After three Sri Lankan Muslims were killed and thousands more were forced to shelter in mosques and schools, many having lost everything in the worst communal violence in decades, the minister of Public Relations, Mervyn Silva, went on TV and offered to marry a Muslim woman to make up for it.
The minister has a habit of unsuitable proposals. Not long ago, he offered to marry the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, an ethnic Tamil from South Africa, to teach her about Sinhala Buddhism and Sri Lanka’s ancient culture. No matter that she already had a husband, or he a wife.
Silva’s flippant remarks came after he went as an envoy of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to tour the troubled coastal areas where scores of shops and houses have been torched. “Even if my wife or children tell me off, I am prepared to marry a Muslim for the sake of national harmony,” he said, disguising ethnic chauvinism with mock gallantry.
His statement is little comfort for the deeply traumatized families of once comfortable Muslim shopkeepers and traders, now waiting for handouts in mosques and schools. Some have homes literally reduced to ash; others are too fearful to return in case the violence reignites. Just as in the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom which triggered full-scale civil war, Muslim shops and homes were attacked while nearby Sinhalese owned properties were largely left alone by the mob. Muslims says their Sinhalese neighbors must have passed on the information about the owners, though local Sinhalese blame outsiders for all the violence. In several instances the victims allege the security forces stood by and watched the destruction—again a disturbing echo of what happened to the Tamils in 1983 on a larger scale.
“So much misinformation has systematically been dished out against Muslims with the result that the average or innocent Sinhalese has built up hatred toward us,” says a Muslim lawyer practising in Colombo, “even an ordinary policeman might believe it; they think all Muslims are wealthy, resort to unfair business practices and don’t pay taxes, but it’s not true—many Muslims are living below the poverty line.” The lawyer credits the Sri Lankan army with restoring sanity but is angry that at times even the Special Task Force of the police failed to stop the violence. “It’s shocking that even the Special Task Force stood by and allowed the mob to attack. They were complicit,” he says.
It had been a long time in the making, but the simmering tensions in the southwestern coastal town of Aluthgama erupted after rumors circulated about the alleged sexual abuse of a Sinhalese boy in a Muslim-owned shop in May—though another version alleges this story was invented to cover up an act of shoplifting recorded on a CCTV camera. In June, a motorcycle ridden by Muslim men collided with a car carrying a Buddhist monk and there was a routine traffic altercation. The rumor mill suggested that Muslims had assaulted the monk, for which there is still absolutely no proof. This triggered protests and security forces fired tear gas and deployed armored vehicles, as well as the police and paramilitaries. The extreme Sinhala nationalist Buddhist group, Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Brigade), in a bid to exploit an already tense situation, then announced a rally in the town for Sunday, June 15.
The question of why the authorities in Sri Lanka allowed this rally to go ahead has no real answer. After the tragedy, authorities said they couldn’t have banned the Buddhist function because it coincided with the Poson Festival, which celebrates the arrival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. The police also said permission for the gathering wasn’t given to the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) as such, but to local temple trustees. But while Sri Lanka has been swift to prevent candlelit vigils by families of the disappeared in the civil war or protests by students or trade unions, in this case all the warnings were ignored. Muslim groups actually wrote to the inspector general of police, stating clearly: “This is a dangerous situation that could develop into a major riot, hence we call upon you to take immediate and decisive action to safeguard the lives and property of Muslims in Aluthgama and surrounding areas.” Their entreaties fell on deaf ears.
Saffron-clad Buddhist monks from the BBS and their supporters were bussed into the small town for the rally. It began with an inflammatory speech from the party’s general secretary, firebrand cleric Venerable Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero. Using offensive racist terms to warn that if a Muslim or foreigner, “so much as lays a hand on a Sinhalese person, let alone a monk, it will be the end of all these fellows,” he proudly declared: “Yes, we are racists! Yes, we are extremists!” He even went so far as to tell the cheering crowd that enemy forces were looting their Sinhala heritage and future generations would curse them if they didn’t unite against it.
A subsequent march through the Muslim areas of Dharga Town resulted in clashes injuring several people. The violence persisted even after a curfew was declared in Aluthgama and neighboring towns. At least 2,000 members of security forces armed with tear gas, water canons and rubber bullets were deployed with armored personnel carriers.
Some sporadic violence also took place in the suburbs of capital Colombo and other coastal towns. For four days there was serious concern that the violence would spread like wildfire throughout the country. The BBS announced rallies in other towns with a history of tension between Muslims and Sinhalese, only to be stopped at the eleventh hour by court injunctions requested by the police.
“There was huge publicity for what was going on and pressure from abroad. At the last minute the government had to act to stop, but they got the police to do it for them so they could pretend they weren’t involved and save face with the Buddhist monks,” explains exiled Sinhalese journalist Bashana Abeywardene of Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, rumors of attacks on statues of Buddha or monks made the rounds on social media, as both state-run and private media ignored the crisis almost entirely after an order was issued against reporting on the communal violence. However, a few brave, local reporters defied this ban, producing excellent accounts of the situation. These also spread on Twitter and Facebook and helped mobilize the attention of the international community. “This violence was sanctioned by the Rajapaksa brothers, but they were dismayed by the publicity that reached the outside world and then there were representations from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the U.S. government that this has to stop,” said Dr. Paikasothy Saravanamuttu of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, referring to the family that rules much of Sri Lanka. The cancellation of Pakistan Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif’s scheduled visit to Sri Lanka was also seen as a notable step, although he cited a recently launched military operation in his country’s tribal areas as the reason.
It’s common knowledge in Sri Lanka that the BBS has the support of the powerful and much feared defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the brother of the president. He’s openly attended their functions. “The BBS has support at the heart of the regime and that gives them guaranteed impunity,” says Saravanamuttu. Some analysts even claim that the unleashing of the BBS against Muslims was Gotabaya’s first step in his election campaign, after he recently declared his intention to contest. The logic proffered here is that the Rajapaksas will not win the minority vote and need to whip up the Sinhala majority against a new enemy. This argument suggests the attacks on Muslims are about securing succession in the “Rajapaksa dynastic project” where the three brothers, along with many other family members, control almost 50 percent of the state’s budget. “Mind blowing, destructive and premeditated” is how one commentator in Colombo described the government’s cynical manipulation of Sinhala chauvinist forces.
Others argue the Rajapaksas’ electoral victory is already guaranteed because of their triumph over the Tamil Tigers and they had no reason to encourage these attacks. “They have a huge bank of goodwill—it’s credit they can live off for a long time and you have to remember Muslims supported them, too, against the Tamil Tigers,” says exiled journalist Abeywardene. He believes the plan may be to provoke violent Muslim resistance that the Sri Lankan government can portray to Western governments as an Islamic terrorist threat. The aim would then be to deflect western pressure from a U.N. investigation into war crimes committed in Sri Lanka in 2009, win external support, and still remain a staunch Sinhala nationalist state at home. With Hindu nationalists in power in Delhi, the assumption is that there’d be less interference from India.
Many Sri Lankans believe it was no accident that President Rajapaksa was out of the country during the communal violence and the entire Rajapaksa clan maintained radio silence– save a couple of anodyne tweets from the president and his son on the first night of the unrest. “They look complicit with their silence, like in 1983,” says Saravanamuttu, referring to then-president J. R. Jayawardene, who waited several days before saying a word about an organized anti-Tamil pogrom that tipped Sri Lanka into decades of armed conflict. “Even the prime minister didn’t say anything,” says Abeywardene. “He just invited the BBS to sit down and meet with him and discuss [the situation], which is absurd.”
That this was no ordinary, local religious tension was clear in the reactions of Sri Lankans on social media. On Twitter, most were careful not to inflame passions and to carefully corroborate reports of the spreading violence. The citizen journalism site Groundviews played an important role in moderating the noise and amplifying reliable voices.
But on Sinhala websites it was, and remains, a different story. “Bloody dogs—you go to Pakistan, bloody thambiya (racist insult for Muslims in Sinhala),” read one of hundreds of racist comments posted by readers on the BBC Sinhala Service Facebook site. No matter that Sri Lanka Muslims are mostly descendants of Arab and Malay traders who came to the island from the eighth century onwards and consider themselves a separate ethnic group, making up about 10 percent of the population. The level of venom on the BBC Sinhala Facebook page, which is just one of many targeted for abuse, is staggering. One man even posted a comment that he was taking a leave from his job in The Maldives and returning home to join in the “fun” of attacking Muslims. Many of the obscene comments and cartoons posted about Muslims are simply too inflammatory to reproduce anywhere else. Rumors that these were coordinated efforts appear have been validated when some of those positing online changed their user avatars to a black flag identical to the one displayed on the BBS website after the violence began.
Sinhala chauvinists have also found it easy to exploit resentment among impoverished Sinhalese working in Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, where they are not allowed to worship statues of Buddha. The BBS has also raised alarm by claiming that 80,000 Sri Lankan migrant workers were converted to Islam in the Middle East and that there are active attempts to convert Buddhists to Islam inside the island.
Islamophobia has become deeply entrenched in Sri Lanka, according to observers, who worry that it could go mainstream. “If neighbors turn on each other then that becomes very scary. With all their venomous propaganda and misinformation, they [BBS] have aroused feelings within the Sinhalese and convinced them that Muslims are a threat, a curse, a death,” said the Muslim lawyer in Colombo. Others agree: “I am afraid the racism is coming into the mainstream, which I wouldn’t have said before. It’s a rich vein they can tap into,” says Saravanamuttu.
Even before the riots in Aluthgama, there’s been a well documented upsurge in attacks on Muslims in Sri Lanka in the last two to three years, with pig flesh being thrown into mosques, places of worship dismantled, and Muslim shops attacked by monks in saffron robes who have even been caught on camera but never prosecuted. Muslim businessmen are pressured into dropping charges with discreet reminders that they need protection for their other shops, which will be withheld if they go against powerful people. Women have been attacked and publicly humiliated for wearing Islamic dress and told not to wear burqa or abaya in schools and universities.
“There’s a huge, unbelievable amount of anti-Muslim feeling in the last two years,” says Abeywardene. “It was not there before and it’s not just an extreme fringe.” Much of it is fed by wild rumours circulated on Facebook, through email and via leaflets. One such fabrication claimed a fashion store in Colombo was offering Sinhalese customers toffees that contained chemicals to render them infertile. This belief was so deeply held that customers who refused to boycott the shop in question had eggs thrown at them. Then rumours started circulating that Muslims were selling Sinhalese underwear that made them infertile. The last week of June, a branch of the same store burnt to the ground, and police are investigating whether it was arson. One of the fears raised by the BBS is that Muslims are having too many children and will eventually outnumber the Sinhalese majority. The BBS also recently spearheaded an aggressive campaign against halal certification of food in Sri Lanka on the grounds that it was a conspiracy by Muslims to raise money to arm jihadists.
Though many Sinhalese have been quick to denounce this extremist brand of Buddhism as a distortion of the religion’s true values, few want to challenge it in public because they know it has powerful backers who aren’t afraid to act against dissenting voices. Shortly after the violence in Aluthgama ended, Buddhist monk Venerable Watareka Vijitha Thero, who had been critical of the BBS and heads rival group Jathika Bala Sena (National Brigade), was kidnapped. He was later found bound and naked. This was not the first time he’d been attacked for defending the rights of Muslims, but police told local media that this time the monk had been attacked in what appeared to be an attempt to circumcise him, presumably to signify that he’d become a Muslim and betrayed his own faith by tolerating Muslims. Then, in a bizarre twist of events, the police accused the monk of staging his own kidnapping and self-inflicting his wounds. The police have now detained him for allegedly making a false complaint. A disturbing video interview of the monk, recorded in hospital shortly before he was arrested, shows him constantly looking over his shoulder in fear. It has intimidated ordinary Sinhala Buddhists who might want to be critical of the BBS’ extremist ethnocentric strain of Buddhism.
Many commentators have drawn parallels between Venerable Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, the BBS leader in Sri Lanka, and the 969 Movement in Burma led by Venerable Ashin Wirathu, notorious for describing himself as the “bin Laden of Buddhism.” The two monks reportedly met in March in Burma and the Sri Lankan leader is said to have invited his Burmese counterpart to visit. Notably, an edition of Time magazine that called Venerable Wirathu “the face of Buddhist terror” was banned in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Buddhists deny there are similarities, claiming that while the numbers 969 have been used by the BBS in Sri Lanka on propaganda posters, they don’t have the same doctrinal relevance in Sri Lanka as in Burma.
“They may take courage from Burma but they are not just Burmese copycats,” says a Sri Lankan academic who prefers to remain anonymous for his safety. He traces the origins of the BBS back to nationalist tendencies among the clergy in 19th century Ceylon and opposition to that era’s British colonial rule. “Wielding state power was always a fantasy for a section of the monkhood,” he says. A clear line leads to the writings of the revivalist Anagarika Dharmapala, whom the BBS invoke today. By the 1970s, a surge in Buddhist religiosity coincided with economic liberalization, which raised consumer expectations of the suburban middle classes but failed to deliver. This also coincided with the early beginnings of the Sri Lankan civil war, which hurt Sinhala pride as the Tamil rebels proved so difficult to defeat.
Many others see the precursor of the BBS as the now defunct Sinhala Veera Vidahana (Sinhala Valorous Order), which challenged the success of Muslim and Tamil businessmen at a time of increased economic competition, and erected martial statues of Sinhalese heroes who fought the British. This grouping and others were subsumed into the Sihala Urumaya party from which a purely clerical group, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (Sinhala Heritage Party), formed in 2004. The current BBS group is an offshoot of the JHU, comprising monks that broke ranks in 2009 because they felt their fellow monks were not radical enough.
According to some pundits, the BBS monks seek state power, or at least patronage of whoever wields the throne—in this case the Rajapaksas. But most commentators believe that the BBS, as it stands now, would not be able to survive without government patronage. They argue that the idea of a Sinhala Buddhist supremacist state has been around since the early 20th century and has periodically tried to establish itself. “With the Rajapaksa state, I think it has come into being. Far from being a threat to the Rajapaksa state, the BBS is part of it,” says the academic who requested anonymity. The amount of airtime BBS leaders have been given on state television in recent weeks is an indicator of this close relationship, he says. “Within six months they were brought from nowhere to being one of the most important forces in the country,” says journalist Abeywardene, “Gnanasara Thero wasn’t considered a senior figure among the monks but now he’s become a national leader and that couldn’t have happened without the tacit and overt support of the government.”
However, political analysts warn that the state might not be always able to control the BBS. “Ultimately they may find they’ve let the genie out of the bottle and unleashed forces they cannot control,” says Saravanamuttu.
The only thing preventing Sri Lanka from spiraling into further violence is the patience and tolerance of Sri Lankan Muslims, who generally didn’t fight back. Traditionally, the Muslims of Sri Lanka have sided with the government during decades of civil war, but they’ve also internalized a deep sense of vulnerability, of belonging to neither side. Many say they are still operating in survival mode after the trauma of at least 70,000 Muslims being evicted from the north of the island by Tamil rebels. Once calm was restored in Aluthgama, there was a Muslim-led strike that closed down many areas of the island and a peaceful protest in the capital where some Buddhist monks showed their solidarity with Muslims. Indian Muslims in Chennai rallied in support and, for the first time, Sri Lankan Muslims gathered outside Downing St. in London to register their complaints.
But how long Muslim community leaders can control the passions of their youth and whether external Islamic forces will seek to intervene in the situation remains to be seen. “The stereotype was that Muslims would fight back and that would be worse than the Tamils but they’ve been amazingly restrained. They’re cowed because they have no political leadership to strengthen them,” says Saravanamuttu. Few Muslim M.P.s and ministers have bothered to visit the affected people despite the precarious situation. When Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem, a Muslim, met the victims, there were no clenched fists or angry declarations of revenge. Instead, he wept with helplessness as his constituents abused him for failing to resign.