And Now The Minorities
Hate crimes against the minority Muslims and Christians are growing in Sri Lanka. Could the government have another dilemma on its hands?
With hate crimes against minorities increasing, the Sri Lankan government may have another dilemma on its hands.
Ever since Sri Lanka wiped out the dreaded Tamil terrorist group, the LTTE, in May 2009, protesters opposite the Sri Lanka High Commission in London are not an unusual sight. But those who gathered there last month were not the usual Tamil-Eelam supporters, shouting hoarse for action against Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa for alleged war crimes against the Tamils.
They were Sri Lankan Muslim expatriates demanding strict action to stop the unending attacks by the Sinhala Buddhist fringe groups on Muslims and, to a lesser extent, Christians. The target of Buddhist chauvinists included Muslim cultural and religious places such as mosques and madrassahs. Even socio-cultural practices like wearing of burqa and selling of halal meat did not escape their adverse attention. Churches have also come under such attacks. Even a few Hindu temples have been demolished in the Tamil-majority areas.
The spill over of protests beyond the shores of Sri Lanka shows the growing sense of desperation in the Muslim community in Sri Lanka as the state has seemingly failed to take stringent action to curb the activists. Buddhist chauvinist organizations involved in the anti-Muslim campaign include the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), the Sihala Ravaya and the Ravana Balaya – all led by Buddhist monks. The BBS – the strongest among them – was founded by Buddhist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, known for his vicious antiMuslim statements.
Political parties such as the Jathika Hela Ururmaya (JHU) and the Sinhala Marxist outfit, the National Freedom Front (NFF), which are partners of the ruling UPFA coalition, have encouraged the activities of these fringe groups. Even the president’s
brother and Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has shown a soft corner for the BBS ideology.
This is surprising as the Muslim community in Sri Lanka is small – barely two million strong – just 10 percent of the island’s population. Most of them speak Tamil and, like Sri Lankan Tamils, have links with their brethren across the Palk Strait in Tamil Nadu. In spite of their limitations, they have been great survivors – both politically and socially – during the difficult years of the LTTE-led insurgency. They managed to survive politically by using the antagonism between the two major national parties – the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
Muslims were active supporters of the military campaigns against the LTTE. They were usefully employed by the military intelligence to gather information about the terrorists. As a result, they invited the wrath of the LTTE which hounded out a large number of Muslims from their homes in the northern province on hardly a day’s notice.
According to a report submitted to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Naveneetham Pillay, by the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (SLMC), there were about 231 attacks against Muslims in 2013. Christians were also targeted in 61 such cases during the year. Ironically, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Justice, Rauf Hakeem, who is also a leader of the SLMC, handed over the report to Pillay which came in handy for Pillay to strengthen her case against Sri Lanka on its failure to implement the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) resolution. This provoked the wrath of President Rajapaksa against the SLMC leader with no improvement in the situation.
Sinhala Buddhist activism started in the wake of the Kandyan rebellion by Sinhala chieftains which was ruthlessly crushed by the colonial forces in 1817-18. Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), a Buddhist lay preacher, marshalled the latent anti-British sentiments and campaigned for the revival and reassertion of the Sinhala Buddhist identity. He was against the conversion of Buddhists by Christians and Muslims.
From time to time, this phenomenon had morphed into antiminority campaigns. In June 1915, 35 Muslims were killed and 198 injured in hate attacks by Sinhalese in the central, western and north-western provinces. As many as 86 mosques were damaged and 4,075 shops looted. Seventeen churches were also burnt down.
But with the rise of liberal politics, such extremist sentiment had cooled down. However, it did not die down. Even as late as 2002 and 2004, the places of worship of both Muslims and Christian were the targets of hate attacks. But what is intriguing is the failure of the Rajapaksa government to curb them, particularly when Sri Lanka was being pilloried in the UNHRC for its poor human rights record.
The only tangible action from President Rajapaksa came after a BBS mob, led by monks, invaded the office of the Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishad Bathiudeen, shouting slogans against him for relocating the internally displaced Muslims within the Wilpattu forest land. Fortunately, the minister was not in office at that time. Bathiudeen, leader of the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), has been a loyal supporter of President Rajapaksa. The raid was the final straw for him as he openly criticized the police for inaction.
The president has now created a special police unit under the Ministry of Buddha Sasana to deal with such anti-religious activities. Apparently, the government is reluctant to treat religious hate crimes under normal criminal laws. This has caused a lot of suspicion in the minds of not only minorities but civil society and other political parties as well about the government’s intentions. Almost the entire opposition, the leftist political parties and even the JHU have criticized the government’s move.
It is a moot point how non-Buddhists can expect justice for their grievances against Buddhist zealots from the Ministry of Buddha Sasana whose aim is the “protection, propagation and expansion of Theravada Buddhism”.
In an article, criticizing the creation of the special police unit, Bishop Duleep de Chickera wrote, “The government's reluctance to achieve this very aim through the existing and adequately mandated and deployed force is puzzling." The Bishop said it was "for reasonable people to believe that the authorities are unable to bring the situation under control. This inaction must consequently point to some electoral expectation and soon, if not already, the people will realize that if some are allowed to be harassed for electoral gain today, others will similarly be allowed to be harassed for electoral gain, tomorrow."
In a recent interview, the Minister for National Languages and Social Integration, Vasudeva Nanayakara was even more direct. He said that the BBS was “enjoying support from a high-ranking state official. That is why its members are behaving in such a manner. Even the police are lenient towards them owing to this. There is someone impeding the police from carrying out investigations against the BBS."
If this is correct, who is the leader at the top encouraging these activists?
There is a political context to such suspicions. The ruling coalition is having internal problems, giving rise to the speculation that the president may call for early elections. So the possibility of minorities being the fall guys to garner conservative southern Sinhala support for Rajapaksa is there. Such possibilities get stronger as the activist attacks are centred mostly in Hambantota district, the home turf of the Rajapaksas.
If this is true, it would be a very short-sighted move as it could disrupt peace and harmony among various communities living in the country.
On May 19, Sri Lanka celebrated the fifth anniversary of the well-merited victory over the LTTE separatists after fighting them for two and a half decades. But the hope of the minorities that the hard-earned victory would bring in permanent peace still appears to be belied by the rise of Sinhala chauvinist attacks against minorities.
With two nations – India and Pakistan – having large Muslim populations in the close vicinity of Sri Lanka, it can lead to serious international repercussions. It is hoped that better sense will prevail among the power interests behind this dangerous game.