The Sri Lankan government has imposed an island-wide emergency in the wake of anti-Muslim violence in Kandy, a city in the central highlands, on March 4-5, and in Ampara, a district with a near equal population of Muslims and Sinhala-Buddhists on the country’s eastern coast, on February 26. In Kandy, two mosques, shops and other buildings were set on fire, and two mosques and shops were vandalised in Ampara. In Kandy, a Buddhist man succumbed on March 4 to injuries after an altercation a few days earlier with a group of Muslim men, and a Muslim man’s body was found in a building that was the target of arson in Kandy on Tuesday. A Sinhala-Buddhist extremist group is suspected to be behind the violence.
An emergency was in force in Sri Lanka for 40 years from 1971 during the civil war over the Tamil demand for a separate state. This is the first time it has been reimposed after it was withdrawn in 2011, and it underlines the new political and ethnic dynamics in Sri Lanka.
The incidents of the last few days are the latest in a series of violent episodes targeting the Muslim community that Sri Lanka has witnessed in the post-war years. (According to the 2011 Census, Muslims are slightly more than 9% of Sri Lanka’s 20.3 million population; Sinhala Buddhists are 75%, and Tamils 11%.)
They are a direct fallout of the triumphalism and majoritarianism that took hold in sections of the Sinhala Buddhist majority community after the military defeat of the LTTE, encouraged by the Mahinda Rajapakse regime as it went about tightening its political grip on the country. Since then, a raft of groups openly professing hatred for Muslims, as well as Christians, has come up, some of them using social media to spread their venom. Among them are the Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya, Sinhale, and Mahason Balaya. The first and foremost of these, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), was formed in 2012, and enjoyed the patronage of the Rajapakse clan.
That year, monks destroyed a mosque in Dambulla, saying it violated a Buddhist religious area. In 2013, the warehouse of a clothes retailer owned by a Muslim businessman was targeted; in 2014, four people were killed and 80 injured in riots in the western seaside district of Kalutara, where a picturesque coastal road goes past alternate Sinhalese and Muslim villages that had never seen communal tensions earlier. In between, the BBS ran a campaign against halal certification and burqas. The monk who founded the group, Galabode Aththe Gnanasara, made incendiary speeches against Muslims, one of which was directly responsible for the riots. The Secretariat for Muslims (SFM), a Muslim civil society organisation, documented 538 anti-Muslim incidents from 2013 to 2015. There were several incidents against Christians as well.
Rajapakse’s defeat in the presidential election led to a de-escalation of Buddhist-Muslim tensions. But the incidents began occurring again towards the end of 2016, when some Muslims, who had been displaced from northern Sri Lanka during the war, began going back to reclaim their lands in villages in Mannar district in the Vanni, bordering a national sanctuary called Wilpattu, and close to the Sinhala majority areas of the northwestern province of Puttalam and north-central province of Anuradhapura.
There were several incidents through April and May 2017 across Sri Lanka. Around the same time, the Buddhist outfits began a campaign against the arrival of a group of Rohingya in Colombo. On September 28 last year, a monk led an attack on a UN-maintained safehouse for the Rohingya in the Colombo suburb of Mt Lavinia. The Rohingya group had been taken into custody by the Navy after they attempted to land on the Sri Lankan coast, and they were ordered to be kept in the safehouse under UN protection. The group that attacked the safehouse alleged the Rohingya had killed Buddhists in Myanmar. In November, Buddhists and Muslims clashed on the streets of Gintota in Galle.
The Buddhist-Muslim tensions of the last few years have surfaced nearly a century after the only such incident in the 20th century in 1915, at the time of a Sinhala Buddhist revival around the perceived marginalisation of the community under colonial rule. After independence, political leaders starting with SWRD Bandaranike harvested Sinhala-Buddhism. The rest is well-documented history. From the 1956 “Sinhala only” Act to the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, Sri Lanka had gone from being an inspiration for Lee Kwan Yew to South Asia’s ethnic cauldron within three decades. As Tamil separatism grew, morphing from a political movement to militancy and terrorism, the Muslims of Sri Lanka found themselves in constantly changing situations.
The language of Sri Lanka’s Muslims is Tamil. The majority of Muslims, most of whom are businessmen or traders, still live in the East, which was part of the LTTE’s Eelam vision. Until 1990, the Muslims believed they had common cause with Tamil political aspirations. But that year, a newly resurgent LTTE following the IPKF’s departure from Sri Lanka, drove out nearly 100,000 Muslims from their northern citadel of Jaffna and other parts of northern Sri Lanka under its control. The eviction took place overnight — people left behind their houses, lands, shops, and possessions, becoming a new set of internally displaced people in Sri Lanka’s conflict.
That was when the Sri Lankan Muslim found a new political consciousness, and within a decade of its formation, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was seen by Sinhala political parties as a “kingmaker” party. Winning seats in Parliament from the predominantly Muslim areas of Ampara; from Batticaloa, where Muslims are the second biggest community after the majority Hindu Tamils; from Trincomalee up the eastern coast, where they are one-third of the population (Tamils and Sinhalese are also one-third each); as well as a few from Kandy and other areas, the community was in the thick of national politics. It has always sided with the ruling party, and is even now part of the coalition government.
Once the war against the LTTE was over, it was almost as if Sinhala-Buddhist extremism, which conflates religion with territory and language, needed a new enemy. Muslims have emerged as that enemy, the rise of Islamist terrorism providing a convenient handle with which to demonise the community.
Sri Lanka’s Buddhist extremism has found an ally in Myanmar’s hardline Buddhist monks. Both countries practise the Theravada variant of Buddhism. In September 2014, ahead of the presidential election, the BBS invited Ashin Wirathu, a monk from Mandalay in Myanmar and the leader of a virulently anti-Muslim group called 969, known for his toxic speeches. At a rally in Colombo, he said he would join hands with the BBS to “protect” Buddhists. Though he has not made a return visit since, extremist Buddhists in Sri Lanka have clearly taken inspiration from the anti-Rohingya movement in Myanmar. Coincidence or not, the first clashes against the Rohingya in Myanmar erupted in 2012, around the time that BBS was formed in Sri Lanka.