By Malini Balamayuran –
The anti-Muslim conflagrations that shook the country last week began when Kumarasiri, a Sinhalese Buddhist, died after an attack of a group of Muslim men in Teldeniya, Kandy. Neither, the deployment of 7000 security services including police and army or the declaration of state of emergency had impeded the occurrence of communal disturbances in the outskirts of Kandy town. Consequent to the death of the Sinhalese man, the extremist group within the Sinhalese Buddhists commenced to exploit tension, attempting to instigate a new round of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Even today, a tense situation has forced all communities to live in fear and anxiety as there are possibilities of spreading violence to other parts of the country. This has now become the part and parcel of everyday life in Sri Lanka. The diverse sources reveal that this recurring trend, what is happening against the Muslim community, would foster harmonious co-existence almost impossible in near future.
Outlining the riots in Sri Lanka
The worst communal violence unleashed against Tamils in the past had deteriorated the civic relationship between Sinhalese and Tamils. At some point, one could argue that the violent attacks against Tamils by extreme Sinhalese had caused the more prolonged conflict in Sri Lanka. Still the country struggles to overcome the exacerbated ethnic divisions, suspicions and conflicts. Again, at present, the sense of Muslim-Sinhalese antagonism has become a very serious issue, putting an end to any hope of peace and harmony between Sinhalese and Muslims. It is imperative that the Muslim community had developed a healthy relationship with other ethnic communities particularly with Tamils until 1980s. However, since late 1980s, the Muslim community was also dragged into the conflict paving the way to the establishment of new relationships among them. This had led the Muslims to become more united than ever. At the same time, the fractious relationship between Tamils and Muslims, yet to be resolved, had made a strong sense of alliance between Sinhalese and Muslims in the past. However, soon after the end of military hostilities, the anti-Muslim sentiment has been instigated by the Pro-Sinhala Buddhists forcing Muslims to live with fear of conflict. How this has happened? Who caused this?
The collective insecurity after the catastrophic events of 9/11 and the sporadic terrorist attacks carried out in countries like Norway, France and London have aggravated the Western governments to tighten the control over Islam and its extreme ideologies, presuming it as a danger and threat to the society. At present, it has become a global behaviour or action against Muslims and their extreme ideologies. Islamophobia is a fear of politics, advocating a frightening aspect of Islam and Muslims. The expression of fear, a key dimension of Islamophobia reflects Muslims as terrorists accentuating the anti-Muslim perceptions, attitudes and emotions against Islam. Many Western democratic countries have propagated a frightening picture of Muslims in the minds of people. The similar sentiments appear in the post-war Sri Lanka too.
The emergence of Ultra-nationalism
Prior to 2009, the extreme Sinhalese-Buddhist movements associated with some political parties had proclaimed that the peace is not an apt solution to the ethnic conflict, urging the government to engage in defensive warfare to respond the demand of separate state of the LTTE. However, immediately after the victory over LTTE, the Pro-Sinhala Buddhists recommenced to reformulate and redefine the Sri Lankan nation as to contemplate their passionate commitment to build entirely a Sinhalese-Buddhist nation leaving no rooms for whatsoever diversities in terms of recognition and respect of other ethnic or religious groups in post-war Sri Lanka. To make Sri Lanka more Buddhist nation, this new aggressive nationalism use Islamophobia to articulate Sinhalese-Buddhist national consciousness through instigating and exacerbating cross-cultural tensions between communities.
Since 2012, the Bodu Bala Sena or Buddhist Power Force (BBS), a hardline Sinhala- Buddhist organization has been constructing fear on Islam and Muslims. The aim of the BBS is to promote and protect the interests of Sinhalese-Buddhists rather than other communities in Sri Lanka. In the eyes of BBS, Muslims appears as the greatest threat to the Buddhist values, cultural identity and the way of life. Many occasions, the Bodu Bala Sena has inculpated the hegemony of Muslims in some sectors such as trade and business in Sri Lanka and reprehended the progress of Muslims in the economy as a threat to the spheres of social, economic, political and even cultural life of Sinhalese. In the context of Sri Lanka, the Muslims are not suspected in relation to the insecurity that relates the source of terrorism, as it is in the Western countries. However, the BBS has been highly criticizing the matters such as Muslim’s demand for halal services and increased mosques and Madrasas in Muslim and non- Muslim areas and inter-group violent conflicts among Muslims. Further, the hardline Sinhalese- Buddhists suspect the Islamic countries whether they are pumping a large amount of funds to promote radical Islam which could cater terrorism in Sri Lanka. It’s worth noting that the post-war regimes, somehow, allowed the pro-Sinhala Buddhist movements to get powerful. Till today, tackling the hate crime against the Muslim community for any post-war Sri Lankan government appears difficult although there are improvements seen in handling the current hate-crime against Muslims. It’s worthwhile to see how hardline Buddhists take a stand to control Muslims in Sri Lanka?
The Riots of the Other in 2018
There were incidents occurred first in Ampara and then Kandy. In Ampara, the violent attacks against Muslim community unleashed due to a suspicion with regard to particles found in the meals given to Sinhalese by a Muslim chef in a restaurant in Ampara, Eastern Province. The particles, speculated as contraceptives, were clumps of wheat flour. Later the rumor about the particles of wheat flour was spread through Facebook that “the sterilizing chemicals were added to the meals given to Sinhalese in Ampara”. Instead of taking appropriate action to investigate this issue, a large crowd of Sinhalese led by some Buddhist monks took the law and order in their hands to deal the matter which ended with attacking a mosque and looting the properties including Muslim-business establishments. This is also an activity of constructing fear among Sinhalese about Islam and Muslims in Sri Lanka.
The next incident of Kandy was the result of Kumarasiri’s death after a violent encounter with a group of Muslims over a traffic dispute. Consequent to the death of Sinhalese man, a well-organized mob led by Buddhists monks with their supporters had beaten the members of Muslim community and had destroyed the Muslim-own properties, houses, and places of worship in Teldeniya-Digana area. Potentially worthwhile to know the manner the dead relatives of the deceased Lorry Driver and the hardline Sinhalese- Buddhists have mourned for the death of the Lorry Driver. The dead relatives have surprised about the funeral decorations put up in the town of Teldeniya and its surrounding areas and the crowd gathered for the last respect of the deceased Lorry Driver. This happened because of the role that social media has played to assemble the Sinhalese mobs in Teldeniya town where the agitation transformed into violent conflagrations. During the time of riots, there was a well-organized coordination through social media among the hardline extremists to gut and loot the Muslim-owned properties. Many minority politicians blame the hardline Sinhalese-Buddhists movements such as Bodu Bala Sena and Mahason Balakaya for bringing mobs in buses from outside to unleash the violent attacks against Muslims. The Sinhalese Lorry Driver is not a famous character, but his death was used to construct fear among Sinhalese about Muslims. Form this incident, one could understand how Islamophobic activities or behavior towards Muslims in Sri Lanka are being developed and expressed. After the rioting, a monk has released a video clip warning Muslims that ‘this is one incident, and do not think that it has over now’. However, the majority of Sinhalese, with no deeper feeling and affection towards Muslims, have expressed their dissatisfaction about the acts of violence unleashed against the population of Muslims in Sri Lanka.
Although, the 26 year prolonged conflict came to an end through a military victory in 2009, the utter ineptness of successive post-war governments in dealing communal antagonism has now made roaring conflagrations between communities. Establishing peace committees or organizing inter-faith dialogues or providing financial assistance to the victims immediately after the riots will not serve to generate affection and goodwill towards the other citizens. From a general point of view, the analysis of the anti- Muslim riots in Kandy indicates that the emergence of ultra-nationalism with the influence of international wave of Islamophobia has significantly influenced the occurrence of current violent attacks unleashed by a few extreme Sinhalese-Buddhists led by monks and their supporters. The social media has been used to encourage the anti-Muslim sentiment among Sinhalese and communicated to commit violence against Muslims in Teldeniya- Digana areas in Kandy and other parts of the country. After the violent clashes, the access to social media such as Facebook, Viber and Whasapp was temporarily blocked by the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission under the instructions given by the Sri Lankan government on 7th March 2018, however, there are a range of media such as websites, blogs, and youtube have been used to communicate hatred towards Muslims in Sri Lanka. Since Islamophobia actions going viral through cyberspace, at present, controlling the Islamophobic attitudes, actions or behavior in Sri Lanka with no strong laws concerning to religious hatred and harassment, will be a real challenge to foster national harmony and peace in the country.
*Malini Balamayuran, PhD (Western Sydney), MA (Hawaii), Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Faculty of Arts, University of Peradeniya