A mosque in downtown Colombo. Other mosques and Muslim-owned shops in Sri Lanka have been attacked by Buddhist extremists. Photo: iStock
A mosque in downtown Colombo. Other mosques and Muslim-owned shops in Sri Lanka have been attacked by Buddhist extremists. Photo: iStock

Taking a page out of Myanmar Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu’s book, Sri Lanka’s own firebrand monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara has been busy renewing his hate campaign against Muslims in the South Asian island nation by leading attacks on mosques and other Muslim-owned establishments across the country.

Despite the increasing attacks against the Muslim minority, it appears that the government and law-enforcement authorities are soft-pedaling action against Gnanasara and his Sinhala nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which translates as Buddhist Power Force.

Within a span of just five weeks, there have been a spate of attacks against the Muslim community, with at least 20 on mosques and shops. Some of the shops were hit by gasoline bombs, while others were torched by masked men.

Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, expressed disappointment over police inaction despite complaints been lodged and the available proof. “The police have not given the priority that is needed to investigate the recent arson and violent attacks against Muslims during the past few weeks. No arrests have been made even though there has been ample proof of public statements as well as social media calls by the BBS for violence against the Muslims,” he told Asia Times.

Posted by All ceylon halal Sri Lanka on Sunday, 21 May 2017

Gnanasara shot into the limelight in 2012, and has been leading gangs running riot across the country since then. Even during the previous government under ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gnanasara’s group enjoyed impunity, with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the defense secretary at the time, openly supporting events organized by the BBS.

In 2014, Gnanasara led gangs carrying out attacks in predominantly Muslim areas of Aluthgama, Beruwala and Dharga Town, in the country’s south. The riots left four people killed and 80 injured, while at least 10,000 were displaced by attacks on homes, shops, factories, mosques and a nursery. No action was taken against him despite him openly claiming that he was behind the riots.

After the change in the presidency at the 2015 elections, Gnanasara and his group went silent for a few months, but since last year they have  renewed their hate campaign against Muslims, who make up less than 10% of the country’s population.

After the increasing attacks over the past few weeks, Muslim civil organizations have been meeting with members of the diplomatic community to urge them to pressure the government to take action against the re-emergence of hate crimes. On May 21, the US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Atul Keshap, declared that any attack on a house of worship was reprehensible and called on authorities to arrest the culprits soon.

During a meeting on Monday between the European Union Delegation to Sri Lanka and Muslim civil representatives, the EU underscored that it was important for the government to take action against the increasing hate crimes against the minority community.

Even though the coalition government under incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe pledged to end Buddhist extremism in Sri Lanka, the pledges have turned out to be mere rhetoric. “This has certainly become the biggest disappointment the Muslim community is feeling, with the failure of the current government to rein in the Buddhist extremists after their promise of good governance in their campaigns of January and August 2015 during the elections,” Ahamed said.

The government’s decision to soft-pedal its actions against the hardcore Buddhist group was further made obvious after President Sirisena shot down a request for a meeting by 21 Muslim parliamentarians who wanted to discuss with him the hate crimes facing their community. Sirisena informed the Muslim legislators that he was busy, and instructed the minister in charge of law and order to meet with the Muslim MPs to discuss their grievances.

Meanwhile, the National Peace Council, an independent and non-partisan organization in the country, highlighted that ethnic and religious minorities had overwhelmingly voted for the current government because it had pledged to protect them from the violence, lawlessness and impunity to which they had been subjected in the past.

“The Sri Lankan people need to keep in mind the lessons from the past in which the failure to protect minorities from discrimination became a cause for three decades of war,” the council said in a statement issued last week. “We have seen that when problems are not resolved and are permitted to go on unchecked that they escalate with time. They can lead to catastrophic outcomes in the future – a situation Sri Lanka can ill afford.”

Also last week, opposition parliamentarian Anura Kumara Dissanayake accused the government of delaying action against the BBS and Gnanasara. “The government should have curbed this menace from the beginning, but instead you are weak. It is the government’s duty to prevent the hate campaign from escalating,” he told Parliament.

In response, Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayaka gave a rhetorical assurance that the law was equal for everyone, and steps were being taken to initiate action against any of the culprits. However, just a few days before Ratnayaka’s assurance, a YouTube video clip showed Gnanasara openly clashing with police, pushing aside a group of officers who had attempted to arrest him, and getting into a vehicle and leaving.

YouTube video

Over the past months, Gnanasara has also been seen giving a series of anti-Muslim speeches inciting hatred. However, despite documented proof, including of one speech where he threatened to carry out a bloodbath in a predominantly Muslim area in Colombo, no action was ever taken against him.

After the failed attempt to arrest Gnanasara in mid-May, the police on May 25 announced that a warrant had been issued and several police teams had deployed to arrest him on several charges, including inciting religious disharmony. A court order was also issued separately preventing him from leaving the country. However, after the police made the announcement that a warrant had been issued for the arrest of Gnanasara, the hardcore monk went into hiding, with his supporters claiming that there is a conspiracy to assassinate him, and hence he has been put up at a safe house, to ensure his security.

“It is indeed disappointing that the government has failed to arrest the Venerable Gnanasara even after deploying several police investigation teams. BBS’s Dilantha Withanage’s statement that the Venerable Gnanasara is in a safe house alone should have led the police to the fugitive if they had taken Withanage into police custody for aiding and abetting a criminal,” Ahamed said.

He said there was strong suspicion within the Muslim community that the government had created this drama to satisfy angry Muslims while ensuring that there is no fallout with the majority Buddhists. “My take is that the absolute majority of Buddhists who do not subscribe to this form of violent Buddhism would not raise a finger if this distortion of peaceful Buddhism is addressed,” Ahamed added.

Munza Mushtaq is a senior journalist from Colombo, Sri Lanka. The former News Editor of The Nation and The Sunday Leader, she writes extensively on current affairs, with special focus on politics, human rights, corruption and business matters. She serves as the Assistant Editor - Asia Desk for the International News Services (UK), and also contributes to the Nikkei Asian Review. She also functions as a special correspondent for the Los Angeles Times where she reports on significant political developments...

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