Dis­rupted Peace

Tus­sle be­tween Bud­dhists and Mus­lims intensifies in Sri Lanka

Southasia - - Contents - By Di­nouk Colom­bage

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.

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