Sri Lanka’s Muslims in the Cross Hairs
Image Credit: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Sri Lanka’s Muslims in the Cross Hairs


Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists have opened a new front in their war against the island’s minorities. If for decades it was the island’s Tamils who were the focus of their hostility, it is the Muslims who are in their cross-hairs now.

Since 2011, scores of mosques and Muslim-owned businesses have come under attack from Sinhalese mobs led by Buddhist monks. In April last year, a mosque in Dambulla, a town located 150 km north of Sri Lanka’s commercial capital Colombo, was vandalized.  Early this year, a Sinhalese-Buddhist group, the Bodu Bala Sena (literally Army of Buddhist Power) (BBS) ran a violent campaign calling for the boycott of halal-certified meat. A month ago, a mob forced Muslims to shut down a new mosque in Colombo.

Anti-Muslim violence has “grown in frequency and ferocity in recent months,” a Colombo-based Muslim trader, who spoke to The Diplomat on condition of anonymity, said. Around 160 incidents of violence targeting Muslims are reported to have occurred this year.

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Buddhists comprise 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people and are all Sinhalese. Hindus, Muslims and Christians are the main religious minorities. While Hindus are all Tamils, Muslims and Christians speak Sinhala or Tamil depending on where they live.

Although Sri Lanka is not a Buddhist state, its 1978 Constitution, while assuring freedom of religion to all citizens, grants “foremost place” to Buddhism and declares it “the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddhist Sasana (broad teachings of the Buddha).”

Successive governments in Sri Lanka have sought to project themselves as the guardians of Buddhism. Rather than uphold the peaceful core tenets of Buddhism, they have wooed the Buddhist clergy through generous grants for the renovation of Buddhist shrines and monasteries, or with lavish gifts to the mahanayakes (high priests) and other monks.

Meanwhile, the authorities appear to have turned a blind eye to violence instigated and unleashed by the monks. Not a single monk was arrested in the violence in Colombo last month, for instance. When the Dambulla was damaged and desecrated last year, nobody was arrested. Instead, the government bowed to the mob’s demand to relocate the mosque.

“Some of the anti-Muslim violence has distinct economic undertones,” the trader said, pointing to the drive against renting Muslim-owned houses. Indeed, even the campaign against halal certification has economic motivations.

Apparently the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulema (ACJU), Sri Lanka’s main body of Islamic scholars, charges a fee for certifying meat as halal, a cost that is passed on to Sinhalese businesses and consumers. “Only Muslims need halal certification of meat. Yet all non-Muslims too have to pay for a service they do not need,” Dilanthe Withanage, the only lay member of the BBS’ executive committee, told The Diplomat.

Muslim-owned meat shops have been attacked too. An activist of the Sinhala Ravaya, a Sinhalese-Buddhist organization that is demanding a constitutional ban on cattle slaughter and religious conversions, justified the attacks by saying that Muslim practices that go against Buddhist beliefs must be “challenged.”

“This is a Sinhalese-Buddhist country and we must act to preserve Buddhist principles, culture, beliefs and way of life,” he said.

“We are only asking for Muslims to respect the majority culture,” Withanage said.

Sinhalese-Buddhist hardliners draw on the Mahavamsa chronicles to bolster their argument that the island is Sinhalese-Buddhist land. First written in the sixth century AD by a Buddhist monk named Mahanama, and subsequently modified between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Mahavamsa is largely mythical.

However, to many Sinhalese-Buddhists its contents are irrefutable fact. To them Sri Lanka is the land of Sinhalese-Buddhists because the Mahavamsa refers to it as Sinhaladipa (the land of the Sinhalese) and Dhammadipa (land of righteousness or Buddhism).

Two myths – one about Prince Vijaya, the founder of the Sinhalese race, and the other about the Duttugamini-Ellara battle (2nd century BC) – have been particularly influential in shaping the Sinhalese-Buddhist ideology.

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