Tussle between Buddhists and Muslims intensifies in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s Muslim community has recently been on the receiving end of assaults and intimidation by mobs led by notable Buddhist priests. Several incidents have taken place over the last year, whereby the Buddhist majority has sent a clear message to the Muslims: “You are in our land and as such must abide by our rules.” Mosques and prayer halls, apparently constructed unlawfully on temple lands, are the focus of this ag- gression.
In September last year, a crowd led by a Buddhist monk set about destroying a mosque in the holy city of Anuradhapura. The crowd accused mosque officials of building on a land close to where the ashes of King Dutugemunu are believed to be buried. Though it was later accepted that the mosque was constructed on a UNESCO world heritage site, the unpunished actions of the Buddhist priests, laid an unwelcome platform. Human rights activists around the country warned that the actions of the Buddhist monks should not go unnoticed. Unfortunately, few took notice of the event, resulting in further conflict between the two groups.
In April the situation worsened when the head priest of the Dambulla temple lead a procession, surrounding a Muslim prayer hall during Friday prayers. While police were on hand to
control the crowd, the authorities took no action to disperse the angry mob. Once the occupants of the prayer hall left, the mob vandalised the building. The Buddhist monk claimed that the prayer hall was illegally constructed while members of the Muslim community (including prominent Muslim MPs) refuted these allegations claiming that they had legal deeds to the land.
The fallout from this incident illustrated the deep cracks that exist within the coalition government in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), a member of the ruling coalition, demanded that the government intervene and present a peaceful resolution to the situation. The SLMC went so far as to threaten to break away from the government if no action was taken on their behalf.
The government finds itself in a predicament; on the one hand is the SLMC demanding that the mosque be allowed to remain, while on the other hand the Buddhist nationalist Jathika Hela Uramaya (JHU), another member of the coalition, is advocating for the complete removal of the mosque.
The Prime Minister subsequently ordered that the Mosque be removed and rebuilt elsewhere; a decision that was promptly opposed by the SLMC.
The matter has now reached a stalemate, with the government unwilling to take a firm stance on either side. It finds itself in a precarious situation coupled with rising tensions between the two communities.
Sri Lanka’s international presence within the Muslim world has grown exponentially in the recent past given its diplomatic ties with Pakistan and Bangladesh. The unwavering support of the Muslim world for Sri Lanka at the United Nations is further indication of these improving ties.
The government is now faced with a troublesome decision of having to choose whether to side with the minority Muslims to please its international allies, or support the Buddhist majority and risk further alienation on the international stage. While throwing support with the Buddhist majority may ensure the current regime a successful re-election in three years’ time, the loss of the Muslim world as an ally could very well see them not last the next three years.
When Sri Lanka faced a human rights abuse record and was subjected to a vote for the implementation of the US resolution, the country was defeated by a margin of nine votes. However, three of the fifteen countries to vote for Sri Lanka were Muslim nations in the South Asia region (Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Maldives). No Muslim nation voted against Sri Lanka at the UN. While their support may have ultimately been in vain, it did send a clear message to the government that “the Muslim world stands by you.”
However, the government’s unwillingness to end the growing religious tension in the country is a testament to its domestic insecurity. To side with the Muslim community on such issues will undoubtedly cause it to lose the support of Buddhist nationalists.
The Muslim world has in turn expressed its dissatisfaction with recent events in Sri Lanka. Iran and Pakistan have both called on the Sri Lankan government to ensure the situation is resolved peacefully. While neither country presented an opinion on the incident, this is a clear indication that they are closely following the events affecting the Muslim community in Sri Lanka.
Within Sri Lanka, disgruntled Muslim citizens have also expressed their dissatisfaction with both the government and SLMC leaders. Following the incident in Dambulla, Twitter was inundated with Muslims calling for the protection of their rights. Several twitter users based in the Middle East, including human rights activists, also drew attention to the events unfolding in Sri Lanka with one tweet reading “Just saw the news in Sri Lanka, very sad to see the Buddhists turn on a community that has ensured them international support.”
Despite domestic and international pressure exerted on the government to reach an amicable agreement, the future is looking bleak. Neither side has shown a willingness to budge. The government may soon be forced to announce its support for one side or the other, depending on where it faces the most pressure. Dinouk Colombage holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Sydney in Australia. He is currently working as a journalist with The Sunday Leader.