Rohingya refugees travel on a truck to Kutupalang makeshift refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on September 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Danish Siddiqui
Rohingya refugees travel on a truck to Kutupalang makeshift refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, on September 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Danish Siddiqui

Amid an outright snub by the Sri Lankan government against Rohingya refugees seeking asylum, growing communal discord appeared to take precedence even as more moderate thinkers called on the administration to reconsider its decision on “humanitarian” grounds and allow the refugees to seek shelter, even on a temporary basis.

But in the midst of a series of protests led by hardline monks in the Buddhist-majority country, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (pictured below) appeared to have snapped under pressure, declaring that his government  would not allow Rohingya Muslims into the country.

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However, Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council (NPC), an organization dedicated to peace and reconciliation, stressed that as a country that had suffered from internal conflict, Sri Lanka needed to be more understanding of the plight facing the Rohingya who are fleeing Myanmar because of 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.

Amid reports by Indian media that some refugees may have links to terror outfits such as Islamic State, Perera advised that if Sri Lanka genuinely wanted to help the refugees the government could always put in place a strict screening system to ensure the refugees seeking asylum were genuine cases.

Wickremesinghe last week told a meeting in Parliament that if Rohingya refugees were to come all the way to Sri Lanka, bypassing countries such as Bangladesh and Thailand, it would look suspicious and could be part of a larger emigration racket.

Sources also said that Wickremesinghe’s government had been under continuous pressure not to allow any Muslim refugees into the country, which could irk Sinhala nationalist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or Buddhist Power Force, and Sinha Le, which translates to Sinhalese Blood.

In recent weeks, Colombo has seen several protest marches demanding that the government not provide asylum to Rohingya refugees, as well as carrying placards in support of Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto head of Myanmar’s government.

Separately, Muslims were also seen protesting in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Colombo demanding an end to the atrocities and the ethnic cleansing being carried out against the Rohingya.

A Buddhist monk by the name Angulugalle Siri Jinananda started a petition on addressed to the United Nations general secretary demanding that he ensure Rohingya refugees will not be permitted in the country.

As of Tuesday, the petition had received  more than 23,000 signatures, mainly Buddhists. Siri Jinananda said that allowing the refugees to enter Sri Lanka might lead to fresh problems, especially with Islamic jihad and Wahhabism already rearing their heads in the island nation.

The BBS has also written to President Maithripala Sirisena requesting  an appointment to meet and discuss the Rohingya refugee situation.

On Sunday, the governing council of the NPC in a statement expressed its disappointment over the Sri Lankan government’s decision to deny asylum to the Rohingya refugees.

“Only a handful [have] attempted to come to Sri Lanka. The plight of the Rohingya has been evident for several years now, with [the 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 bar the refugees, the NPC also pointed out that although Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention of 1951 pertaining to the status of refugees, as a member country of the UN Sri Lanka has an obligation to share international humanitarian responsibilities.

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 Muslim groups, is of the view that, given the communal tensions in the country between hardcore Buddhist groups and Muslims, the government’ stand was understandable.

Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the MCSL, pointed out that it was important to see the Rohingya crisis 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 pressure the international community to ensure that it take the necessary steps so that the refugees can return to their homeland.

In recent months, tensions between Muslims and Buddhists have intensified in Sri Lanka, with a series of attacks launched on Muslim-owned shops as well as mosques across the country. Within a span of five weeks midyear, more than 20 attacks were carried out against mosques and shops. Some of the shops were hit by gasoline bombs, while others were torched by masked men.

Among the main allegations leveled by Buddhist groups is that the Muslim community, which makes up less than 10% of the country’s population, is trying to outnumber the Buddhists, who account for a little over 70%. Another allegation was that the Muslim community was trying to bring in sharia law by inculcating halal and other Islamic practices.

Sri Lanka’s Internal Affairs Ministry last week confirmed that there were no Rohingya refugees in the country, and that 30 refugees who arrived illegally by boat from India had been handed over to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Meanwhile, the Department of Immigration and Emigration has announced that it will not issue visas to Rohingya refugees, though visas will be issued for all Myanmar nationals who arrive in Sri Lanka with a valid passport.

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 in Sri Lanka.