Today marks the third anniversary of the Aluthgama riots, a seismic event in the history of Sri Lanka’s troubled ethnic relations. The dark days of 15th and 16th June 2014, saw marauding mobs unleash collective violence on Muslim-owned businesses, buildings and homes in Aluthgama, Beruwala, Dharga Town, Welipenna and Mathugama in the Kalutara district located along the island’s south-western coastal belt. The rioting and looting resulted in the loss of four lives, injuries to 80 persons, and caused extensive damage to property.
Apart from the tangible losses, the violence of June 2014 brought into full focus the very real and devastating consequences of a coordinated programme by divisive forces to drive hatred, fear and suspicion into the minds of the Sinhala-Buddhist population. A result of the anti-Muslim sentiment cultivated in the post-war period, the riots in Aluthgama and its neighbouring towns severely impaired relations between the country’s Buddhist and Muslim communities on the one hand, and between the minorities and a then indifferent government on the other.
Based entirely on propaganda, this virulent anti-Muslim campaign conjured a narrative in which the Muslim minority was falsely portrayed as representing economic, cultural, demographic and political threats to the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. By levelling unsubstantiated allegations of growing ‘radicalisation’, it sought to demonise the vastly peaceful and well-integrated Muslim community of Sri Lanka.
Aluthgama was the culmination of a hate campaign which began on 10th September 2011 with the demolition of a Muslim shrine in Anuradhapura, believed to have been around 400 years old. As the monk-led mob attacked the religious site, police personnel stood by watching idly. Eerily enough, the visuals of the incident exposed the crux of the problem: the unwillingness of law enforcement agencies to enforce the law, and arguably even their complicity in the crimes, as violence targeting the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities escalated sharply over the coming months.
In their treatment of the monks and their lay supporters as somehow above the law, the police, possibly well-aware of the political patronage these discordant groups enjoyed, thus emboldened them in their vigilante actions.
On 20th April 2012, around 200 Sinhalese including Buddhist monks staged a protest outside the Khairiya Jumma Masjid in Dambulla demanding the removal of the ‘illegally constructed’ mosque from a ‘Buddhist sacred area’. Again, despite a formidable police presence, the protestors were able to disrupt the traditional Friday Muslim prayers, and some among them broke into the mosque and damaged the premises as well as Islamic religious texts.
The actions of an apparently fringe minority of Buddhist clergy and lay persons are not representative of Buddhism with its emphasis on pacifism and non-attachment just as much as the actions of the anti-Islamic so-called Islamic State (IS or Daesh) are not representative of Islam.
Yet there has been no condemnation of the recent spate of hate crimes by Buddhist spiritual leaders. There has been no vocal calls by them to return to the Buddhist values of tolerance and non-aggression in the way Muslims the world over are expected to condemn the atrocities committed allegedly in the name of Islam and disassociate Islam from IS.
The silence of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, notably the Maha Sangha, on the growing hostilities, hate speech and anti-minority attacks in post-war Sri Lanka is perhaps an indication that these extremist groups are capitalising on deep-seated prejudices against the minorities – the Muslims in particular of recent times.
The core assertion of the nationwide campaign to fuel and intensify ethnic tension led by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and supported by groups such as the Sihala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya is that Buddhism is under threat – and that Muslims are now the primary threat – must have sunk into the recesses of the minds of a fairly significant proportion of Sinhala-Buddhist society. This is also compounded by the Mahavanmsa mind-set which regards Sri Lanka as a Sinhala-Buddhist land where others may live so long as they accept the primacy of the Sinhala-Buddhist race.
This line of thinking is captured in the threat uttered by BBS leader and General-Secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera at the Aluthgama rally on 15th June 2014, the day prior to the eruption of the Aluthgama violence:
“In this country we still have a Sinhala police; we still have a Sinhala army. After today if a single Marakkalaya [derogatory term for Muslim] or some other paraya [alien, outcast, also a derogatory term] touches a single Sinhalese…..it will be their end.”
Chauvinism thus gave rise to direct and violent attacks on Muslims that night and the next day. The Aluthgama attacks appear to have been hurriedly planned by the Buddhist extremist groups following the spread of a false rumour on 11th June, just two days earlier that a Buddhist monk had been attacked by a Muslim near a temple in the area. The fact was that a Muslim-owned trishaw parked haphazardly on a narrow lane leading to the temple had obstructed a van transporting a monk to the temple which had led to angry words being shouted by the van driver at the missing trishaw driver who turned up to be assaulted by the van driver.
It was a minor incident of two drivers hitting each other with neither being even injured. Meanwhile the monk had alighted from the van and intervened to prevent further incidents by which time neighbours had informed the police that a monk was being attacked, which did not happen. The false report of a monk being assaulted spread like wildfire leading to a sizeable crowd gathering outside the police station which led to three Muslims being remanded.
Two days later the BBS exploited the minor incident through a public hate speech inciting violence against the Muslims of the area without intervening to settle the issue or allowing the law to take its course. The BBS-led rally in the heart of the tension ridden area, while engendering fear and demanding subservience, resulted in four deaths (three Muslims and one unarmed Tamil security guard) and the widespread destruction of Muslim property.
The mission to instil fear was a success – until a key member of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government under which the violent attacks took place, in an unprecedented development, decided to part ways on 21st November 2014. Maithripala Sirisena’s leadership to a joint opposition, many had hoped, would kick-start Sri Lanka’s long awaited transition to peace and stability.
From Hope to Fear
A historic agreement was signed on 01st December 2014, to field a common candidate to defeat the incumbent at the 08th January 2015 presidential election. Thirty-six political parties and civic groups entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) at the Viharamahadevi Open Air Theatre in a bid to restore democracy, stability and good governance in Sri Lanka.
The MoU which was signed at a time Sri Lankans were desperate for change took cognisance of the country’s predicament. It averred that a country once seen as a model of democracy had degenerated into a place where its citizens were no longer able to live in dignity and safety. Manifestations of this reality, the agreement noted, was evident in (amongst other factors): the total breakdown of the rule of law and the severe strain on co-existence among different ethnic and religious communities.
Taking into account the above, the agreement stressed the need to guarantee the primacy of the rule of law, restore democracy on the foundation of good governance, secure and advance fundamental rights and freedom, and to ensure the human right to live in dignity. Just a little over two weeks later, on 19th December 2014, the ‘Maithri Manifesto’ was released promising swift and sweeping reforms.
When Sri Lankans went to the polls on 08th January 2015 to elect a new president, they voted decisively in favour of change. Having endured violence, fear and discrimination, the peaceful majority of diverse religions and ethnicities gave a fresh mandate to the ‘Yahapalanaya’ coalition to live in a climate of freedom, dignity and equality. The Muslim community, revolted by the manner in which extremist groups were allowed to operate with impunity under the Rajapaksa government, voted en-bloc for the common candidate.
Yet 2 ½ years into the Yahapalanaya rule, a renewed sense of fear has gripped the Muslims of Sri Lanka. Anti-minority activities have re-surfaced, with Muslim properties, notably shops, being attacked on a regular basis. Even as the innocent victims of the Aluthgama riots await justice three years on with the new government taking no action, a new form of low-intensity violence has created a climate of fear in place of the climate of hope that prevailed during the early days of the Sirisena administration. According to the Police, 16 major racially-motivated incidents targeting Muslims have taken place across the island since April 2017, while Muslims put the number at 30 incidents.
Beyond the rhetoric of holding perpetrators accountable, no effective action has been taken towards this end. There is a deep sense of scepticism even about the recent arrests made as Gnanasara Thera, the key instigator, is still at large. In fact, there is a growing acuity that the troublemakers are being given protection by the highest echelons of the government despite public pronouncements of equality and justice.
Rebuilding Strained Relations
The false belief that the problem lies in ‘extremist’ ideas being propagated within Muslim society is deeply troubling. This notion makes it harder to mitigate the rising inter-religious tensions and to build mutual trust between communities. It is to the credit of Muslims that they have been peaceful and patient in the face of continued provocation.
However, one cannot altogether dismiss the idea that an undercurrent of anti-Muslim sentiment was always there, that the end of the war simply gave an opening for this to emerge. There are genuine concerns among the Sinhala-Buddhist population about the survival of their religion and culture, an anxiety that has been misdirected at minorities through false propaganda.
Writing on Myanmar’s ‘Ma Ba Tha’ for the Asia Times (09th June 2017), Matthew J. Walton, a Senior Research Fellow in Modern Burmese Studies at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford University, noted:
“The current government is hesitantly and inconsistently taking steps to try to change the enabling environment that the previous government created for consequence-free anti-Muslim violence, but it needs to sincerely engage with these complex feelings of Buddhist vulnerability (without sanctioning violence or discrimination) if it hopes to facilitate reconciliation and peace.”
As prescribed for by Walton for Myanmar, policy responses in Sri Lanka too must find a way to engage with groups interested in the protection of Buddhism while making it clear that violence will not be tolerated. This is in the interest of all communities in Sri Lanka.
Just as much as apprehending those behind the violence is essential to end the culture of impunity that prevails, it must be coupled with a proactive approach in which Buddhism is assured of its ‘primus-inter-pares’ status. Unless such an approach is adopted, Sri Lanka is likely to remain trapped in ethnic friction for years to come.