Anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka is on the rise and feeding Buddhist nationalism. The government of Sri Lanka must take action before events spiral out of control.
There have been an unprecedented number of anti-Muslim hate crimes in Sri Lanka over the last few years. Most recently involving a hard-line Buddhist group, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), that led a series of attacks against Muslim-owned businesses and mosques in May this year, and again this month, in the southern town of Gintota where Muslim shops have been petrol bombed by hardline mobs.
The BBS group leader and General Secretary Galagoda Atte Gnanasara is responsible for encouraging his supporters to lead attacks on the Muslim minority in the southwestern town of Aluthgama. This led to his supporters rampaging through town, setting homes on fire and, in the process, leaving four people dead and 80 injured.
Frustratingly, little has been done to hold Gnanasara accountable for his incitement, leaving many Sri Lankan Muslims distraught and fearful for their lives about possible escalations. Against this backdrop, reports have emerged that the Sri Lankan government has withdrawn its decision to proceed with hate speech charges against Gnanasara, leaving the embattled Muslim minority to fend for themselves.
A manhunt was drawn up to find Gnanasara after he went into hiding following the attacks back in June. Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Siresena had vowed to investigate anti-Muslim hate crimes and bring those accountable to justice, but Gnanasara was released on bail twice on the same day that he was arrested by Sri Lankan police, and the warrant for his arrest was consequently suspended.
An assembly of diplomats had convened in Colombo from around the world to condemn the violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka and urge the government to uphold the rights of Sri Lanka’s diverse minorities. Many Sri Lankan journalists and activists in the country have spoken out against the handling of the situation, calling for tougher action to be taken against those who incite hate and cause division.
Less than 10 percent of Sri Lanka's population of 20 million are Muslim. The majority are Sinhalese Buddhist, and Tamils who belong to the Hindu or Christian faiths. As a Sri Lankan Muslim myself, who has visited the country many times, I am aware that most people from a variety of faiths in Sri Lanka live harmoniously with one another. However, the propaganda of the BBS and their agenda to cause division in a peaceful society is alarming. Gnanasara has openly expressed praise for hardline Myanmar monk Ashin Wirathu who formed the 969 group, collaborating with Gnanasara to campaign against Muslims both in Myanmar and now in Sri Lanka.
Both Gnanasara and Wirathu hold an extreme ideology that believes in “struggling to protect Buddhism in Asia.”
The question is, who are they actually protecting? Gnanasara has his own agenda that is in adherence to Wirathu’s and that is to cause hate, create division and does in no way hold into account the best interests of the citizens of Sri Lanka or Myanmar, or those who want to live peacefully with one another.
The same Bodu Bala Sena group has been responsible for the attacks on September 28 this year against Rohingya refugees seeking safe haven, as the mob stormed a UN shelter in the capital Colombo.
It is crucial that justice and accountability is sought in order to prevent escalation and further attacks against minority groups in Sri Lanka. The government of Sri Lanka has a responsibility to all its citizens to protect and honour their dignity by ensuring that their human rights are not violated, and if they are, there should be legislative measures in place that ensure that those committing crimes will be held accountable by the law.
After the previous government of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, it was hoped that his successor would live up to his promises of supporting peace and justice. However, many Sri Lankan citizens and international observers are disappointed at the lack of action from the current government when tackling discrimination, prejudice and hate — which threatens the social fabric of the nation.
Human Rights Watch underlined the importance of accountability stating that, “Justice for serious crimes under international law — which include genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture — is crucial. Accountability brings redress to the victims and signals that heinous abuses will not be tolerated.” This statement is valid in summing up the need to take action against those who commit crimes against humanity and those who threaten peaceful coexistence in a country that has already been through its fair share of conflict and turmoil.
It is therefore time for the Sri Lankan government to step up and fulfil the promises made to diverse minorities in the country. There should not be a need for the international community to step in in order for the government to hold the guilty accountable, but the government of Sri Lanka should take the concerns of their own citizens seriously and bring stability back into the country. As a Sri Lankan Muslim myself, I feel strongly against the injustices of human rights that are prevalent in the country and fear for the well-being of my relatives and the whole Muslim community on the island. Sri Lanka’s Muslims contribute heavily to the social fabric of the country, as do all other citizens from various faiths that have lived harmoniously with one another. Ensuring stability for all citizens is a must in order to create better interfaith understanding and harmony. Otherwise, Sri Lanka will just be another example of Buddhist majority-lead discrimination and crimes against local Muslim citizens.
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