ucanews.com reporter, ColomboUpdated: June 04, 2019 09:20 AM GMT
Four people were killed in clashes in the coastal town of Aluthgama in 2014, with over 2,000 displaced and 17 mosques attacked. The Buddhist Power Force was accused of instigating the attacks. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)
Since Islamic extremists in Sri Lanka launched a series of attacks on churches and luxury hotels on Easter Sunday, anti-Muslim riots by Sinhala Buddhist mobs have destroyed over 500 Muslim-owned businesses and homes.
Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, said local sentiment was still largely against Muslims, with many people suspicious of the government harboring a growing bias against Buddhist-majority rule.
Perera recalled a recent conversation with a taxi driver during which the cabbie had railed against a government minister for allegedly saying that "Sri Lanka was not a Sinhala Buddhist country."
Perera said he later confronted the minister about this, reminding him that Sinhala Buddhists make up 70 percent of the population.
The point of his story, he said in an interview with ucanews.com, is the underlying belief among many citizens that they are engaged in a fight against the odds to preserve Buddhist traditions and dominance in the island nation.
This sense of vulnerability has found expression in Article 9 of the Sri Lankan constitution. This puts Buddhism on a pedestal as the "foremost" religion, and says the government is bound to honor this while also allowing people of other faiths to freely practice their religion.
A human rights defender looks inside a destroyed mosque in Kandy in this 2018 file photo. Buddhist Power Force,a radical Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organization, has been accused of instigating the anti-Muslim riots in Digana, a suburb of Kandy, when nearly 450 Muslim-owned homes and shops were damaged and over 20 mosques attacked. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)
However that last part seems to have been overlooked by the nine suicide bombers who launched simultaneous attacks on six targets nationwide on Easter Sunday, killing over 250 people, mostly Christians. They later claimed to be affiliated with the so-called Islamic State (IS).
Extremist Buddhists found more opportunities to attack Muslim-owned places of worship, businesses, vehicles and homes in a host of cities across the nation just 22 days after the Easter carnage.
Several mobs reportedly moved from place to place on motorbikes. Some of the incidents in cities like Negombo, Chilaw and Kurunegala occurred during a government-imposed curfew designed to keep a lid on such outbreaks of violence.
The government and security forces were later criticized for acting too lethargically in trying to bring the situation under control.
Some saw their apparent unwillingness to act as a tacit approval of the mob violence as the gangs roamed the streets spreading racial and religious hatred.
In 2014, four people were killed in clashes in the coastal town of Aluthgama, with more than 2,000 displaced and 17 mosques attacked. The BBS, a radical Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organization, was accused of instigating the attacks.
The BBS is also suspected of involvement in anti-Muslim riots in Digana, a suburb of Kandy, in 2018. Nearly 450 Muslim-owned homes and shops were damaged and over 20 mosques attacked.
Extremist mobs targeted mosques, Muslim-owned businesses, vehicles and homes in Minuwangoda, a town near Negombo in Sri Lanka's Western Province, on May 13. Some incidents occurred during the hours of a government-imposed curfew. (ucanews.com photo)
Recently, the government has banned Islamic face veils that make it hard to identify people, calling them a threat to national security. Critics say this is a form of religious persecution explicitly targeting Muslims.
Over a quarter century after the Tamil Tigers' struggle for independence was crushed by the military, memories of the bloody civil war live on and Sri Lanka remains a divided society.
In the minds of many Sinhala Buddhists, the pressing challenge is keeping Muslims and Christians "in their place."
More Sinhalese have reportedly started boycotting shops and commercial properties run by Muslims in recent years, spurred on by anti-Muslim rhetoric on social media.
Tharaka Subash, an activist from Minuwangoda, another city where Muslims have come under attack, said officials who fail to take immediate action to halt such violence should be fired if not punished by the state.
"Justice should be done to Muslims without any political interference in the criminal justice process. This is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country where all are equal before the law," said Subash.
"Religious and political leaders should respect diversity and promote peace and reconciliation," he added.
He said it was crucial to foster efforts to build trust between the different camps.
"We should move away from these (conflicting) mythologies of our religions and place more emphasis on human values," he said.
Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith has said that in Sri Lanka, Buddhism should be considered the elder brother and all the other religions "younger siblings" that ought to follow its lead, while also benefiting from fraternal ties.
He described Buddhism as the lifeblood of the country, but said the "elder brother" should also respect his younger siblings.
He took this point even further on May 10 by telling Christians and Muslims that they should accept Buddhist traditions, in an apparent bid to quell the rising tide of anti-Muslim feeling in the country.
However, one of the challenges is that most of Sri Lanka's Muslim community want to get closer to Arabic Muslim culture rather than be a part of Sri Lankan culture, Perera said.
"I cannot deny that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country, as most of its people are Sinhala Buddhists," he said.
"But the other 30 percent also call Sri Lanka home. They belong to it just as much as the Sinhala Buddhists do, so they deserve to have equal rights."