The growing divide

June 29, 2014


The writer is assistant editor at Sri Lanka’s The Sunday Times.
The writer is assistant editor at Sri Lanka’s The Sunday Times.

WHEN violent clashes erupted between the majority Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims in the Sri Lankan town of Aluthgama in mid-June, many said these were the worst clashes between the two communities in living memory. But the violence was not entirely unexpected.

With the Sri Lankan army emerging victorious at the end of a three-decade war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009, a sense of triumphalism has given rise to ultra-nationalist sentiments among the Sinhalese Buddhists. This has led to the emergence of hardline Buddhist groups that have been drumming up fears among the majority that the next threat they face will come from the Muslim community.

For generations, in areas like Aluthgama, about 64 kilometres south of Colombo, Sinhalese and Muslims have lived side by side. But of late, both have been hardening their positions over minor issues which in the past would have been defused with the intervention of village elders.

What began as a small altercation on June 12 in the area when a Buddhist monk was making his way through the predominantly Muslim village gave rise to a wave of rumours that the monk was assaulted or murdered. Three days later, the Sinhalese turned their wrath on the Muslims, burning their homes and business establishments. Four persons died and scores were injured in the incident.

Tensions between Buddhists and Muslims are rising in Sri Lanka.

Adding to the tragedy were allegations that the police did nothing to stop the violence against the Muslims due to the presence of members of a hardline Buddhist group — the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or the Buddhist Power Army which has emerged in post-war Sri Lanka as the most prominent group portraying itself as the protector of Buddhism.

The BBS general secretary, Galagodaththe Gnanasara Thera, has in recent months be­come the face of the group. Hours before vio­lence erupted in Aluthgama, he had add­ressed a public rally attended by some 3,000 persons in which he did not mince his words regarding the threats to Buddhists posed by the Muslims. His inflammatory speech coupled with some provocation on the part of Muslims in the area led to the violence.

Even though the BBS has distanced itself from the violence since then, denying its supporters were involved in the clashes, its strong anti-Muslim views are not new.

The BBS came into prominence two years ago when it questioned the issuing of halal certificates for goods by the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, the local group issuing these certificates. It began by calling for a boycott of all halal-certified products saying that the prices of goods had been increased on products that had the label.

The issue dragged on for months following which the issuing of the halal certificates was suspended. This was followed by a call to boycott retail shops owned by Muslims, resulting in protests in front of one of the leading clothes retailers in Colombo. Although the issue was settled with the intervention of the police, the simmering tensions between the two communities increased leading to the Aluthgama incident.

Muslim politicians, many of whom are part of the coalition government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, have called for a ban on the BBS but this has been refused. Mr Rajapaksa visited areas affected by the violence and assured an impartial inquiry into the violence. He also promised strict and swift action against the perpetrators. “I will be appointing a high-level panel to inquire into the recent disturbances,” the president tweeted from his official account; however, persons are yet to be named to this panel.

The incident caused rumblings within the Rajapaksa administration with at least two of the influential cabinet members, Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem and Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, voicing their displeasure at police inaction. The opposition leader in parliament Ranil Wickre­mesinghe also called on the government to appoint a parliamentary committee to look at ways to avoid future incidents of the sort. This proposal is pending.

Given the underlying message of tolerance that Buddhism preaches, many Buddhists have distanced themselves from the hardline approach of the BBS. Many fear that if left unchecked, the group’s activities will once again plunge the country into instability which Sri Lankans are keen to avoid.

Senior members of the Buddhist clergy too have called for tolerance and acceptance of the multiethnic, multi-religious facets of the country, and inter-faith meetings are being held in Buddhist temples and mosques in Aluthgama to drive home the need for members of both communities to co-exist in peace and harmony.

While Muslims, who make up around 8pc of the country’s 20 million population, fear a hardening of the stance of Buddhists towards minorities in Sri Lanka, much will now depend on how fast the government of President Rajapaksa acts to arrest these disturbing trends. n

The writer is assistant editor at Sri Lanka’s The Sunday Times.

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2014