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Why anti-Muslim violence will escalate in Sri Lanka

Government is walking a tight-rope between political and religious factions

Jehan Perera, Colombo

Jehan Perera, Colombo

Updated: July 12, 2017 05:25 AM GMT
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Why anti-Muslim violence will escalate in Sri Lanka

A Sri Lankan Muslim man offers Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Galle Face esplanade in Colombo on June 26. Muslims make up about 10 percent of Sri Lanka's population. (Photo by Ishara S.Kodikara/AFP)

In the last two months, several violent attacks have targeted the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. Muslim-owned businesses and places of worship have been badly hit. In more than 20 separate incidents, the attackers caused economic ruin to many families, offended the victims' faith and unsettled an entire community.

However, the recent spate of attacks on Muslims is nothing new. They have taken place, on and off, for several years, escalating in 2014 when a neighborhood with a prominent Muslim community in Aluthgama town was torched.

The attacks have been accompanied by a social media campaign that claims the Muslim community has a long-term plan to take over the nation. Thankfully, the most recent attacks, which took place in different parts of the country, did not result in any deaths. However, the acts of terror appear to be premeditated and carefully planned while none of the assailants have been arrested.

This failure of the security forces to apprehend the criminals is at the root of the puzzle. It has led to numerous calls from civil society organizations, opposition political parties, foreign governments and the bar association for the government to act and uphold the rule of law.

A statement issued by the bar association aims to make the legal response easier for the government, should they need help. It sets out the provisions of law under which the police can arrest those who perpetrate violence and hate crimes against the Muslim community and under which the country's attorney general's department can file indictments in court.

In the statement, the bar association calls on the police to take appropriate security measures to protect these religious communities and for "the Hon. Attorney General to expedite the prosecution of all suspects in appropriate circumstances for offences under Chapter XV of the Penal Code and the provisions of the ICCPR Act, irrespective of their social status."

Troublingly, the police have so far been dormant in their response. They have taken no steps to protect the community from the criminals or to arrest the suspects whose actions have been videoed or documented.

A national television station, for instance, broadcast an incident where the temporary shelters of Muslims in a rural area were demolished by a group in which a prominent Buddhist monk was identified.

The victims of the violence and destruction have also handed in footage to the police as evidence. Ironically, the politicians who oversee the security forces have stressed the need for the police to act. Yet we remain in a quandary, where government and police inaction continues. The government does not appear willing to respond.

A couple of months ago, massive crowds attended a May Day rally that was larger than any other in recent memory. The masses had been bussed into the capital by the joint opposition parties. This operation is indicative of the current political momentum in support of the opposition and their ability to rally people power onto the streets.

In the current political climate, the government's instinct may be to delay taking decisive action and hope that the problem will disappear.


Courting hardliners

The Sri Lanka government may also be inspired by the example set by Myanmar, where Aung San Suu Kyi's ruling party has sought to win the support of hard-line Buddhist nationalist groups.

The greatest threat to the stability of the Myanmar government comes from the military that ruled the country under a dictatorship for over five decades.

Five years ago, the military eased its stranglehold, relinquishing some of its power to the democratically elected party led by Suu Kyi. But the civilian government is afraid that the military generals are waiting in the wings to take back power. This is why the democratically elected government has worked to bring the Buddhist nationalist groups within its fold.

During the period of military rule, the Buddhist monks were a powerful and non-violent force that stood in opposition to the military dictatorship. The problem is that while the Buddhist nationalists in Myanmar are set against the return of a military dictatorship, they have also identified the Muslims as the source of a potential threat to Myanmar, especially in terms of changes in the demographic composition of some regions of the country.

Therefore, the government's attempt to bring the hard-line nationalists onside is fraught with problems. Their strategy has further legitimized the hardliners in the eyes of the general public resulting in more frequent attacks on Myanmar Muslims, supposedly in the national interest.

In a similar vein in Sri Lanka, the government appears intent on accommodating hard-line Buddhist nationalist groups to dilute the political challenges posed by the opposition parties which can exploit Buddhist nationalist sentiment and insecurities. Whenever politicians are at a loss for new ideas or explanations for the difficulties that face the country, they claim to be protecting the country from anti-Sri Lanka groups from abroad and their collaborators within the country.

Naturally, as the major religions practiced in Sri Lanka are found around the globe, it is inevitable that the minorities' religions will have adherents abroad. This is the source of the paranoia to Sinhalese who have far-reaching memories of repeated foreign invasions that lay waste to their ancient kingdoms and to the suppression of Sinhalese civilization.

Although the anti-Muslim violence has got the center stage this time, there is also anti-Christian violence, that has been directed for a longer period, against evangelical Christian groups engaged in conversion activities. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka reported that, since the start of the year, over 20 incidents of violence and intimidation took place against Christian places of worship across the country.

The government may be right to fear the collaboration of opposition political parties and Buddhist nationalist groups if it cracks down on the perpetrators of religious violence. The concern would be that these two powerful forces could combine on the ground and generate tensions and conflicts on the streets in a way that would make the country difficult to govern. However, the government must act wisely and decisively. The situation left unresolved and unchecked is only likely to deteriorate.

Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. He is a regular weekly political columnist for newspapers both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. 

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