By Ameer Ali –
The year 2009 marked a turning point in the history of Sri Lanka. It was not simply a year of military victory alone, but lot more than that. From the point of view of the Sinhalese and specially Buddhists, that victory wiped out from memory the historic fear they carried over centuries of a possible Tamil invasion from the subcontinent. The betrayal of the India and particularly Tamil Nadu during the final stages of the civil war taught LTTE and the Tamils that in international politics national interests would always prevail over ethnic and religious affiliations and sympathies. This is also a lesson to those local Muslim leaders who entertain the hope that the Arab majority outside will come to rescue the ajam (not Arabic speaking) minority inside, if any danger faces the latter.
India’s neutrality demonstrated to the Sinhalese that their historic fear was misplaced and misconceived. At the same time, the 2009 victory, won by an overwhelmingly Buddhist tri-forces, injected a fresh hope, confidence and resolve at least amongst the most ardent Buddhist nationalists that Sri Lanka in future should and would be transformed into a supreme Theravada Buddhist State. 2009 therefore, marked the emergence of a Buddhist supremacist wave in national politics.
Among these supremacists are university academics, public professionals, business leaders, media moguls, and more importantly, “political Bikkus”, a category of monks identified by Ven. Walpola Rahula. It was this scholar monk, who declared in no uncertain terms that, “Sri Lanka is a Buddhist Sinhala country. Let no one make a mistake”1. Unfortunately, he left unsaid about the place and position of other minorities in Buddhist Sinhala Sri Lanka. Not surprisingly therefore, political Bikkus are the ones who are currently leading the campaign for a Buddhist State. After the civil war, and once the Tamil threat had been overcome, they and their followers, turned the focus on Muslims, who had been a thorn on their side for some time.
After nearly one thousand years of indigenisation and integration with Sinhalese, Tamils, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians, Anagarika Dharmapala, the father of Buddhist nationalism, branded all Muslims aliens and demanded them to be repatriated to Arabia, a sentiment that echoes in the propaganda slogans of today’s supremacists. Perhaps, Dharmapala was confused at that time to identify and distinguish the indigenous Muslim majority from a transient minority that arrived from India to enrich from the plantation economy. They were birds of passage, and it was their exploitative business and commercial practices that partly contributed to the impoverishment of rural Sinhalese in particular. But, in targeting these exploiters Dharmapala dumped all Muslims in one basket, which ultimately ended in the 1915 riot, marking the first fissure in the millennium old Buddhist-Muslim amity and coexistence.
However, Dharmapala’s call for repatriation never happened, although local leaders of the indigenised majority realised the dangers of identifying themselves with the non-indigenous, and when the opportunity arose in 1951 with the Ceylon Citizenship Act, Muslim parliamentarians had no qualms in supporting that bill, even though that Act disenfranchised hundreds of their Indo-Pakistani and Afghan Muslim brethren.
Now, after almost five decades, a number of political, economic and religious issues relating to Muslim community, which were discussed in Part I, and which were irking Buddhist nationalists had compounded and become the source of paranoia. A systematic anti-Muslim campaign has been unleashed by organizations such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Ravana Balaya, Sinhala Ravaya, Sinha Le, Mahason Balakaya and so on, which are apparatchiks working for the cause of Buddhist supremacy and its proponents. Together, they constitute a powerful pressure group, which is able to influence government policies and programs. Professor G. H. Peiris, whose publication was cited in Part I, is of the view that these groups are manipulated by foreign powers that are interested in ‘regime change’. Adding substance to his contention was Colombo Telegraph’s recent exposure (30 April 2020) of the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, “spearheading” anti-Muslim hatred in this country. Be that as it may, even foreign powers cannot instigate violence and riots on their own without local support and connections. That anti-Muslim violence increases its intensity especially in times of elections is testimony to the involvement of local political elements. Muslim community and its historic friendship with Sinhala Buddhists has unfortunately fallen victim to this sinister exercise.
Soon after the war, when President Mahinda Rajapaksa delivered the victory speech from the podium, he made a timely and momentous statement, that ‘there would be no more Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims in the country but only Sri Lankans’. People who listened to his words enjoyed a great sigh of relief. It looked as if MR was about to achieve what previous leaders failed to do over sixty years, and the country would witness the dawn of a new era. No wonder then, when he contested the Presidency for a second term, MR won with an outright majority.
Alas! To the Muslims in particular, MR’s second term proved to be a period of increased anxiety and existential worries, because of the outbreak of a new wave of anti-Muslim violence. Unlike those 24 major Sinhalese-Muslim clashes happened between 1976 and 2002, which had been researched in detail by a team of academics and published in 20082, and in which economic grievances had been the primary motivator, anti-Muslim violence after 2009 has taken a more dangerous trend moving towards another July 1983.
According to a submission by SLMC to UNCHR, already in 2013 and just two years before another Presidential Election, a total of 241 incidents had occurred between Sinhalese and Muslims, and of which 51 were described as violent. Quite several of those incidents might have been “trivia”, as Professor Peiris reckons, but among those fifty-one, the lavishly funded (probably from abroad) BBS – a breakaway group from JHU, with “a spatial scatter of loyal youth” had been prominent by its presence at the scenes. Already in 2013, Muslim businesses had been under attack, starting with Fashion Bug, a Muslim retail store in Pepiliyana, near Colombo, which was followed by an arson attack on another retail fashion store, NoLimit at Panadura. In mid-June 2014, a major flare up broke out in Alutgama in which the firebrand monk Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, the secretary of BBS had been a notable participant. Soon after this, on 26 September 2014, MR spread the red carpet to welcome Myanmar’s Ven. Ashin Wirathu, “The face of terror” according to Time magazine, whose 969 movement was fully behind Myanmar government’s genocide against Rohingya Muslims. BBS stalwarts were even protesting against providing asylum for Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka. MR obviously wanted to appease the anti-Muslim BBS, whose support he needed to win the Presidency for another term. The Alutgama riot was followed by a series of similar convulsions in Gintota, Ampara, Digana and Katugastota.
The Alutgama riot is of particular significance, because it took place when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) was Secretary to the Defence Ministry. If these riots were intended to alienate the Muslim community from the Rajapakse regime, as argued by Professor Peiris, why didn’t his brother who was the Defence Secretary at that regime take any action to stop it? Didn’t he know that it was an attempt by foreigners to swing Muslim votes against MR? GR absolutely took no action to intervene, because, as is clear now with hindsight, that he also needed the support of Buddhist extremists in his own plan to contest for the presidency. Even in the case of the other riots, security forces appear to have turned a blind eye, as video recordings bear evidence, allowing Muslims, their businesses, places of worship and property be looted, destroyed and burnt by drunken rioters, often in the payroll of politicians. It should be recorded with great concern that until now not one rioter had been brought before justice. Even those who were arrested by the police were released later, apparently due to pressure from political hierarchs and Buddhist hierocrats.
After 2009, Buddhist supremacists focused their attention in eliminating the bargaining power of Muslim political leadership on the one hand while removing on the other the commercial rivalry of Muslim entrepreneurs. In this aggressive phase of anti-Muslim violence, just as the threat of a Tamil invasion was employed to rally Sinhala masses in the war against Tamils, the myth of a Muslim population explosion to take over the country demographically and create a so called sharia state, became the battle cry for mass mobilisation to fight Muslims. In that propaganda Muslim wombs were suddenly turned into destructive weapons to convert Sinhala-Buddhist majority into a minority. Members of BBS and JHU were in the forefront of spreading this canard, which has now been exposed and ridiculed by experts in Seri Lankan demography.2
The supremacists have tried to replace the old fear of a Tamil invasion with a new one about Muslim fecundity. In this fear mongering, the publication in the Sinhalese language, Al-Jihad Al-Qaida, authored by the former minister from JHU, Champika Ranawaka and distributed within his party members and members of the Sangha was a deliberate ploy to deepen the fear about Muslims. Two TV channels, Hiru and Darana are openly behind this malicious campaign.
Thus, the process of Islamization with its Wahhabi conservatism and radical tendencies, disrupted the historic and peaceful interaction Muslims had with other communities. This disruption, engendered a self-alienating tendency in the name of strengthening Islamic identity. At the same time, an aggressive post-2009 Buddhist nationalism turned into a supremacist movement, considered Muslims as aliens and accused them of surreptitiously designing to convert Sri Lanka into an Islamic state with sharia laws. In the violence that ensued Muslim places of worship and businesses became main targets of attack. Government’s relative inaction to protect the Muslim community from street thugs and larrikins drove some Muslims into the fold of Islamism.
The emergence of the National Thawhid Jamaat (NTJ) from Kattankudy under the leadership of a madrasa dropout Mohamed Zahran Hashim should be seen as a response to the post-2009 anti-Muslim wave. As pointed out in Part I, Kattankudy had already been a hot-bed for intra-religious Muslim violence in 1990s. The birth of NTJ from this conservative mullah-merchant enclave is therefore not a surprise. The complete story about NTJ’s origins and spread, and circumstances surrounding its macabre killing of hundreds of innocent and mostly Christian lives during the Easter Sunday celebrations of 2019, are yet to be unearthed and told in full. There are a number of unanswered questions. However, given the post-2009 anti-Muslim violence which was allowed to spread under the watchful eyes of government authorities was destined to invite retaliation of some sort. Yet, that infamy could have been prevented had the authorities taken prompt action on information received from multiple sources. Nevertheless, that tragedy provided further ammunition to supremacists to continue attacking Muslims. In Chilaw, Negombo, Minuwangoda and other places Muslim businesses and property were targeted and at least one Muslim was killed.
Anti-Muslim incidents did not cease even after GR came to power. The outbreak of Covid-19 is the latest episode giving yet another occasion for accusing Muslims. A malicious campaign through the Sinhala print, voice and tele media has been launched to create an impression among ordinary Sinhalese that it was Muslims who brought the virus to the country and it is they who are spreading it. In this context, the decision by the health department to cremate Muslims who died of Coronavirus, with utter disregard to Muslim religious and cultural susceptibilities appears to be more of a punishment for crime committed than a preventive measure to check the pandemic.
How one sided are sections of the mainstream media and how selective are they when reporting on Muslims was demonstrated recently during the coronavirus shutdown. Of all private sector employers in the country, only two business establishments owned by Muslims came forward to pay the wages of the employees in full, in spite of complete shutdown of the shops. Among thousands of their employees were hundreds of Sinhala Buddhists, Christians and Hindus, men and women. That exemplary act received no mention at all from the supremacist media outlets, which are always ready to portray Muslims as destroyers of the nation. Similarly, Akbar Brother’ contribution of 50 million rupees to MR’s Covid-19 Health care and Social Security Fund hardly received publicity in the same media. These fashioners of falsehood and feeders of friction are the cruellest agents in the country today dedicated to destroy the historic Sinhalese-Muslim friendship.
Reversing the Slide
Sinhalese-Muslim relations must get back to its historic normalcy. Not every Sinhalese or Buddhist, I insist, is a racist and anti-Muslim, and likewise, not every Muslim, I promise, is a terrorist or jihadist. In fact, the vast majority of people in all communities want to get on with their ordinary life in an environment of peace and mutual respect. At the same time, there will always be occasional clashes between ethnic and religious groups, sometime triggered even by the most trivial of causes. These, as happened in numerous instances before, could be settled no sooner than they started by intervention of community leaders initially and by law enforcers eventually. What made the situation catastrophic now is politics.
To reverse the deterioration, Muslims must use their political skill intelligently to defuse the supremacists’ propaganda among the Sinhalese, while undertaking reforms internally to remove such elements of Muslim culture and behaviour that encourage alienation. If Muslims feel allergic to internal reforms then those reforms will be forced upon them externally. Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thera’s private motion in the last parliament to do away with the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, and the clamour from him and his maverick colleague Ven. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, urging government to take over the madrasas are the result of Muslim leadership’s resistance to carry out reforms from within.
Politically, given the prevailing constitutional constraints the only way to make Sri Lanka a country ruled by the Buddhists for the Buddhists and with Buddhism as the sole denominator of all laws in the country is to abolish that constitution or amend it radically so that GR could enjoy limitless powers to rule without challenge. If that happens, Sri Lankans can wish good bye to democracy and forget about any more elections. The next election may put an end to all elections, as Islamists want to do when they assume power, or as what RSS trying to achieve in India. It is in preventing this eventuality that Muslims and other minorities could live in peace with dignity. Homogenization of Sri Lanka’s heterogeneity is not the way to build a united Sri Lanka.
It may not be possible to stop SLPP winning the coming election, but the danger however is not in its victory but in a victory with two-third majority. How can this be avoided?
As pointed out already, Muslims, and for that matter all minorities, should avoid thinking that every Sinhalese and every Buddhist is a racist. In fact and I repeat, Sinhalese are one of if not the most friendly people in the world to live with and Buddhism is not an enemy of any religion. Muslims should retrace their pre-1915 history in Sri Lanka and teach their children how in that golden era Buddhism and Islam commingled and coexisted without any turbulence. Even in the last presidential election, among the forty-eight percent who voted against the supremacist backed GR, a large proportion were Sinhala Buddhists. It is only by strengthening their hands and by joining them that Muslims and other minorities can withstand the onslaught of the supremacists and save democracy.
An important prerequisite to do that is to forge unity between the two minorities on the one hand and within each of them on the other. It is pointless at this stage to engage in blame game; similarly, this is not the time to compete for leadership and create factionalism within each minority. The more disunity this competition creates greater is the chance for GR-MR regime to achieve its objective. Unfortunately, a few leaders among both minorities still seem to float with the idea that they could achieve more to their community by joining the supremacists controlled SLPP. That strategy lost its relevance after 2009. The supremacists may throw some crumbs for minorities to bite, but they are not going to allow minorities sit with them on the same table. Helping to build a strong opposition to prevent such an outcome is the primary task facing Muslims. Under an enlightened Buddhist leadership Sinhalese Muslim relations will get back to its normalcy.
Finally, Muslims must think of the nation (watan) first and the universal community (umma) second. Believing should not be allowed to clash with belonging. The community’s robust participation in this year’s Independence Day celebrations showed that it has turned the corner.
1. De Votta and Stone, “Jathika Hela Urumaya and Ethno-Religious Politics in Sri Lanka”, Pacific Affairs, vol. 81, no. 1, 2008, pp. 31-51.
2. Nimal Siripala, “Facts and Figures of Muslim Population”, Colombo Telegraph, 31 December 2019.
Part – I : Deteriorating Sinhalese-Muslim Relations