Opinion » Comment

Updated: May 17, 2013 02:48 IST

In Sri Lanka, a new divide brings back old fears

  • Meera Srinivasan
Comment (15)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

A series of incidents has created anxiety among the country’s minority Muslims that they are being targeted by a resurgent Buddhist nationalism

AGAINST HATE: Disquiet has increased as a Buddhist group fanning anti-Muslim sentiments is allowed to get away lightly.
AGAINST HATE: Disquiet has increased as a Buddhist group fanning anti-Muslim sentiments is allowed to get away lightly.

More than a month after Fashion Bug, a popular clothes store in the Sri Lankan capital, was vandalised, business is back to normal. Shoppers cram into the Muslim-owned store as the Buddhist holiday season for Vesak (in India, Buddha Purnima) begins this month-end.

Six weeks ago, a mob had broken into the chain store’s main warehouse in a suburb of Colombo. Television footage showed the mob cheering as a Buddhist monk flung a stone at a window of the warehouse. The attack left many injured and the warehouse’s inventory ravaged.

The March 28 incident shook Colombo. It came soon after a new Sinhala Buddhist organisation, Bodhu Bala Sena (Buddhist power force), began a campaign against halal certification. The campaign forced virtually all markets and stores in the country to stop selling food items labelled for Islamic food guidelines.

Among Sri Lanka’s Muslims — who make up less than 10 per cent of the island’s population — the attack on the store and the anti-halal campaign have sparked fresh anxiety and insecurity, a year after monks attacked a mosque in Dambulla, in Sri Lanka’s Central Province, protesting that it violated a sacred area for Buddhists.

The incidents — unprecedented in recent years for their targeting of the Muslim community and coming four years after the end of the war against the Tigers — have raised a provocative question: are Muslims the new Tamils of Sri Lanka?

Speaking to The Hindu a few weeks ago, Azath Salley, former deputy Mayor of the Colombo Municipal Corporation and leader of the Muslim Tamil National Alliance (MTNA), said that the police stood by as onlookers during the attack on Fashion Bug. Mr. Salley was recently arrested by the CID on charges of “anti-government activities” under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and later released. “If the police had wished, the attack could have easily been prevented. Instead,” he told The Hindu days before his detention, “they remained silent spectators”.

The incident fuelled suspicions, which Mr. Salley voiced, that powerful forces are backing those fanning anti-Muslim sentiments. After the attack, 17 suspects, including three Buddhist monks held on charges of attacking the store, were released without charges being pressed against them after the store-owner said he was, in the interests of maintaining peace, dropping the complaint as it could erode national harmony.

A couple of weeks later, a group of youngsters banded together as ‘Buddhists Questioning Bodhu Bala Sena’ held a candlelight vigil outside the offices of the BBS in Colombo, only to be chased away by the police minutes after they gathered there. Four participants were taken to the police station and some were reportedly interrogated later on why they participated in the vigil.

Drivers of Ceylon’s growth

Through the decades of Tamil militancy, terrorism, and the call for a separate Tamil state, the Muslims stayed out of the conflict and its leaders focused on sewing up political alliances with the ruling party.

Despite being native Tamil speakers, Muslims have — at least since their en masse expulsion from Jaffna peninsula in 1990 by the LTTE — sought recognition as a separate ethnic group. Mainly in trade, they have driven a good part of Sri Lanka’s economic growth over the years.

As with Fashion Bug dropping its complaint, the halal controversy earlier this year also ended with All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, the Islamic body that provided the certification, agreeing to withdraw the labelling system in the interests of peace and harmony.

The BBS says it is well within the organisation’s rights to appeal to “true Buddhists” to “boycott” halal-certified meat. “We were misunderstood as having called for a ban. We only appealed to members of our community to boycott such meat and that is within our religious rights,” said Dilantha Withanage, Executive committee member and spokesperson of the BBS.

Another campaign in the works

Confirming fears that Muslim worries have not ended, Mr. Withange said the BBS was now planning to take up another campaign, this time against the niqab, a head-and-face veil used by some Muslim women that leaves only a slit for the eyes.

He said: “We have nothing against any other religion. It is purely in the interest of security. If France can ban [the niqab], why can’t we?”

In March, Gotabaya Rajapakse, the powerful defence secretary and the brother of President Mahinda Rajapakse, inaugurated the Buddhist Leadership Academy run by the BBS.

Mr. Withanage, however, dismissed suggestions that the BBS had supporters in government as untrue. He described BBS as “completely apolitical”, a “philosophical organisation” interested in preserving Buddhism in its purest form to handover to subsequent generations.

But the disquiet in the Muslim community about the campaigns of the BBS, and how it is seeping into everyday life, is palpable.

Intimidation in public spaces

Sona Barnes, who works as sub-editor in a newspaper, said she senses intimidation in public spaces. “I was at the market recently. One of the security persons was asking the other if they should ask me to remove my headscarf. They spoke in Sinhalese. The moment I turned and looked at them, they knew I had heard them and they immediately stopped.”

A senior professional employed in the private sector said the hatred or the discrimination is not explicit but one could sense the fear prevalent among Muslims. “I have not felt threatened in any public spaces so far, but the series of incidents have made me very anxious,” he said.

Religious leaders at the mosques have been appealing to the Muslims to remain patient and not react adversely. “At our prayers every Friday, we are told to be calm and not be provoked by anything the Sinhala fundamentalists say or do,” he said.

In solidarity with the Muslim community and to give voice to their anxiety over what seems like a nascent communal divide in Sri Lanka, over 500 persons gathered at Green Path in central Colombo recently to participate in a rally for unity titled ‘Hate has no place in Sri Lanka’.

There were students, young professionals and a few parliamentarians — from the United National Party, the main opposition party, and the Tamil National Alliance, the umbrella organisation for Tamil parties — holding banners with messages of peace.

“We are hearing about such attacks more often these days. They [fundamentalist groups] should not be allowed to get away with such hatred for others,” said a university lecturer present at the rally who did not wish to be named.

The Sri Lankan government has condemned the attacks. But it has seemed reluctant to acknowledge the insecurity that has gripped the Muslim community.

Earlier this month, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa met Colombo-based envoys of Muslim countries and assured them that there was no threat to communal peace in the country.

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris, who recently spoke on social integration at a public forum, observed that all communities — the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims — lived in harmony, sharing their joys and sorrows.

Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, however, seems far from feeling assured.


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Since the day ive know about Buddhism i was told that it based on the principles of peace (even with animals) and giving up of all the luxuries of the world. But here i see that even the Buddhist Monks seem to have forgotten the path chosen by GAUTAM BUDDHA.

According to Mr. Withanage, the BBS is a philosophical organization interested in preserving Buddhism in its purest form to handover to subsequent generations, but haven't they themselves spoiled the purest form and stained it with blood of the innocent.

from:  Azmaan
Posted on: May 18, 2013 at 15:29 IST

The author needs to check her facts before writing. The Muslims were always considered a separate and distinct ethnic group in Sri Lanka for census purposes. They never viewed themselves as ethnic Tamils even though they spoke Tamil. This is a very sensitive issue in the Sri Lankan context.

from:  Iqbal Mohideen
Posted on: May 18, 2013 at 08:35 IST

Had peace-loving Buddhists in Sri Lanka intervened at the beginning, the large-scale violence against Tamils or the Sinhalese would not have happened. Contrary to Buddha's teaching, they have developed a DESIRE - for land, supremacy or dominion one doesn't know.

from:  Raghu
Posted on: May 17, 2013 at 16:41 IST

I thought buddhists were vegetarians. So where is the question of them
getting into nitty gritties of Halal or non halal certified. This is
merely the work of busybodies who have no better thing to do

from:  krishnan
Posted on: May 17, 2013 at 13:30 IST

this reminds me of Martin Niemoller's poem

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

Sad to see a wonderful country go down this ill fated path.

from:  arvind
Posted on: May 17, 2013 at 12:48 IST

In Buddhist dominated Srilanka, it is natural for substantial proportion of Buddhists, especially Buddhist monks to harbor the idea that Srilanka is only for Buddhists and Sinhalas. The idea of secularism and peaceful coexistence is alien to their principle. In such societies, not only in Srilanka but in any democracy that is not mature, police and law enforcing agencies will be mute by-standers when the minorities and their properties are attacked and destroyed by the fanatics from the majority community because police knows that these elements are patronized by at least some political leaders who are in possession of power.

from:  Syed
Posted on: May 17, 2013 at 12:42 IST

So called peace loving Buddhism show their true color..

from:  bilal
Posted on: May 17, 2013 at 11:58 IST

Buddhist ppl, asking for different flavor of Meat. Wait a minute First
things first. 1. Buddhist's are supposed to be vegetarians, That's
what Buddha preached. 2. Buddhist Monks are supposed to the most peace
looking ppl on Earth. And 3. When u are already breaking the First
point, No one stops you from having Halal, as long as Buddhism speaks
absolutely nothing about it. I worried about the Buddhism is practiced
all over the world now a Days. Buddha was in 300BC, what Karl Marx is
to 19th century.. But their Theories face the same Problem. people
Never understood that Clearly.

from:  Pradeep
Posted on: May 17, 2013 at 10:44 IST

The Rajapaksa regime sadly doesn't do much to foster ethnic harmony. I am a Singhalese
but I have got totally fed up with our government politicians. They are the worlds greatest
'talkers' but nothing constructive happens. Corruption, intimidation as well as cost of living is
sky high but they (govt) wants me to believe that I should be very happy with just having one
meal a day cause there is 'peace'. They also think its thei privilege to use the tax payers
money to buy Lamborghinis while most of us struggle with bus fare! I think BBS is another
creation of the govt so starving people can forget their hunger and find another enemy in

from:  Janak
Posted on: May 17, 2013 at 07:47 IST

The trend of attacks is certainly worrying !. This story reminds me of the age old quote
about.. First they came towards commies, i was not one and hence ignored it.. Then they
came towards jews, i was not one and hence ignored it., etc.. Finally they came towards me,
and there was no else to help me.. This is what is happening in Lanka too !.. If the secular
and broadminded sinhaleese do not stand behind muslims now, then after this they will be
the target..

from:  Gajamani
Posted on: May 17, 2013 at 07:03 IST

It is very saddening to see such communal hate still exists in the world.
What adds to the sadness is the fact that one party comprises of
Buddhists, one of the most peaceful people on the face of the earth. If
Buddha was seeing this...

from:  Sunil Padasala
Posted on: May 17, 2013 at 06:34 IST

The author wrongly attributes the reason for Muslims to seek a separate identity to
LTTE. A cursory search on Google would reveal that even before Ceylon
independence Muslims claimed separate identity.

A hundred years ago-in 1888, the, then leader of the Tamil community, Sir
Ponnambalam Ramanathan asserted both in the Legislative Council of Ceylon and
in the Royal Asiatic Society (Ceylon Branch) that Ceylon Moors were Tamils by race
and Muslims by religion. The Muslims were offended by this deliberate
Misrepresentation or misinterpretation. The then President of the Moors
Association, I.L.M. Abdul Azeez wrote a book proving beyond doubt that the
Ceylon Moors were descended from the Arab traders who had settled in the island
several centuries ago and that they were not Tamils.

from:  Anand
Posted on: May 17, 2013 at 05:36 IST

Ethnic conflicts, under latent and manifest official patronage, will
only take deep roots with passage of time. Religion is getting added to
ethnicity of late. That means hardening of feelings resulting in
fanaticism. Without a sense of security among all, social harmony will
remain a dream.

from:  U R Kaliappan
Posted on: May 17, 2013 at 05:13 IST

Sri Lanka is becoming a xenophobic, bigotted country with the administration, military and the political parties toeing the line. Unless India as the closest neighbour reads the warning signs and arm twists the political and military establishment of Sri Lanka in correcting the situation, we are likely to have problems of militancy and refugees in our southern shores in the not too distant future.

from:  mani sandilya
Posted on: May 17, 2013 at 04:59 IST

basically islam never become part of any liberal and secular society it has proved in australia,uk ,germany, they will never merge with main stream nationalism, they are always following their pyschological war against peaceful people,better to educate muslim to live with peaceful coexistance respecting local culture,instead of making cultural gettoes to enforce their own agenda of conversion,world caliph and islmic state

from:  bhupinder
Posted on: May 17, 2013 at 04:58 IST
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