Sri Lanka’s Ugly Side

Beneath thin veneer of stability following end of Tamil insurgency, Buddhist zealots stoke religious hatred and attack minorities.

by ‘Bangkok Post,’ June 3, 2013

Sri Lanka celebrated the fourth anniversary of its military victory over Tamil separatists last month amid concerns over a venomous hate campaign and resultant attacks against Muslim and Christian minorities by some Buddhist monks, one of whom set himself on fire. Army tanks rolled onto the streets of Colombo to mark the celebration on May 18, although the ethnic Tamil minority, which witnessed the killing of more than 70,000 civilians during the final phase of the war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009, has yet to find its place in the post-war country.

However, it is sections of the Buddhist monks who have the loudest voice in the country, and they claim the interests of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist population are under threat, from the battered ethnic Tamil minority as well as other religious minorities.

On May 24, about a week after the war victory celebrations, a 30-year-old Buddhist monk self-immolated outside the Temple of the Tooth in the central city of Kandy. He wanted to protest against eating of beef – blamed on the presence of Muslims in the food sector – and alleged proselytising by Christians.

About a week before the victory parade, a prominent Muslim leader spent eight days in jail under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows authorities to detain a suspect for 18 months without formal charges.

Azath Salley, leader of the newly formed Muslim Tamil National Alliance and a former deputy mayor of Colombo, was picked up by officials on May 2 without a court order for allegedly inciting religious disharmony in Sri Lanka by giving an interview to a magazine that has circulation only in neighbouring India.

Salley is among the few people in Sri Lanka who dare to openly criticise the government. He also crossed the line by condemning an influential right-wing Buddhist organisation, the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force or BBS), which is known for attacking Muslims and Christians.

The Muslim leader recently spoke against a March 28 attack on a Muslim-owned clothing warehouse, Fashion Bug, near Colombo. Allegedly led by BBS Buddhist monks, a mob of about 500 people vandalised the store, injuring at least six people, including a journalist. Witnesses said police did little but look on.

When Muslims sought to protest, incitement to more attacks followed.

“Sinhalese Buddhists should be determined to teach such Muslim extremists a lesson that they will never forget,” the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a party that comprises Buddhist monks and is part of the ruling alliance, said in a statement.

“The message is that any resistance to the prevailing orthodoxy of Sinhala Buddhist suzerainty will be crushed,” wrote M.A. Sumanthiran, a lawmaker from the Tamil National Alliance, about Salley’s arrest in an op-ed column in Colombo Telegraph.

The Fashion Bug owner chose not to press charges against the attackers lest more vandalism followed. Authorities arrested a few suspects, only to release them later.

Although a large number of Sri Lankan Muslims speak the Tamil language, they are not known to have any links with Tamil separatists. According to the 2011 census, about 10% of the country’s 20 million are Muslims.

Although Islamist terrorism is a non-issue in Sri Lanka, the campaign against Muslims picked up pace after a February meeting of the BBS that was attended by tens of thousands in Colombo.

The group declared that democracy and pluralism were hurting the interests of Sinhala-Buddhists, calling for a civilian police force against Muslim “extremism”.They released a 10-point resolution, which included a call for an end to halal certification.

Leading up to the February meeting were attacks on Islamic seminaries and mosques in the Sinhala-majority south, according to a March 2013 report, “Attacks on Places of Religious Worship in Post-War Sri Lanka ,” by the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The meeting was held about a month after President Mahinda Rajapaksa issued a statement in English, instead of the Sinhala language that most BBS supporters speak, urging the group not to foment religious conflicts.

The president has formally met with BBS leaders and his brother, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has presided over the opening of a BBS training school, where he praised its monks for protecting the country, religion and race, thereby conferring legitimacy on the racist group.

The BBS and another extremist group, the Sinhala Rawaya (Sinhala Echo), have also attacked Christians, who account for about 7.5% of the population.

A report by the World Evangelical Alliance says at least 30 churches have been attacked this year alone in Sri Lanka, while 52 incidents of persecution were reported last year. Churches have also complained of forced closure by authorities, and a recent attempt by the administration to make registration mandatory for all churches.

The Sri Lankan government appears to be particularly suspicious of Protestant Christians, who are generally known for speaking up for the marginalised and at least 40% of whom are ethnic Tamils.

The persecution of Muslims and Christians is not taking place in isolation.

President Rajapaksa, with the help of groups associated with his regime, appears to be making desperate efforts to consolidate domestic support by invoking majoritarianism in the face of international criticism.

It is now clear, say critics, that retaining power in the post-war nation is a matter of life and death for the president, who portrays himself as the custodian of Sinhala-Buddhist pride.

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