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