Amidst an outright snub by the Sri Lankan government against Rohingya refugees seeking asylum on the South Asian island, the country’s growing communal discord appeared to take precedence even as more moderate thinkers called on the coalition government to reconsider its decision on “humanitarian’” grounds and allow the refugees to at least seek temporary shelter.
But in the midst of a series of protests led by hardline Buddhist monks in the Buddhist-majority country, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has apparently succumbed to pressure, declaring that his government will not allow Rohingya Muslims into his country.
However, Dr Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council (NPC), an organization dedicated to peace and reconciliation in post-civil war Sri Lanka, highlighted that as a country that has suffered an internal conflict, it needs to be more understanding of the plight facing the Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar due to the violence against the stateless Muslim minority. “We need to accommodate these refugees essentially [for] humanitarian reasons,” he told Asia Times.
Perera also said that as Sri Lanka is part of the global community, it should not separate itself from the problems of other countries. “During the conflict in Sri Lanka, over one million refugees left our country, and they received asylum overseas, so it’s time for us to do our bit. We should reciprocate. We don’t need to accommodate millions, but we can surely take in a hundred asylum seekers,” he said.
Amidst reports by Indian media that some refugees may have links to terrorist organizations such as ISIS, Perera said that if Sri Lanka genuinely wants to help the refugees, the government can always put in place a strict screening system to ensure those seeking asylum are genuine. However, Wickremesinghe last week told a parliamentary meeting that if Rohingya refugees were to come directly to Sri Lanka, bypassing countries such as Bangladesh and Thailand, it would be considered suspicious and could even be part of a larger emigration racket.
Sources also said that Wickremesinghe’s government has been under continuous pressure to refuse entry to Muslim refugees to avoid angering Sinhala nationalist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which means Buddhist Power Force, and Sinha Le, which translates to Sinhalese Blood.
In recent weeks, Colombo, the capital, has seen several protest marches demanding that the government refuse to provide asylum to Rohingya refugees. Marchers have carried placards expressing support for Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of Myanmar’s government. However, separately, Muslims were also seen protesting in front of the Myanmar’s embassy in Colombo, demanding an end to the ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya Muslims.
Meanwhile, a Buddhist monk, Angulugalle Siri Jinananda, started a petition on change.com addressed to United Nations General Secretary António Guterres demanding that he assure that Rohingya refugees will not be allowed into the country. As of September 26, the petition had received 23,000 signatures. Siri Jinananda said that allowing the refugees to enter Sri Lanka might lead to the rise of Islamic extremism.
The BBS has also written to President Maithripala Sirisena requesting an appointment to meet and discuss the Rohingya refugee situation.
Meanwhile, in a statement on Sunday, the NPC’s governing council expressed disappointment over the Sri Lankan government’s decision to deny asylum to the Rohingya. “Only a handful has attempted to come to Sri Lanka. The plight of the Rohingyas has been evident for several years now, with its intensity of atrocities against men, women and children at unprecedented levels in the last few weeks. The plight of entire communities of people who have lost their loved ones, homes and properties due to the conflict in Myanmar has a special resonance to us in Sri Lanka,” the statement said.
While urging the government to reconsider its decision to keep out the refugees, the NPC also pointed out that although Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the UN Convention of 1951 pertaining to the status of refugees, as a member country of the United Nations Sri Lanka has an obligation to take on its share of international humanitarian responsibilities.
However, despite an appeal to the government to review its stand on allowing refugees into the country, the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL), an umbrella organization of Islamic groups, was of the view that given the communal tensions in the country between hardcore Buddhist groups and Muslims, the stand taken by the government was understandable.
Mr. Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the MCSL, however, pointed out that it was important to see the Rohingya issue not as a Muslim issue but as a humanitarian one. “At a time when we have extremists looking for ammunition to use against the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, allowing Rohingya Muslims to seek asylum in Sri Lanka will give these extremist elements more ammunition,” he told Asia Times. Instead, he said, Sri Lanka as a country should voice concern over the worsening situation in Myanmar and must pressure the international community to take the steps needed to ensure that the refugees can return to their homeland.
In recent months, tensions between Muslims and Buddhists have intensified, with a series of attacks launched on Muslim-owned shops and mosques across the country. Within a span of just five weeks during the middle of this year, over 20 attacks were carried out against mosques and Muslim-owned shops. Some of the shops were hit by gasoline bombs, while others were torched by masked men. Among the main allegations leveled by the Buddhist groups is that the Muslim community, which makes up less than 10% of the country’s population, was trying to outnumber the 70% Buddhist majority. Another allegation was that the Muslim community was trying to introduce Sharia law.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s Internal Affairs Ministry last week confirmed that there were no Rohingya refugees in the country and that 30 asylum seekers who had arrived illegally by boat from India were handed over to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Meanwhile, the Department of Immigration and Emigration has announced that it will not issue visas to Rohingya refugees. However, visas will be issued to all Myanmar nationals who arrive in Sri Lanka with a valid passport.