Sri Lanka's Special Task Force and police officers stand guard near a burnt house after a clash between two communities in Digana, in the central district of Kandy, Sri Lanka, on March 6, 2018. Photo: Reuters

Sri Lanka has declared a state of emergency for ten days amid fears that ‘anti-Muslim’ attacks could increase in several central hill towns.

Violence towards Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority is reported to have been on the rise for several years. However, the situation has reached a crisis point following mob attacks on Muslims in the central district of Kandy on Tuesday. This comes weeks after similar anti-Muslim riots broke out in Ampara where a Muslim restaurant was accused of mixing sterilization pills in its food.

Muslims and Buddhists have been at loggerheads in Sri Lanka for decades. However, radical Buddhist groups have taken to targeting Muslims regularly since 2012. In 2014, Muslims were targeted by Sinhalese Buddhists in South Western Sri Lanka, after a Buddhist monk was reportedly attacked by a Muslim group. The consequent riots saw 8,000 Muslims and 2,000 Sinhalese Buddhists displaced. Several mosques and Muslim shops were vandalized.

Sri Lanka’s Buddhists often accuse Muslims of desecrating Buddhist structures and forcibly converting ‘the Buddha’s devotees’ to Islam. Aggravating communal tensions has been an influx of Muslim refugees from Myanmar. Many observers also cite the nationalist fervor of the majority Sinhalese Buddhists as a key provocation.

In the latest clash, police reported that, after the funeral of a truck driver from the Sinhalese community who died days after he was involved in an altercation with four Muslims, “a Sinhalese mob attacked Muslim shops.”

The unrest has highlighted Sri Lanka’s vulnerability as the country recovers from a protracted civil war with its Tamil minority. Decades of aggression and human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities are well-recorded. A look at the report submitted by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights confirms that grave minority rights violations continue unabated.

According to this report, at least 241 anti-Muslim attacks and 69 anti-Christian attacks occurred in Sri Lanka between January and December in 2013. Fifty-one of the anti-Muslim incidents were violent, involving physical violence against individuals and destruction of their property. Surprisingly, at least 118 of these attacks were perpetrated by politicians. Worryingly, the findings suggest that in almost all the cases, police and law enforcement officers present failed to stop the violence. This seems to be the case in Kandy as well.

February 14, 2013, was perhaps the first time when an ‘anti-Muslim’ wave erupted in the Kandy area. A gang known as ‘Keppattipola Parapuyra’ in Kandy distributed ‘anti-halal’ handouts that stated: “You have full freedom to oppose the Halal process.” The handout advised Sinhalese people not to consume certain products until the Halal logo was removed from its packaging.

Muslims and Tamils — the two main minority groups in Sri Lanka —form about 30% of the country’s population. But after the defeat of the LTTE and marginalisation of the Tamils in the north, the government of Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa overtly encouraged Sinhalese Buddhists to target Muslims, and even Christians, in a bid to polarize the electorate.

Rising Majoritarianism

Emboldened by such polarization, the militant Buddhist organization Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) has been active in unleashing hate-crimes against religious minorities of the country. The BBS (which translates as Buddhist Power Force), a radical organization based in Colombo — is particularly known for its anti-Muslim rhetoric. Since its formation in 2012, it has held various campaigns against the country’s minorities, seeking to enforce the Buddhist predominance in Sri Lanka.

But the BBS has distanced itself from the fresh attack against Muslims. Speaking to News18, the chief of the BBS, a Buddhist monk named Galagoda Aththe Jnanasara, said: “The BBS has nothing to do with it. But we are certainly worried about the violence.” However, he added that the “BBS advocates one nation, one religion and one language” and that it is committed to Sinhala primacy in every aspect of life. As “a Buddhist nation Sri Lanka should be run like a Buddhist nation,” he said.

Commenting on the rampant Buddhist supremacism gripping Sri Lanka today, an expert with the International Crisis Group, Alan Keenan, told The Guardian: “One of the key underlying elements is the sense that many Sinhalese and Buddhists have, that Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese and Buddhist island and other communities, Muslims and Tamils, are here on the sufferance of the majority.”

Appeal for calm

However, several Muslim observers and community leaders in Sri Lanka still believe that most Buddhists are tolerant and pluralistic, and that they do not endorse the anti-Muslim violence. Speaking to Asia Times, Dr Mohammad Ali, an academician based in Kandy, said: “It is only a fringe of the Buddhist extremists, not more than 2%, who perpetrate or support the violence against Muslims. Maybe less than 15% of the Buddhist population in Sri Lanka might endorse it. But this mindset is much like the fringes of India, such as Shiv Sena and Karni Sena.”

Hafiz Ehsan Qadri, a leading Sunni Muslim cleric and president of the As-Sunnah Trust, a local Islamic group in Colombo, offers a historical perspective. He considers the violence to be an indirect result of increasing “cultural disintegration” among Wahhabi hardliners in Sri Lanka. He told Asia Times: “It is recorded [in an Islamic book] that Sahaba (companions of the Prophet) came to Sri Lanka and they were not opposed to the local people or their cultural ethos. Even when Sufi saints came in Sri Lanka and built 360 mosques, they had no problem with other communities and there was no religious disharmony at all.”

The government in Sri Lanka is unlikely to overlook the atrocities being perpetrated against Muslims, as a large section of the community voted for it. The government’s imposition of a curfew has been greatly welcomed in the Muslim community. M.L.A.M. Hizbullah, a Sri Lankan Muslim politician and state minister, said he had discussed the issue with the police and the army. “Even though mosques and Muslim houses have been targeted, the government will make sure that no more damage is done,” he told Asia Times.

President Maithripala Sirisena has made a special statement over the clashes. He stressed that his government is taking measures to establish political stability, peace among communities and reconciliation in the country. “Stern action will be taken against those who breach the peace,” he said.

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