After a lull following the election of the new Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe regime in 2015, the months of April and May this year has seen heightened attacks on mosques as well as inciting speeches against Muslims and attacks on Muslim owned business establishments in the country.
Muslims which make around 10 % of the population, had since the dawn of April 16th, 2017 witnessed at least twenty incidents of violence or attempted violence, hate, intimidation and threats which are mainly from ultra nationalist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena, Sinhala Ravaya, Sinhale and Mahason Balaya. The Secretariat for Muslims (SFM), a Muslim civil society organisation said it had documented 538 incidents against Muslims from 2013 to 2015 as well as the incidents of last month and the month of May.
Mosques in Panadura, South of the Capital Colombo, in Wennapuwa, a town in the North West Puttalam district and in Kohilawatte in the Central Province were among places of worship attacked, in the past weeks alongside several serious cases of inciting and threats. The latest incident was from the Northwestern Kurunegala district where the Maligapitiya Jumma Mosque came under a bomb attack on Sunday (21 May) morning.
Meanwhile sources said that the entire Muslim population of Selva Nagar in Thoppur in the Eastern Tricomalee district has been threatened by a mob from outside the village, led by Buddhist monks on May 15 resulting in a large number of Muslims fleeing the area. According to village based reports, the local temple which currently owns six acres are now attempting to claim 49 acres of Muslim lands, insisting that these are archeological sites despite Muslims owning these lands for over a hundred years.
Muslim rights activists point out that the Government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe need to deal with this major crisis to avoid the destabilizing of their victory in January 2015 which was bolstered by the overwhelming support they received from the Muslims. The Muslim minority of the country who had once had good relations with the hawkish former President Mahinda Rajapaksa turned away from the previous regime after it tactically supported the infamous BBS and refused to take action against the rioters in Alutgama, South of Colombo in June 2014, created by the BBS and its General Secretary, Gnanasara thero. The current spate of hate based events against the Lankan Muslims are spearheaded by Gnanasara and are creating fears of a repeat cycle of violence such as that unleashed at Aluthgama which resulted in the burning and plundering of Muslim homes.
Muslim parliamentarians, civil society, business community and academia have requested the government to act with a strong resolve to ensure that rule of law prevails and have expressed unhappiness with President Maithripala Sirisena granting an official meeting to the BBS earlier this year, thereby legitimizing their self imposed status as ‘patriots’ and purported ‘protectors’ of Buddhism.
Attempts on Sunday to arrest the virulent monk Gnanasara in Kurunegala where the attack on the mosque had taken place had resulted in fears of unrest as his supporters, both monks and laypersons were en-route in a procession to the Buddhist city of Anuradhapura. Earlier in the day Gnanasara thero had launched a fast against his impending arrest for a contempt of court charge against him. In a recent video he was seen openly insulting Muslims and urging the Sinhalese ‘to go and occupy any lands’ as per their choice, alleging that the Muslims enjoy impunity. Gnanasara is also on audio visual record insulting the Muslim faith.
Analysts and observers point out that the heavy display of public support for Mahinda Rajapaksa as witnessed in the May Day rally organized by his Joint Opposition group this year could be the reason for the emboldening of the BBS as well as the seeming reluctance of the police and the government to take action against the BBS and its notorious general secretary. The Maithripala Sirisena regime has been dragging their feet over announcing local government elections which should have been announced by April this year in the backdrop of fears of losing to the Rajapaksa clan. Starting its governance on 09 January 2015 by insisting that extremism will not be tolerated, President Sirisena is however seen as pandering to the BBS. A bid by Muslim Ministers to meet Sirisena on Monday failed. Reportedly the president had directed Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayaka to preside the meeting scheduled for Monday. Sirisena who left to Australia on a four day state visit after the cabinet reshuffle Monday had cited his schedule as an excuse.
“Sirisena believes that if he takes stringent action on the BBS that it would be seen by Rajapaksa supporters as offending Buddhist monks and could be used to tarnish him as a traitor of the Sinhalese Buddhists,” one observer quipped.
The fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa lost in the 2015 January -08 election is however attributed to the strength of the minority Tamils, Muslims and a large section of the Sinhala Christian religious minority. Although the Bodu Bala Sena which surfaced after the end of the war in 2009 started their rampage by attacking Christians, it soon shifted to the Muslims, initially attacking the ‘halal’ branding of products.
In his election manifesto, Sirisena promised to ensure freedom of religious beliefs for people belonging to all religions in the country and in a 62-page manifesto released during the presidential election, promised to appoint councils to investigate into problems associated with places of religious worship. However, no such councils have been appointed so far.
“Religious disturbances are developing in the country due to the activities of extremist religious sects. In this situation, the extremist groups mutually nourish one another and are expanding their activities. In order to control this situation, I will establish regional and national councils comprising religious leaders who will boldly work for religious coexistence and against extremism, without giving room for extreme elements of all religions,” Sirisena said in his manifesto, which two years into his rule, remains forgotten by him and his government.
The Muslims of Sri Lanka has a history of living in unison with the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The Muslim women were hardly distinguishable from the Sinhalese or Tamils as they wore saree, using the attire for an inconspicuous head cover and men often wore western attire or sarong in a similar manner to the Sinhalese. Muslims previously actively took part in all festivities of other communities. However over the years Saudi Arabian influence caught up with the Muslims of Lanka and the black full cover abaya, often with the face cover became a normal sight in the streets of Colombo and especially in the east of the country which have now become strongly ghettoized with not much opportunity for Muslims to mix with persons of other ethnicities or for those of other communities to buy land in these predominantly Muslim areas. This has been encouraged by Muslim politicians. Sri Lanka lacks a distinct policy that will prevent ghetto mentality of communities, as in the case of Singapore which makes it compulsory for all communities to be located together and prevents polarized living.