OVER the past few days, disturbing news of communal violence has been coming out of the island nation of Sri Lanka, involving members of the majority Buddhist Sinhalese community and minority Muslims.
Much of the trouble has been fuelled by rumours; the fallout has been deadly, with a number of deaths reported as well as widespread arson and rioting.
The district of Kandy has been at the centre of the storm.
While there was sporadic violence last week in which a mosque and Muslim-owned businesses were attacked, violence again flared on Monday after rumours spread that a Sinhalese man had been killed.
Sri Lankan authorities have declared a state of emergency to quell the trouble, while on Wednesday, the state moved to block social media in order to curb “hate speech”.
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has over the last decade or so witnessed the rise of hard-line Buddhist groups, such as the Bodu Bala Sena, which have targeted the Muslim minority community.
Even in the latest violence, extremist monks are believed to have played a central part in stoking trouble.
In many ways, the rise of the extremist Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka mirrors the situation in Myanmar, where monks have been at the forefront of anti-Muslim agitation, particularly targeting the embattled Rohingya.
In fact, Wirathu, a fire-breathing monk, has been dubbed the “Burmese bin Laden”.
Perhaps these currents have something to do with the global rise of the hard right; in both Sri Lanka and Myanmar, many Buddhist clerics have combined their religious vision with a xenophobic hyper-nationalism to create a combustible mix that threatens members of minority ethnic and religious groups.
Sri Lanka has witnessed a brutal civil war which lasted over 25 years, pitting the separatist Tamil Tigers against the primarily Sinhalese state.
Now, new fault lines are pitting the Sinhalese against Muslims.
The state must act before divisions are further fuelled.
The first priority must be to restore order, while those who work up mobs must be dealt with as per the law, even if they have donned clerical robes.
South Asia has already witnessed far too much communal violence, whether in the shape of the growing power of the religiously inspired right in this country, or the relentless march of the Sangh Parivar in India.
The authorities in Colombo need to undertake urgent efforts to maintain communal harmony in Sri Lanka.
Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2018