Sri Lanka’s Muslims in the Cross Hairs (Page 2 of 2)

According to the Mahavamsa, Prince Vijaya was the son of Sinhabahu, who was born of a union between a sinha (lion) and a human princess (hence Sinhala or the lion race). Vijaya’s arrival with his band of 700 followers in Sri Lanka, the Mahavamsa says, was preceded by three visits of the Buddha, during which the latter rid the island of evil spirits and consecrated it. Thus, it was to an island consecrated by the Buddha himself that Vijaya arrived. Indeed, he set foot on the island the day the Buddha attained Nirvana. The link this myth makes between Buddhism, the Sinhalese race and the island is evident. What is more, the Mahavamsa speaks of the Sinhalese as a “chosen race,” Buddha having selected them to preserve and protect Buddhism. “In Lanka shall my teachings be established and flourish,” it quotes the Buddha as saying. Consequently, the Sinhalese see themselves as the Defenders of the Faith.

More pernicious in its impact on inter-ethnic and religious relations is the Mahavamsa’s telling of a battle between the Sinhalese king Duttugamini and the Tamil king Ellara. Duttugamini is said to have defeated and killed Ellara. What was a political conflict (before taking on Ellara, Duttugamini fought 32 kings, several of whom were Sinhalese) is depicted in the Mahavamsa as an ethnic one, underscoring the point that Sinhalese-Tamil enmity is several millennia old.

Importantly, the Mahavamsa portrays this as a religious conflict. Duttugamini went to war carrying a spear with a relic of Buddha and was accompanied by 500 ascetic monks, it says. At the end of the war, eight arrahants (Buddha’s enlightened disciples) dismiss Duttugamini’s remorse by claiming that only one and a half human beings were killed, these being one who embraced Buddhism and another who accepted the five precepts of Buddhism. Non-Buddhists are thus portrayed in the Mahavamsa as less than human, deserving of a violent death.

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While the perception of the island as belonging to the Sinhalese-Buddhists and of asinhala (un-Sinhala) and abaudha (un-Buddhist) as “outsiders,” even less than human can be traced to the Mahavamsa’s myth-embellished telling of history, it is Buddhist revivalists like Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) who encouraged violence against the “outsider.”

Buddhist revivalism surged during colonial rule. The target of Dharmapala’s mobilization was the island’s religious minorities, especially Christians who under colonial rule enjoyed social and economic privileges. He drew attention to their alleged misdeeds. “Christianity and polytheism [i.e. Hinduism] are responsible for the vulgar practices of killing animals, stealing, prostitution, licentiousness, lying and drunkenness,” he said in a speech.

In the early 20th century, it was the Muslims, who dominated business and trade, who came under fire from the Buddhist revivalists.

"The Muhammedans, an alien people … by Shylockian methods became prosperous like the Jews. The Sinhalese sons of the soil, whose ancestors for 2,358 years had shed rivers of blood to keep the country free from alien invaders, are in the eyes of the British only vagabonds," Dharmapala wrote in 1915. His writing in Sinhala Bauddhaya and that of Piyadasa Sirisena in Sinhala Jathiya inflamed anti-Muslim passions in the island, culminating in anti-Muslim riots that year. 

Following the riots, Dharmapala hailed the violence. “The peaceful Sinhalese have at last shown that they can no longer bear the insult of the alien,” he wrote. “The whole nation in one day has risen against the Moor [Muslims] people.”

Dharmapala’s influence survives. Similar sentiments are being articulated in Sri Lanka today. Only now, the “threat” posed by religious minorities is couched in the language of terrorism and extremism. “We are concerned about Muslim extremism,” Withanage told The Diplomat, explaining the BBS’ perception of Muslims.  

The rampaging mobs do not constitute the majority on the island. It is the support they enjoy from the government that empowers them. The BBS allegedly enjoys the support of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabhaya, who is Sri Lanka’s Defence secretary.

Besides, “the government is working in tandem with extremist Buddhist organizations to Buddhistize Sri Lanka,” the trader said. While officials of the government’s Department of Archaeology identify and cordon off land as “Buddhist areas” (even if a mosque, church or temple stands on it), the mobs unleash violence to clear the area of non-Buddhists, he alleged.

There have been attacks too targeting the places of worship of the island’s Christians and Hindus, as well.

While it is the shrill discourse emanating from the hardliners that has captured media attention, there are several ongoing efforts to build religious tolerance in Sri Lanka. Several candle-light vigils and public rallies opposing religious extremism are being held, as are inter-faith dialogues. Significantly, it is Sinhalese-Buddhists that constitute the bulk of these initiatives, signaling that extremism does not define the community, only a vocal section of it.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at [email protected]

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