efforts to co-opt them in their struggle to create an independent homeland for Tamils.

However, the LTTE did not lose any opportunity to antagonise the Sinhala majority by attacking many Buddhist sacred places, further contributing to their extreme hostility towards the Tamil separatist movement. Generally speaking, Buddhist religion is perceived to be a peace-loving and non-violent.

However, it is ironic that anti-minority violence occurred frequently in some Buddhist-majority countries of Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Sri Lanka, presenting an entirely different image of Buddhism. Most of Sri Lanka’s extremist Buddhist groups have close links with their counterparts in Myanmar as both have been accused of inciting violence against minority Muslims in their countries.

Formed in 2012, the BBS is far more organised than a traditional Buddhist organisation in Sri Lanka, and makes full use of modern information technology, particularly social networking sites, in mobilising sentiment and supporters. The anti-minority violence must not be allowed to spiral out of control. It remains to be seen what stern action will be taken by Sri Lanka against “the racist and violent acts”, as promised by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He tweeted:

However, these comforting words must not remain mere political rhetoric. Failure to take action against radical Buddhist groups will only serve to embolden them further, while exacerbating the sense of fear, insecurity and victimhood among the minority communities: a fertile ground for insurgency.

Therefore, it is the responsibility of the Sirisena government to deploy professionally-trained peace keepers in all communally sensitive districts in order to control further attacks against Muslims while also ensuring that district administration, including law enforcement agencies, maintain peace without any religious discrimination and bias.

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Updated Date: Mar 07, 2018 17:47:11 IST