On the night of February 22, four drunken Muslim youths traveling on a three-wheeler in Sri Lanka’s Kandy district beat up a Sinhala Buddhist truck driver because he had not allowed them to overtake his truck. The police arrested the assailants but released them on bail.
Although intelligence officers had warned that the incident could be used to instigate ethnic tensions in the area, the police did not take immediate action. After the truck driver died and his body was being taken from the hospital on the night of March 2, feeling betrayed by state authorities, villagers burned tires in protest.
Soon the protests spread to other areas in the region, culminating in mob violence and extensive destruction of Muslim-owned homes, shops and mosques by Buddhists. The violence killed two people and injured dozens.
The rioting was brought under control by March 9 after deployment of the Special Task Force, the declaration of a countrywide emergency, and a ban on Facebook and other social-media platforms for alleged promotion of hate speech. More than 80 people suspected of rioting were arrested.
Sinhalese Buddhist extremism has been vehemently condemned for the violence by the United Nations, Western governments, media, academia, and non-governmental organizations and their Sri Lankan counterparts. There is no question that violence by any group against another must be condemned and perpetrators must be held accountable. However, in order to avoid descent into further “religious” violence, it is important to move beyond a simplistic depiction of a majority aggressor and a minority victim and consider the multiple historical and social structural causes of the conflict.
Communal harmony and cooperation rather than violence and conflict are the predominant features of Sri Lankan society. Muslims who started arriving in Sri Lanka around the 9th century as merchants and pilgrims were peacefully integrated into the society from about the 12th century. Sinhala kings, the Buddhist sangha and the people provided the facilities for the Muslim newcomers to practice their religion without hindrance.
Muslims fleeing persecution by the Portuguese and Dutch, who had ruled the island’s coastal lowlands since 1505, were welcomed and allowed to settle in the Sinhala kingdom. Muslim settlers married local Sinhala and Tamil women. The original Sinhala family names of some of these Muslim descendants are still in evidence in the Kandyan hill country disturbed by the recent riots.
Both colonial and local rulers have manipulated grievances and incited ethnic and religious groups against each other during times of crises and challenges to their authority. A case in point is the Rebellion of 1818, which sought to drive out the British from the Kandyan kingdom. It was sparked when the insecure and unpopular colonial regime appointed a Muslim as the headman of Wellassa, undermining the traditional authority of the Sinhala governor of the region. The British put down the rebellion with utmost severity and repression, consolidating their authority over the Sinhala chiefs and the population.
Similarly, a conflict that emerged in Gampola in Kandy district in May 1915 over the right of a Buddhist procession to play music while passing a Muslim mosque, was used by the British regime in its own interest of divide and rule. Failures of the British to uphold Buddhist customary rights and to arrest a Muslim man who shot dead a Sinhala boy led to widespread violence by Buddhists against Muslims in Kandy and other areas. The British declared martial law, killed a large number of suspected rioters and charged prominent Sinhala leaders with sedition and arrested them to secure colonial domination during the volatile World War I period.
During Sri Lanka’s post-independence period too, so-called ethnic riots have rarely been spontaneous outbursts of primordial Sinhala hatred toward minorities. Rather, communally based conflicts have arisen and been exacerbated either because of state inaction or manipulation by state and outside actors.
The 1983 anti-Tamil violence was a pogrom. Its outcome was the horrific 30-year armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). There were no mass Sinhala uprisings during the armed conflict against Tamils following LTTE attacks against the most important Buddhist sacred sites, including the Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura and the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, or against atrocities such as the killing of young Buddhist monks in Arantalawa.
There are many unanswered questions regarding the forces behind the spread of anti-Muslim violence in the current postwar period. The disturbances in southwestern town of Aluthgama in 2014 were reportedly carried out not by local Buddhist villagers but by outside groups engaged in a “planned and well-orchestrated attack to discredit the [then] government.”
There is speculation as to the origin and sponsorship of the extremist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which has been spreading xenophobia, bigotry and hate speech against the Muslims in Aluthgama and elsewhere. There are unanswered questions as to why the BBS was founded in 2012 soon after its leaders returned from a trip to Norway and why its leader, the monk Galagoda Gnanasara, was given a five-year multiple-entry visa to the United States. After the Aluthgama riots, the previous government lost the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections, losing the crucial Muslim vote.
While Buddhist extremism has been subjected to global condemnation, there is little attention paid to the extremist Wahhabi Islam that has been spreading across Sri Lanka for the last several decades. In order to avoid further religiously based violence, it is necessary to address how this intolerant and aggressive form of Islam imported from Saudi Arabia is aggravating tensions between Muslims and Buddhists as well as other communities and between different Muslim sects.
Indeed, how is the spread of Islamic extremism disturbing the island’s traditions of harmony and cooperation and contributing to communal violence?
According to local villagers affected by this month’s events in Kandy, the violence there too was perpetrated not by local residents but by groups that came from outside. The riots emerged soon after the present regime was badly defeated at local-government elections on February 10, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is facing a non-confidence motion in Parliament. The defeat at the local-government elections conveyed public disapproval of proposed constitutional reforms and the ongoing sale of the country’s vital resources, assets and services to external interests including India, China, the US and transnational corporations.
The timing of the Kandy riots and the failure of the state to take timely action despite prior warnings have prompted many to ask: Was another unpopular and insecure regime seeking to promote communal conflict and destabilization to assert itself through authoritarian measures?
The disturbances in Kandy have provided new legitimacy to calls for internationally backed constitutional reforms as the basis for minority protection. However, constitutional reforms that provide the legal framework for dismemberment of the country along ethno-religious lines are likely to aggravate communal conflict. They will not address the structural violence rooted in corporate globalization and efforts of its state, media and NGO sectors and local allies to divert public attention away from widening economic inequality and massive social and environmental insecurities.
Sri Lankan Buddhists must not support xenophobic groups but safeguard their Buddhist heritage non-violently. Muslims must eschew extremist Islam and protect their traditional tolerant and gentle Islam. To avoid descent into religious wars, all individuals and groups must uphold the norm of unity within diversity and the qualities of generosity, compassion and wisdom over the lures of greed, hatred and ignorance promoted by both ethno-religious and economic fundamentalisms.
“Whoever judges hastily does Dhamma not uphold, a wise one should investigate truth and untruth both.” – Verse 256, The Dhammapada