Sri Lanka: Tweaking the Muslims
by R Hariharan on 30 Apr 2014 1 Comment

Why is Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa tweaking the Muslim community, which by and large had been his loyal political partner? Since 2012, the Buddhist fringe organization Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) has continued to attack with impunity, individuals, institutions and businesses connected with Muslim cultural and religious practices and identity like places of worship, religious education, wearing of burqa, and halal meat. Churches have also had their share of such hate campaigns.


In the latest infamous episode, last week BBS thugs disrupted a press conference organized by the Jathika Bala Sena (JBS) in Colombo, at which the JBS founder general secretary Watareka Vijitha Thera had threatened to expose BBS leader Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara. The JBS general secretary had been leading a campaign against BBS attacks since 2013. 


The BBS was founded by two monks - Kirama Wimalajothi and Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara after they broke away from the right wing monks party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), saying it was not militant enough in protecting Buddhism. So true to this sentiment, the BBS has been militant since its start.


It has been thriving on the paranoia generated by the belief that Sri Lanka is not a multi-religious country but a Sinhala-Buddhist one. Its core theme appears to be that Sinhala Buddhist identity needs to be protected from the threat of Islam and Christianity. Islamic extremism which was never a reckonable threat in Sri Lanka has provided the BBS a convenient whipping horse, thanks to Jihadi terrorism’s global record.


According to an Associated Press report of January 14, 2014 at BBS rallies monks claim Muslims are out to recruit children, marry Buddhist women and divide the country. BBS monks make many accusations about Christian pastors making suicide bomb kits, Muslims taking children away to train in Pakistan, without offering supporting evidence. It quoted BBS general secretary Gnanasara as saying “This is a Buddhist nation, so why are they trying to call it a multicultural society? Not everyone can live under the umbrella of a Buddhist culture.”


The BBS has been able to channelise Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist passions by providing visible manifestations of Islamic and Christian identity as targets to vent their anger. These include mosques and churches, Sunday schools, religious gatherings, religious injunctions like halal meat slaughtering and certification, and wearing of burqa by women. Some BBS concerns like the demand for abolishing birth control measures and advice to Sinhalas to stop using them to have five to six children to increase the Sinhala population might appear bizarre., but find support in at least in some sections of people.  


By doing some deft tight rope walking between the two communities, Muslims have economically prospered. Some sections of Sinhalas and Tamils feel that Muslims have taken advantage of the period of LTTE insurgency when the Tamil business community was under siege. So there could be a class angle to the support extended to the BBS.


The BBS tactics seem to be working as its strength is growing in direct proportion to the heat generated by its message, and the number of protests it organises against Muslims and to a lesser extent on Christians. In a show of strength, more than 1300 Buddhist monks and 15,000 people attended a BBS rally in Colombo on February 17, 2013. In 2013, barely a year after it was founded, BBS carried out approximately 241 attacks against Muslims while Christians fared slightly better with 61 instances of attacks on them, according to a report compiled by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC).


The 50-page SLMC report titled “Religious violence in Sri Lanka” was handed over to the UN Commissioner for Human Rights Navanetham Pillay by none other than the Minister of Justice Rauf Hakeem, leader of the SLMC! MS Pillay presumably drew upon the SLMC report when she spoke at the last UNHRC session. In her oral report on Sri Lanka, she spoke of the surge in incitement of hatred and violence against religious minorities, including attacks on churches and mosques, and lack of swift action against the perpetrators.


Apparently the success of BBS has unnerved the JHU which had considered itself as the sole protector of Buddhism. It has added its penny’s worth to inciting anti-Muslim sentiments with its share of hate speeches. And other copy cat organizations like the Ravana Balaya have come up to add to the mischief.  


Many religious leaders including Buddhist prelates, civil society organisations and political and social leaders have condemned the activities of BBS as a threat to national unity. But at the same time, BBS’s theme and some of the demands have found support from some prestigious Buddhist religious heads like Assigiriya Maha Nayake. Some educational institutions have banned the wearing of burqa by Muslim students.


It is difficult to imagine such acts of lawlessness taking place against a politically important minority community without the knowledge of the hands-on President Rajapaksa. Beyond appealing to the people for national unity, the President seems to have done little to ease the growing feeling of insecurity among Muslims and Christians.


One would have expected the President to take serious notice of BBS’ anti-Muslim activities, particularly after SLMC leader Rauf Hakeem presented his report to the UNHRC. But Rajapaksa’s immediate response was to severely reprimand Rauf Hakeem for submitting such report to the UNHRC. Other partners of the UPFA coalition accused the Muslim minister for “washing dirty linen in public.”


The official line trotted out to explain government inaction is ludicrous. In early 2014, Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella called the anti-Muslim acts “minor agitations that are normal in any multicultural society.” According a report, he said it was intended to encourage community members to work out their own problems adding, “If things get more serious, we will take action... These kinds of things can ruin a nation, we are aware of that.”


The BBS is also involved in a slanging match with the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) led by Minister for Industry and Commerce Rishad Bathiudeen, after the BBS accused of Muslims of illegally settling in Wilpattu forests. The activities of BBS seem to have unnerved Bathiudeen, a long term loyalist of President Rajapaksa. The ACMC rejoinder said the apparent impunity with which BBS was acting raises questions whether it was running ‘a parallel government’ like the LTTE once did. The ACMC called for a ‘Commission of Inquiry’ to look into post-war incidents against minorities in general and Muslims in particular.

The Minister for National Languages and Social Integration, Vasudeva Nanayakara, who had been critical of BBS, in a recent interview to Ceylon Today said it should be proscribed by law as it was disrupting religious harmony in the country. He said the dormant attitude adopted by the police, especially with regard to the BBS and its actions, was due to the political immunity that the organization enjoyed through the intervention of a high-ranking government official.


Significantly, he said, “I can clearly say that the BBS is enjoying support from a high-ranking State official. That is why its members are behaving in such a manner. Even the police are lenient towards them owing to this. There is someone impeding the police from carrying out investigations against the BBS.”


The Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa had shown some interest in the BBS. He was the chief guest at the opening of Meth Sevana, the Buddhist Leadership Academy started by the BBS on March 9, 2013. According to a media report, the Defence Secretary in his speech on the occasion said he decided to attend the event “after realising its timely importance…. these Buddhist clergy who are engaged in a nationally important task should not be feared or doubted by anyone.” According to the BBS, Gotabaya ensured products displaying halal certification were withdrawn from the market. Whether he would support the BBS’ unsavoury activities, unless it is a part of a political agenda, is the moot question.


The Muslim community in Sri Lanka is barely two million strong, forming just 10 percent of the population. Most of them speak Tamil, and like Sri Lanka Tamils, have links with their brethren across the Palk Strait in Tamil Nadu. Muslims, like the other Tamil speaking minority, are divided vertically and horizontally along sectarian, class and occupational affinities.


Despite these limitations they have been great survivors – both politically and socially – during the difficult years of the LTTE-led Tamil insurgency. In fact, they developed the fine art of survival not only in the war between the government and the Tamil Tigers but between the two major parties – the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).


It is evident that the Muslim political partners of President Rajapaksa are feeling frustrated by the government’s failure to rein in BBS and curb its anti-Muslim agenda. If unchecked, the President runs the risk of alienating the Muslim community. Together with the Tamils who already feel let down by Rajapaksa, the two communities make about 20 percent of the national vote share which is vital for success in the Presidential poll. Can the President afford to alienate these votes with the hope of increasing his support among southern Sinhalas?


Of course, continued government inaction in checking the BBS’ free run would also belie the government’s sincerity in attending to minority concerns. And it is not going to help Sri Lanka’s case at the UNHRC when it seriously takes up implementing the resolution. So what is the larger political agenda at work in allowing space for Sinhala chauvinist activities of the BBS kind? The people of Sri Lanka would start demanding answers to this question from the President when the time comes.

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