Sri Lanka on the verge of another ethnic strife
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 15 Mar , 2018

Kandy is said to be the cultural capital of Sri Lanka, also known for its most memorable cinematic appearance in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The fictional Mayapore village, theoretically in North India, was actually filmed in a government-owned tea plantation three miles from the city and the infamous rope bridge was built and destroyed on the nearby Victoria Dam. This city survived almost unscathed during the decade old civil war between Sinhalese and Tamils. Now there is a state of emergency  in this city following an ongoing anti-Muslim attacks in the towns of Teldeniya, Ampara, Digana and Kandy.

The latest rounds of violence were triggered when Muslim men were accused of killing a man belonging to the majority Sinhala Buddhist community in a road rage. On 22 February 2018, a Sinhalese lorry driver from Ambala, Medamahanuwara was subjected to an assault by four Muslim youth in Karaliyadda, Teldeniya.

But reasons for this violence is much more deep-rooted. Tension has been growing between the two communities in Sri Lanka over the past year, with some Buddhist groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam and vandalising Buddhist archaeological sites. Last year in May 2017, the hard-line Buddhists group Bodu Bala Sena’s  (BBS) General-Secretary Galagoda  Atte Gnanasara  had been encouraging his supporters to lead another campaign against Muslims following the deadly Aluthgama  riots in June 2014, which had created a serious chasm between Buddhists and Muslims.

Sri Lanka’s population of 20 million consists of 10% Muslims. But there is little or no cultural or religious links between the Sinhalese and the Muslims. Although Muslims live with the majority Sinhala population everywhere in the country, most Muslims cannot even speak the language of the majority in the country. The belief that Muslims are reproducing much faster than that of the other communities is common among the Sinhalese. This is one of the key issues of this conflict.

There has been an increase of 7.1 million in population between 1981 and 2011 in Sri Lanka. Out of this, the Sinhalese accounted for 4.3 million while Muslims accounted for 1.0 million. However, the difference in the average growth rates of the two groups clearly highlights one of the major causes for perceived threats by the Sinhalese from the expanding Muslim population. During the thirty-year period from 1981 to 2011, the average growth rate of the Sinhalese has been 0.94% compared with 1.8% growth rate of Muslims. Over the next 25 years, the Muslim population is likely to reach over 5 million, more than double the 2011 population, with the Sinhalese population increasing to about 19 million.

Another issue that comes up frequently from the Buddhists is the conversion of Sinhala Buddhists into Islam. The Census and Statistics data also give ample evidence to support this belief. In 2011, for example, there were 101,319 non-Muslims practicing Islam in the country. This number in 1981 was 65,755. Accordingly, another 35,000 non-Muslims have become followers of Islam since 1981.

Buddhism is generally seen as among the religious traditions least associated with violence but in the history of Buddhism there have been acts of violence directed, promoted, or inspired by Buddhists. There is an exploration of Theravada Buddhist attitudes in Sri Lanka in recent times . Theravada scriptures examines the views on violence as found in the in the Pali canon. Several papers in this book explore materials from the Pali canon to understand and analyse the attitudes towards violence and conflict in a specific Theravada context in Sri Lanka. The papers identify a selection of scriptures in the Pali canon in elucidating canonical perspectives towards violence.

The mythology in the Mahavamsa justifies dehumanizing non-Sinhalese, if doing so is necessary to preserve, protect, and propagate the dhamma . Furthermore, it legitimizes a just war doctrine, provided that war is waged to protect Buddhism. Also the Vijaya Myth introduces the bases for the Sinhalese Buddhist belief that Lord Buddha designated the island of Sri Lanka as a repository for Theravada Buddhism. It claims that the Sinhalese were the first humans to inhabit the island and are thus the true “sons of the soil”. It institutes the belief that the island’s kings were beholden to protect and foster Buddhism. All of these legacies have had ramifications for the trajectory of political Buddhism and Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism.

BBS started a campaign against the halal certifying system in the country in the year 2013. In Sri Lanka halal certification is carried out by a group of Muslim Clerics the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama(ACJU ). There are businesses that request it so that they can have Muslim buyers The BBS threatened to launch a campaign of agitation against halal certification fearing that the Muslims are trying to impose their ritualistic food products upon this country. At the rally in Maharagama on 17 February 2013 the BBS announced that it was calling for the abolition of the halal certifying system, demanding that shops be cleared of halal meat immediately.

The role of BBS in spreading anti Muslim feelings have been noted in past and criticised by many international agencies. The International Crisis Group has stated that the BBS’s attacks on the Muslim community will lead to an increase in Islamic fundamentalism in the country.. The Asian Human Rights Commission has described the BBS as an “expression of the widespread lawlessness in the country”, claiming that the government’s failure to take action against groups such as the BBS demonstrated the government’s connivance. In its 2012 human rights report, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office accused BBS of increasing “campaigns against religious minorities. Amnesty International called for Sri Lankan authorities to “end the impunity” for hardliner Buddhist groups accused of inciting or carrying out violence.

This is an uphill task for the Sri Lankan Government to establish the rule of law and protect human rights of which they do not seem to have a good record given the allegations of genocide against the Tamils during the last phase of civil war. The country’s first post war national government has been striving to maintain peace but the infights within governing coalition partners as badly affected national government’s performance.

In the meantime, the results of the local bodies elections last month largely seen as a referendum on the national government made it clear that opposition party candidates, led by the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, were close to sweeping the local councils. They put Mr. Rajapaksa accused of human rights abuses and corruption who brutally crushed the Tamil insurgency before the war ended — once again at the center of the country’s political future. Now how the current government is able to do to control the violence will largely determine the future politics of Sri Lanka.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Rakesh Kr Sinha

Former DIG and is associate member of Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). Presently Special Advisor to the Chief Minister, Govt of NCT of Delhi.

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