Nine years after the end of a civil war that lasted a quarter of a century, ethno-religious tensions in Sri Lanka are resurfacing. On February 26th, 2018 riots orchestrated by Sinhalese Buddhist mobs targeting Muslim minorities erupted in the cities of Ampra and Kandy. Waves of targeted attacks on Muslim citizens, properties, businesses and mosques spread during the following week, when Muslim mobs reportedly responded with attacks on Sinhalese temples and citizens. On March 5th the Sri Lankan government issued a nationwide state of emergency, ultimately lifted on March 18th, and imposed a local police curfew to end the episodes of communal violence. During the state of emergency, two people were killed and more than ten were injured.
The riots erupted first in Ampra, where hardline Sinhalese Buddhists accused a Muslim-owned eatery of serving “sterilization pills” to Sinhalese customers. In a video shared on Facebook, the owner – who did not understand the Tamil word for sterilization pills – is shown admitting these acts. The existence of such pills was then refuted by the Health Minister and the World Health Organization’s representative in Sri Lanka and the restaurant owner was released. A few days later, riots spread to Kandy following an altercation between four Muslim youths and a Sinhalese Buddhist truck driver. The youths, who were reportedly drunk, fatally injured the driver, who would not let them in his truck. Even though the attack was not believed to be racially motivated, hardline Buddhists monks such as Ampitiye Sumana and organisations like Maha Sohon Balakaya and Bodu Bala Sena instrumentalized the event to incite racial hatred . Radical Buddhists groups used social media to spread hate speech and incite violent acts. Facebook did not consider most of these posts, written in Tamil, hate speech, and it took down the content only after coming under pressure from the Sri Lankan government. One of the most prolific online instigators was operating under the account “Sinhala Racist,” who shared the video of the restaurant owner. In one of his posts, he claimed that Sri Lanka was “the exclusive domain of the Sinhalese race” .
This discourse of Sinhalese exceptionalism and domination has been on the rise, as a “common mindset… that Buddhism in somehow under threat,” coupled with growing Islamophobia, is expanding across the country and in neighboring Thailand and Myanmar. According to Gehan Gunatilleke, legal director of Verite research in Sri Lanka and International Human Rights Law researcher, , this sense of Buddhist ownership of the country( Buddhists make up 75% of Sri Lanka’s inhabitants) is threatened by the higher birth rate of Muslims and their recent economic success. As more Arab states are funding the construction of mosques in Sri Lanka, increasing Arab influence over the Muslim community is also perceived as threatening. Manipulation of social media has allowed racist rhetoric to spread and to be mobilized by hardline activists.
But the problem is also rooted in a widespread culture of impunity. Ethno-religious violence has a long history in Sri Lanka. Despite the end of the civil war between Tamils and Sinhalese Buddhists in 2009, ethnic reconciliation has been a difficult process. The civil society group Sri Lankan Secretariat for Muslims has recorded more than 600 attacks and threats towards Muslims, mostly by hardline Buddhists, in the past five years. The 2018 riots were the largest incident of communal violence since the 2014 clashes, which left at least four people dead and eighty injured. Ethnic tensions were rarely condemned by Sri Lanka’s previous government, led by the strongman President Mahinda Rajapaksa. According to a clip of CCTV footage reviewed by Reuters, the former president participated in the anti-Muslim riots in Kandy . Sri Lanka’s Law and Order Minister remarked on the organized natured of the episodes and pointed fingers at members of the SLPP, a political party backed by the former president. Nevertheless, the new government, elected in 2015, also failed to meet its promises concerning the protection of minorities. The current government campaigned on a minority-friendly platform but has been reluctant to bring to justice the perpetrators of racially-motivated crimes. This lack of action has perpetuated the culture of impunity that has endured throughout Sri Lankan history.
To keep the peace, the government needs to take action against extremist Sinhalese Buddhist monks and organizations that have played a key role in fomenting ethnic violence. Online hate speech laws should be strengthened. Senior ministers have suggested that racial violence should be made a non-bailable offence and that politicians who incite violence should be stripped of their civil rights. Reforming the Prevention of Terrorism Act, often utilized as a tool for police brutality against minorities, would also indicate a step forward. However, the Sri Lankan government also needs to protect human rights. The imposition of the state of emergency has raised alarms because of past abuses of such situations even years after the war. On March 5th, the government blocked social media platforms to prevent the further organization and spreading of riots. This raised questions about the government’s attempt to control free speech and block the opposition instead of only targeting racketeers. To prevent more violent tensions, the government needs to ensure the protection of minorities with urgent but sound intervention.
Article written by Vasiliki Malouchou Kanellopoulo