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Religious Tensions in Sri Lanka

Dr Gulbin Sultana is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • April 22, 2013

    Sri Lanka is currently in grip of religious tensions between the Sinhala Budhdhists and the Muslims. Pepiliyana, 9-km away from Colombo, has been bearing the brunt of the violence with mobs led by monks selectively attacking Muslim business establishments like ‘Fashion Bug’ on March 28, 2013. These attacks were seemingly carried out as a sequel to the ongoing attacks on the religious places and hate campaigns against Muslims and other religious minority communities in the country.

    This year the anti-Muslim campaign has been triggered by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) over the abolition of Halaal certification process and banning of the niqab. Bodu Bala Sena meaning ‘Buddhist Power Force’ was formed in July 2012 by Ven. Kirama Vimalajothy Thera and Ven. Galagodatthe Gnasara Thera. Since its formations, it has taken up various anti- Muslim activities, for example, asking people not to shop from the Muslim shops. Reportedly, it also delayed the registration process at the Sri Lanka Law College in Hultsdorf, Colombo, alleging that exam results were being distorted in favour of Muslim students.1 It has also protested strongly against family planning for the Sinhala Buddhists saying the community was shrinking, while on the other hand the Muslim population was growing. Because of its activities the BBS has acquired a reputation of being a “neo-fascist movement espousing the cause of Buddhist supremacy”.2 Though refuted, there has been a widespread suspicion that the government is covertly encouraging and even sponsoring the BBS. The BBS has stated that while it would not get involved in politics but would not hesitate to provide support for President Rajapaksa as his is a true Sinhala Buddhist regime. Inauguration of the Buddhist Leadership Academy of the BBS on March 9, 2013 at Galle by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has further strengthened the suspicion that the organisation has the backing of the Rajapaksas.

    Though BBS’s anti-Muslim campaign is at the centre of attention, it is difficult to link all the current hate campaigns to the organisation. For example, a Dargah that was destroyed in Anuradhapura in 2011 happened when the BBS was not evcn in existence.3 Likewise the Dambulla Khairya Jummah Mosque, which had been in existence for over 60 years, was attacked by a group of Budhdhist monks in April 2012 claiming that it was an illegal construction built on sacred Buddhist ground, even though the mosque trustees have legal documents regarding its construction.4 It only goes to prove that violence towards minority community is deep rooted and widespread. That BBS is a symptom of the vicious atmosphere of majoritism-minoritism prevailing in the country. Series of anti-Muslim campaigns particularly after the end of the Eelam War give an impression that Sri Lankan Muslims are becoming the next scapegoats of majoritarianism.

    Attacks against Muslims have had sharp reactions with the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader and Minister of Justice, Rauff Hakeem requesting President Mahinda Rajapaksa to convene a cabinet meeting to discuss the unrest and civil disturbance in the country. Hakeem also got together other Muslim parliamentarians including Senior Minister M. H. M. Fowzie and Ministers Rishard Bathiutheen and A. L. M. Athaullah to keep the pressure on the government as well as express their collective concern over the security of the minority communities. The Minister of National Language and Social Integration Vasudeva Nanayakara equally criticised the police for being lax and called for a ban on extremist groups, including the Bodu Bala Sena, Ravana Balaya and Sinhala Ravaya.5 The social network also helped in generating a forum of anger and anguish over the mistreatment of the minority communities. In fact, a petition has been circulated on Facebook asking President Mahinda Rajapaksa to protect the liberties of the minorities. The government, on the other hand, while agreeing to take stern actions against the perpetuators is also of the opinion that a conspiracy is being hatched to tarnish the image of the country.

    The current hate campaign should not be seen as only a Muslim vs Budhdhist tension. It seems part of a larger strategy of establishing Budhdhist supremacy over the minority communities. After the end of the conflict in 2009 with the LTTE, expansion of Budhdhism all over the country has been visible. Numerous Buddhist Viharas are being constructed in the north and east by razing existing Hindu temples. For example, Kanniya Shivan temple in Trincomalee and the Murugan temple in Illangaithurai Muhathuwaram. A group of Buddhist monks also attacked the four Square Gospel Church in Kalutara in 2011. In Ambalangoda, the Assembly of God church was attacked in February 2012. A pastor in Kalutara was also attacked and a house belonging to a Christian was vandalized by Buddhist monks alleging that the church was engaged in conversions.6

    Allegedly these vandals have political backing of the Sinhala chauvinist leaders. The strategy is to keep the non-Budhdhist Sinhala community under limits and on the periphery. History illustrates that the Indian Tamils were marginalised when they were seen as a political threat to the Sinhala leaders.

    Systematic marginalisation of the minorities can channel them to form a common front against the majority community and an ensuing backlash can tear into the fabric of the society. However, despite palpable majoritarianism, it is unlikely that the minority communities will come together as a political force against Sinhala Budhdhist chauvinism. Though there is not much hatred and animosity between the Tamils and Muslims, and though both the communities are sympathetic about each others’ sufferings, a mutual suspicion and distrust does exist particularly on the sharing of political power. According to the Muslim leaders, the LTTE mindset (that they are the dominant player and Muslims should play a secondary role) is still prevalent among the Tamil leaders. Given the Tamil leaders patronising attitude, Muslims foresee a political risk in any alliance with the Tamils. This vulnerability has given elbow room to the SLMC to provide support to the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in the Eastern provincial Council in 2012 and not to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

    A majority community can establish its domination by policies of marginalisation and suppression of the minorities. But suppression of the identity of minorities in a plural society can never bring sustainable peace. Sri Lanka has already experienced a bloody war for decades and incurred the wrath of the international community for its treatment towards the Tamil community. Any discrimination and alienation among the Muslims can be destabilising and if the grievances are overlooked can turn them anti-establishment or push them into aligning with the global Islamic militants.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.