Sri Lanka’s Anti-Muslim Violence

Recent Features

Features | Security | South Asia

Sri Lanka’s Anti-Muslim Violence

Anti-Muslim violence on the island has a long history tied to conceptions of Sinhalese-Buddhist identity.

Sri Lanka’s Anti-Muslim Violence

Sri Lanka’s security forces stand near a vandalized building in Digana, a suburb of Kandy, Sri Lanka (March 6, 2018).

Credit: AP Photo/Pradeep Pathiran

Over the past fortnight, Sri Lanka has witnessed a surge in violence targeting Muslims, their properties, and places of worship. It prompted President Maithripala Sirisena to declare an island-wide state of emergency on March 6. Curfew was imposed and the army deployed in some of the areas worst-hit by the violence. However, attacks on Muslims continue and appear to be spreading geographically too. A Muslim-owned restaurant in Putallam district was attacked, for instance, in the early hours of March 11.

The current wave of violence was reportedly sparked by an incident of road rage involving a Sinhalese truck driver and a group of Muslim men in Kandy district in the central highlands on February 22. The latter assaulted the Sinhalese driver, which resulted in his death at a hospital a few days later.  The day after his death, Sinhalese mobs went on a rampage, attacking Muslims, and burning their homes, shops, and vehicles. The violence has since spread to other districts.

Sri Lanka is a multiethnic, multilingual and multireligious country. Sinhalese constitute the majority (74 percent) and are mainly Buddhist; Tamils are the largest minority and are largely Hindu. The island’s second largest minority is the Muslim community, which comprises 9 percent of the population. Unlike Sinhalese and Tamils, who draw their identity from their ethnicity, religion determines the identity of Sri Lanka’s Muslims.

Violence targeting minorities is closely related to how the Sinhalese view themselves and others. According to the Mahavamsa, a chronicle written by the monk Mahanama in the sixth century CE, the Sinhalese are a “lion race,” descendants of Prince Vijaya, the son of Sinhabahu, who was born of a union between a lion or sinha and a human princess.

Mahanama wrote that Gautama Buddha visited the island three times before Vijaya and his 700 followers arrived. Hence, it was to a land sanctified by the Buddha himself that Vijaya arrived. Indeed, Vijaya is believed to have set foot on the island on the day the Buddha died. Mahanama’s skilful linking of the concepts of Sinhadipa (land of the lion race, i.e. of the Sinhalese) with Dhammadipa (the land chosen by Buddha to protect and propagate his Dhamma or teachings) has had enormous impact on Sinhalese-Buddhist self perception.

Although the Mahavamsa is more myth than fact, Sinhalese-Buddhists draw on it to justify their claim that the island belongs to them and that they are a people chosen to protect Buddha’s teachings.

An important feature of the Sinhalese that has influenced their attitude to minorities is that they are, as noted Sri Lankan anthropologist Stanley Tambiah described in his book Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy, “a majority with a minority complex.” Thus although Sinhalese vastly exceed Tamils and Muslims in terms of numbers, they feel outnumbered by them. They see the island’s Tamils, for instance, as part of the larger Tamil community in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lankan Muslims as part of the Muslim ummah.

This “minority complex” has resulted in Sinhalese viewing themselves as victims, who have to act, even violently, to defend the island and Sinhalese-Buddhist culture from being taken over by the asinhala (un-Sinhala) and abaudha (un-Buddhist). These groups are viewed as essentially “foreigners,” who are staying on the island due to Sinhalese-Buddhist sufferance.

Violence targeting the minorities came to the fore during colonial rule. Christians and Muslims, for instance, were seen to have benefited from colonial policies. In the early 20th century, Muslim domination of the economy evoked deep resentment among Sinhalese-Buddhists. Revivalists like Anagarika Dharmapala claimed that the Muslims were “alien invaders” who used “Shylockian methods [to become] prosperous like the Jews.” They had become prosperous at the expense of the “sons of the soil,” i.e. the Sinhalese, he said. Publications like Sinhala Bauddhaya and Sinhala Jathiya carried articles that were inflammatory in content and are said to have culminated in the anti-Muslim violence in 1915.

With independence from colonial rule, Sinhalese political parties vied with each other to project themselves as the guardians of the Sinhalese-Buddhists. It led to the Sinhalization of the state and its institutions, which resulted in Tamil political, economic and cultural marginalization. Importantly, Tamils and their properties were targeted by Sinhalese mobs, often backed by the state. Tamil alienation with the Sri Lankan state led to the emergence of a powerful insurgency led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

For almost six decades, the Sinhalese-Buddhist supremacist project thrived by depicting Tamils as “the enemy.” With the LTTE vanquished in 2009, Sinhalese extremists needed a new enemy to keep the project relevant. “Muslims have emerged as that enemy,” writes Nirupama Subramanian in Indian Express.

Since 2012, anti-Muslim rhetoric has surged in Sri Lanka. It has drawn on global Islamophobia but also on long-standing stereotypes of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. Outfits like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) have carried out a sustained hate campaign against Muslims and unleashed violence on them.

Among the accusations the BBS has leveled against the Muslims is that they procreate at a faster rate than the Sinhalese, forcibly convert Buddhists to Islam, and follow a culture that is at odds with that of the Sinhalese-Buddhists. This has fueled fears among the masses that Muslims will soon outnumber the Sinhalese and that Sinhala-Buddhist culture will be wiped out of the island.

Like the BBS, there are other extremist outfits, including the Sinhala Ravaya, Sinhale, and Mahason Balaya, that stoke Sinhalese insecurities and encourage violence by spreading baseless rumors. In the run-up to the current wave of violence, rumors were circulated that Muslims were implementing plans to reduce the Sinhalese population, with a video of a Muslim cook in a restaurant confessing to adding “sterility pills” to food served to Sinhalese going viral in social media.

It didn’t take long thereafter for Sinhalese thugs to be mobilized to vandalize Muslim homes, mosques, and business establishments.

Muslims have come under repeated attack by Sinhalese groups since 2011. Such violence is rarely spontaneous and is said to be organized and orchestrated by outfits close to politicians, including parliamentarians. Rarely have the guilty been punished.

This failure of successive governments to bring to justice those orchestrating the attacks on Muslims is fueling more and deadlier cycles of violence against them.

Sri Lankan analysts are warning that the violence being systematically unleashed on Muslims could provoke a strong response from Muslim youth. It could have “the effect of radicalizing Muslim youth and marginalizing Muslim moderates,” writes political commentator Dayan Jayatilleka in The Island.  Recalling how Sinhala racists repeatedly attacked the island’s Tamils “to put them in their place” and the role this played in spawning Tamil militancy and a three-decade long civil war, Jayatilleka points out that this “story is being repeated [now] with the Muslims.”

“We have come one step closer to the emergence of Islamist terrorism in Sri Lanka,” he says.

Indeed, with every incident of violence being unleashed on Muslims and the state avoiding reining in the Sinhalese extremist outfits, Sri Lanka is giving Muslims reason to pick up arms, if only to defend themselves.

The Muslim community in Sri Lanka has kept itself busy with business and trade so far. That is in danger of changing. And for that, Sinhalese extremists and their patrons among politicians and parliamentarians are to blame.

Sri Lanka is staring at yet another looming danger; its Sinhalese-Buddhist extremists are developing links with radical monks abroad. In 2014, Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk in Myanmar who has incited violence against Rohingya Muslims, offered to support the BBS in its fight against what he says is the “serious threat from jihadist groups” in Sri Lanka.

The overseas links of Sinhalese-Buddhist extremists is a clear and present danger. But Sri Lankan parties will be reluctant to sever the still nascent links or criticize Sinhalese-Buddhist extremism. They will not want to lose the votes of the Sinhalese hardliners.

Dr Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues.