Anti-Muslim Violence In Sri Lanka: Need To Curb Hardline Buddhists

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By Archana Arul

It is the last thing that Sri Lanka needs right now — yet another round of ethnic conflict. The island nation is limping back to normality after more than two decades of a strife that literally tore the country apart in every way one can imagine.

And some five years down the road official Colombo is still facing questions of accountability with the international community unwilling to accept that a genuine national reconciliation process has been set in motion or that proper answers have been produced to legitimate questions posed by the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

And now hardline Buddhist mobs are on a rampage in parts of Sri Lanka targeting the Muslim community under one false pretext or another. That the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has seemingly come down hard on the anti-social elements and thugs masquerading to protect “Buddhism” has brought about an element of calm. But that certainly has not gone the distance in bringing about genuine relief to the Muslims who have by and large come to the conclusion that they are being given the short shrift by a government and a community.

The anti-Muslim riots have undoubtedly drawn international attention and concern with the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) expressing serious concern at the turn of events. “The recent attacks appear to follow a rising trend of violence instigated by extremists, which is spreading fear and mistrust among the population”, the secretary general of the Jeddah-based organization has said in a statement.

What has also not gone unnoticed is that the hardline Buddhist group, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or the Buddhist Force, has been upping the ante in the last two years, hurling what observers see as unfounded allegations against the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. In a nutshell, the frenzy has been whipped up that somehow a “conversion” process is underway in which Muslims are forcibly undoing a “Buddhist” state. And the Christian community has also not been spared.

The recent spate of violence that began on June 15 have brought about the expected public statements from top officials, including the Sri Lankan president, but the question that is being posed within the Muslim community in that country and elsewhere is the extent to which the government in Sri Lanka will go in getting to the bottom of the links between the extremist groups like the BBS and Official Colombo.

“Sri Lankan authorities need to do more than arrest those carrying out the anti-Muslim violence. They need to investigate and identify any instigators. That means taking a hard look at the role and relationship between extremist Buddhist groups like the BBS and the Sri Lankan security forces,” said Brad Adams, director for Asia at the Human Rights Watch.

“The Rajapaksa government has long been ineffectual in holding those responsible for abuses to account. To end these attacks the government needs to finally show a willingness to tackle violence against minority populations head on, especially through justice and accountability for the victims,” Adams has added.

The violence against the Muslims in areas of Darga Nagar, Aluthgama and Beruwala was also taken note of by the US which immediately called upon Colombo to fulfill its obligations in protecting religious minorities as also taking note of the inflammatory rhetoric that had been used to incite the violence.

“This is the worst outbreak of communal violence in Sri Lanka in years, and there is a real risk of it spreading further… Those responsible for killings and other acts of violence must be held to account, and at risk Muslim communities given the protection they need,” said David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Asia Pacific. What has also been doing the rounds is that police and security forces have stood as silent spectators as thugs were unleashing violence and indulging in acts of arson.

Sri Lanka and its leaders simply cannot allow the situation to drift as it portends serious trouble in the short and longer terms that has deep implications for South Asia, especially to India. To nurse and keep fanning the illusion that somehow a minority community like the Muslims wield considerable economic and political power will only worsen the ethnic divide in that island nation. And to argue that “minor” racial incidents are bound to happen in multi-cultural societies is a convenient escape route for deliberately not coming to terms with ground reality.

The troubling scenario is for all to see, including those hardline elements sitting in the official establishment in Colombo and outside: the potential for terror outfits and jihadists who are waiting for an opportunity to expand their horizons in the name of liberating the oppressed.

It would not only be a disaster for Sri Lanka but also India, which will have to factor in the security implications of any parking spaces for terrorists in its southern flank. The Rajapaksa government would do well to not only contain this crisis immediately but also go on to crush extremist thugs even if it would have to swallow the bitter pill of not getting their votes.

(Archana Arul is a Research Scholar in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, SRM University, Chennai, and can be reached atarul.archana25@gmail.com)

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