Anti-Muslim sentiment has roots in ultranationalist Buddhism

COLOMBO • The Sri Lankan government has imposed an islandwide emergency for the first time since 2011 to bring anti-Muslim riots that have erupted in the tourist hot spot of Kandy under control.

An emergency was previously in place for 40 years across the island nation from 1971 during a bloody civil war with Tamil separatists. The new emergency, however, is a consequence of rising anti-Muslim sentiment that has its roots in ultra-nationalist Buddhism of the kind behind Myanmar's Rohingya crisis.

Seventy-five per cent of the country's 21 million-strong population is from the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. Muslims comprise about 9 per cent of Sri Lanka's population, while Tamils make up 11 per cent.

Following the end of the civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam terror group, a number of groups openly professing hatred for Muslims as well as Christians have popped up in Sri Lanka, according to The Indian Express.

Primary among these was the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), formed in 2012, which enjoyed the patronage of then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse.

Extremist groups like the BBS, which conflate religion with territory and language, have seized on the rise of the Islamist terrorism as a convenient issue with which to demonise the Muslim community.

The proliferation of Wahabi Islam in Sri Lanka through institutions funded by Saudi Arabia has further driven a wedge between Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims.

A rising trend among Muslim women to wear burqas and men to sport long beards has also fomented distrust, reported India Today.

Communal harmony was also affected by a recent influx of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and the support extended to them by Muslim groups reportedly funded by Saudi Arabia.

The trigger for the latest violence was a road rage incident on Feb 22 in which a Sinhalese truck driver was beaten up by a group of Muslim men for not giving way to the auto-rickshaws they were travelling in.

The driver succumbed to his injuries last Saturday and during his funeral procession, people from the Sinhalese community resorted to violence in some of the Muslim-dominated areas of Kandy, damaging shops and properties. Soon, the situation snowballed, with shops set on fire and clashes between the two communities all over Kandy, leading to the imposition of emergency.

Just before the communal riots broke out, clashes between Sinhalese and Muslims broke out in a town in south-east Sri Lanka, Ampara, just a little over 100km from Kandy. In Ampara, rumours were doing the rounds that popular Muslim eateries were adding some chemical substance or pill to food they served to Buddhist customers in order to make them impotent.

This fed into a stereotype on the Muslim growth rate in Sri Lanka, where some right-wing groups have claimed that the higher birth rate among Muslims would result in Sinhalese Buddhists becoming a minority in the country.

But the tensions were brewing even before this. According to the Secretariat for Muslims, a Muslim civil society organisation, Sri Lanka saw 538 anti-Muslim incidents between 2013 and 2015, besides several incidents against Christians.

The worst took place in 2014, when four people were killed and 80 injured in riots in the western seaside district of Kalutara.

There was an easing of tensions following Mr Rajapakse's defeat in Sri Lanka's presidential election in 2015, but fresh incidents began to occur towards the end of 2016, when some Muslims who were displaced during the civil war began to reclaim their lands in Mannar district, close to Sinhalese majority areas.

Current President Maithripala Sirisena's promise to launch a probe into the riots of 2014 were forgotten, and nothing has been done to improve the communal equation.

There were several anti-Muslim incidents through April and May last year across Sri Lanka. And on Sept 28, a monk led an attack on a United Nations-maintained safe house for Rohingya refugees in the Colombo suburb of Mount Lavinia, alleging that they had killed Buddhists in Myanmar. In November, there were clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Galle district.

The extremist Buddhists in Sri Lanka appear to have taken a leaf from the anti-Rohingya movement in Myanmar, with the BBS formed around the time when the first clashes against the Rohingya erupted in 2012.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2018, with the headline 'Anti-Muslim sentiment has roots in ultranationalist Buddhism'. Print Edition | Subscribe