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on the world: a view on human rights

Sri Lanka: Still Playing the Minority Blame Game

Speaking at the end of last year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay acknowledged the potential impact of austerity measures around the world on human rights, which “may lead to further discrimination and marginalization as dominant groups look to secure their own futures and search for scapegoats.” Focusing her discourse on ethnic minorities, such as the Roma, and migrants in Europe, in Asia the economic downturn and resulting civil unrest have been channelled into civil violence orchestrated against religious minorities and ethnic groups, such as in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

On the evening of 28 March, a mob of around 200 people attacked Fashion Bug, a large clothing shop in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. Bricks were thrown, property was damaged, including several vehicles close by, and several people sustained injuries. Video footage shows a Buddhist monk throwing a rock at the shop. Rather than trying to prevent the unprovoked attack, passers-by joined in. The police only intervened when the mob set fire to the premises. Video footage showed the police standing by as the attack happened. This is the latest major episode in the rising tide of violence targeted at Sri Lanka’s Muslim community by the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population.

The official response was the arrest of several people, including three Buddhist monks, and extra security around Muslim-run businesses. The latter comes a little too late, as the damage had already been done and fear and suspicion sown throughout the community. On 2 April, the monks and over a dozen other suspects were released by a judge and the case was dropped as the victim did not wish to proceed; the shop owner is reported to have been pressurised into not taking the matter further. The judge warned the released monks “to follow Buddha’s teachings or face serious consequences.”

This incident is considered by many to be an escalation of a growing campaign of low-level everyday harassment against the Muslim population over the past twelve months since the creation of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), the Buddhist Power Force, a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organisation.

Muslims make up around one-tenth of Sri Lanka’s population and have lived on the island for over a millennium. While some are of foreign heritage, from other south Asian races or the descendants of Arab and Malay tradesmen, many have married with the Sinhalese and Tamils over the centuries and are undeniably Sri Lankan. As many Muslims live along the eastern coast of the country, Tamil is the dominant language. During the decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka between the government and the Tamils, Muslims largely supported the government position.

With the exclusion of communal riots, there has only been one major and bloody conflict between Buddhists and Muslims, the 1915 Sinhalese-Muslim Riots across the country, when as part of the British divide and conquer colonial strategy, preferential treatment was given to Muslims to stoke such tensions.

Moving forward in time by almost a century, the preferred means of achieving the same aim until recently has been the dissemination of inaccurate and provocative information about Sri Lanka’s Muslim community in the Sinhalese language via the internet. Over the past decade, almost 50 such websites giving a platform to racist and sectarian views have emerged. Since the civil war, which ended in 2009, attacks on other minority groups in Sri Lanka have intensified.

The BBS have managed to use both new and more traditional media to capture their audience and their hard-line Buddhist nationalist position is currying favour with the public, particularly the young. Having emerged from apparently nowhere, in less than one year, the BBS has won over large sections of public opinion. Established in 2012, since November it has started holding large rallies that can attract thousands of people to their message of the threat posed to Sinhalese identity by others, particularly Muslims and their dominance in particular sectors of the economy, such as textiles. Attacks are not limited to Muslims alone; Evangelical Christians have also been targeted. The BBS’ targets have included attacks on mosques and attempts to ban the classification of halal food and Muslim dress. On the other hand, there have been no retaliatory actions by Muslims against Buddhist places of worship or on their dress.

In addition to creating a divisive discourse that did not exist previously, the BBS has succeeded in making blatant discrimination against Sri Lankan Muslims an everyday occurrence. From low-level harassment such as abusive name calling, asking women to remove their headscarf, to more physical attacks against individuals, the cases are rising. The BBS has also successfully used the media and the platform offered by the large number of mass rallies it holds to distort and blow minor or unrelated incidents out of all proportion and context. In mid-March, a Muslim rickshaw driver accidentally knocked over a Sinhalese man; this led to anti-Muslim protests in his village. A Muslim man who killed a Sinhalese thief who had unlawfully entered his home led to rumours and protests that Muslims are killing the Sinhalese indiscriminately. More examples relating to Muslim female attire can be found here. On 30 March, a letter in Sinhalese was sent to all mosques in the country demanding they close down within days.

One may wonder why, in a country that has recently emerged from a decades-long and brutal civil war that has cost the country much in terms of lives and development, and which is already fractured, there would be any desire to return to conflict, which many predict with the rapid escalation of this situation. Largely made up of and supported by Buddhist monks, the BBS also has close connections to the Defence Minister and brother of the President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who attends their meetings and was the main guest at the opening of the BBS’ Buddhist Leadership Academy.  While the origin and funding of the BBS remains a topic of discussion, there is widespread belief that they are supported by the Sri Lankan government and the police. With the government failing to deal with this issue adequately and the police acting as spectators to criminal activity and failing to investigate, there is concern about the unofficial support given to the group.

Sri Lanka is still reeling in the aftermath of the brutal civil war waged against the Tamils in the north of the country. There is increasing international pressure on Sri Lanka, including a recent UN Human Rights Council resolution calling on the state to carry out an independent investigation into war crimes, including torture, committed during the civil war, yet there is reluctance to act, particularly as the war is considered a win for the government, which needs the military’s support.

Coupled with this is the growing unpopularity of the government led by the ruling Rajapaksa family. Both Muslims and Tamils are unlikely to support the government and it consequently must rely on obtaining as much support as possible from the Sinhalese community. The BBS has been successful in marginalising the opposition and the voices of the moderate Sinhalese and Buddhist monks.

Linked to both of these is the more obvious economic question: the BBS plays the card that rising prices are due to Muslim businesspeople and that they are forcing Sinhalese businesses to close, leading to attacks on Muslim businesses such as that on 28 March. While social strife may work in favour of the government for now, Navi Pillay also warned that measures taken to deal with the economic crisis “must respect the principle of equality and scrupulously avoid discrimination.”

The consequences of failing to do this should still be fresh in the minds of the Sri Lankan government, given that the civil war was instigated by Sinhalese attacks on Tamils. Many fear that with the collusion of Buddhist monks, the government and the police, Sri Lanka may be headed the same way as Myanmar.

Sri Lanka is set to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November this year. In view of its already poor human rights record, there is pressure on the venue to be changed from Colombo and for foreign heads of states not to attend. A number of petitions have been set up that can be signed by nationals and residents of various Commonwealth countries asking their leaders not to attend:

David Cameron (UK):

Stephen Harper (Canada):

Manmohan Singh (India):

Julia Gillard (Australia):

Najib Razak (Malaysia):


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