In the wake of Buddhist-Muslim clashes, Neville de Silva reflects on what may lie behind Sri Lanka’s rising tide of religious extremism

Flames from burning shops and residences reached skywards as dark, billowing smoke engulfed parts of Sri Lanka’s holiest Buddhist city, Kandy, where the Temple of the Tooth safeguards the sacred Tooth Relic of the Buddha.

As violence by majority Sinhala mobs spanned out to other towns and villages around the beautiful lake city in Sri Lanka’s hill country, where pockets of Muslim families live and work, the government feared that history would repeat itself, with armed mobs roaming the streets as news of ethno-religious clashes spread thick and fast across cyberspace.

On March 6, two days after sporadic clashes began, President Maithripala Sirisena declared an island-wide state of emergency to strengthen the curfew declared earlier in the Kandy district, before flying off to New Delhi to attend the International Solar Summit.

Also attending the summit was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was due to visit Sri Lanka following the conference but cancelled the visit in the wake of Colombo’s clamping down on social media. The blocks on Facebook, Whatsapp and Viber raised howls of protest from Sri Lankans both here and abroad, and from diplomats who found their social media sites blocked by government fiat.

Evidence suggested that aggressive messages, racial threats and hate speech had gone out on social media, along with exaggerated or concocted news that only added more fuel to the racial fires. This has happened on previous occasions, stirring up trouble in other parts of the country where large communities of Muslims live, including in the capital, Colombo.

Some government supporters believe this conduct was intended to weaken the hand of a government already facing political and economic problems, and to sow divisions within the Muslim community that had voted overwhelmingly for the President Sirisena- Prime Minister Wickremesinghe duo in the 2015 election.

Others saw more sinister reasons, with foreign hands – especially those of Western intelligence – deeply involved in stirring the racial pot to force Sri Lanka to adopt a federal structure that would help the minority Tamils control their own affairs after they failed to achieve a separate state when the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were militarily routed almost nine years ago. To some, the situation even looked like the beginning of a Saravejo-type solution so favoured by the West to split up states into smaller entities.

Muslims form the second biggest minority in Sri Lanka – around 10 per cent – after the Tamils, who make up slightly more. Both have been engaged at different times in violent clashes with the majority Sinhala people, who are mainly Buddhists. Often religion has become a key component of racial clashes that have tended to exacerbate ethnic differences and drive the ethnic groups further apart, instead of history serving as a reminder of the dangers to national integration.

Days before the most recent flare-up in the Kandy district, which sadly cost three lives and millions of rupees’ worth of damage, an incident in eastern Ampara, where all three racial groups reside, showed the fragility of Sri Lanka’s race relations. Sinhala visitors to a Muslim restaurant in Ampara made the bizarre claim that they found pills mixed in their food, intended to cause male sterility that would, generations later, result in demographic changes as the Sinhala population were reduced to a minority.

The fact that no such sterilisation pills have been medically produced, according to specialists here who publicly dismissed the fears, did not seem to matter to those who believed in these attempts to adjust the ethnic imbalance. For its supposed actions, the restaurant was torched.

Yet what sparked the ethno-religious violence in the Kandy district had little or nothing to do with the Sinhala-Muslim communities. It was simply an incident of road rage in a nearby town called Teldeniya, which resulted in a young Sinhala truck driver being assaulted by four Muslims in a three-wheeler because he had not given way on the road.

That was on February 22. The Muslims from neighbouring Digana town were arrested, while the assault victim was eventually sent to the Intensive Care Unit at the Kandy Hospital, where he died on March 3. The fact that there was no communal violence from the day of the accident until March 4, the day after the truck driver’s death, when a few Muslim shops in Digana were burned, adds credence to the theory that this was not a local Sinhala-Muslim issue.

Two days after sporadic clashes began, President Maithripala Sirisena declared an island-wide state of emergency

A more credible explanation is that news of the assault attracted Sinhala extremists from outside Kandy. For instance, a Buddhist temple in nearby Ambatenne was stoned by an unknown group on motorcycles, damaging the glass covering of the temple’s main Buddha statue.

As the news spread, thousands of Buddhists turned up at the temple. The news brought into the area well-known extremist Buddhist monks such as Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS-Buddhist Power Force), who had figured earlier in brawls and violence, and against whom there is a court warrant.

The lifting of the curfew in Kandy brought various groups from Colombo and elsewhere. They began to visit the troubled areas, bringing their own remedies to combat racial violence in the name of the Buddha and Islamic religious leaders.

Sri Lanka's Special Task Force and police officers stand guard by a burnt house after sectarian clashes in Digana
Sri Lanka’s Special Task Force and police officers stand guard by a burnt house after sectarian clashes in Digana

Not surprisingly, Gnanasara Thera has links with Myanmar’s extremist Buddhist monk Ven. Wirathu, who is a leading activist against the Rohingya Muslims and visited Sri Lanka in September 2014at the invitation of Gnanasara Thera’s BBS to address a Buddhist conference.

Last September, a mob led by Buddhist monks attacked a UNHRC safe house where some 30 Myanmar Rohingyas, plucked from the sea by the Sri Lankan Navy, were temporarily accommodated. These saffron-robed monks from still another Buddhist extremist group had to be restrained by police.

BONDS OF HATE: Extremist Buddhist monks Gnanasara Thera (l) and Ven. Wirathu
BONDS OF HATE: Extremist Buddhist monks Gnanasara Thera (l) and Ven. Wirathu

One reason for the Kandy incidents getting out of hand is that the police who were deployed to crush the violence failed to act quickly and decisively. Whether this was because they sympathised with the mobs or simply acted too late is being looked into.

Such a lackadaisical approach by the police, for whatever reason, might have contributed to the violence getting out of hand in the first few days. But it does not explain why extremist groups, be they Sinhala Buddhist, Islamic-Muslim or Tamil Hindu, have emerged so prominently in the last decade or so.

Both internal factors and global developments account for the rising tide of extremism, at least in Sri Lanka. Myanmar and Sri Lanka are seen as the principal repositories of the Theravada doctrine – the closest to the Buddha’s teachings– and therefore both countries feel they have a special responsibility to up hold the true teachings of the Buddha and preserve the purity of the doctrine from contamination. The rise of Sinhala-Buddhist extremism, especially since 2011-12, can partly be traced to the rapid spread of Saudi Arabian-style Wahhabism, said to be one of the most extreme doctrines of fundamentalist Islam.

In the early years of this decade, some Sinhala-Buddhist organisations fought against the Islamic hijab, which has increasingly become a part of the attire of Muslim women. Buddhist groups also challenged Muslims’ insistence on halal food certification and changes to traditional Muslim practices by one of the most peaceful Muslim communities in the world, according to a report by the Indian TV station World is One News.

Muslims form the second biggest minority in Sri Lanka – around 10 per cent – after the Tamils

It is said Wahhabist followers have helped set up almost 750 madrasas in Sri Lanka and one Islamic university, and there are also said to be ten major Muslim mosques and dozens of smaller ones. But it is the spread of violent jihadist terror, especially in Europe, and the call for believers to join the cause of jihad and ISIS, with some Sri Lankans answering that call, that is frightening the Sinhala majority after they finally ended a near three-decade-long war with minority Tamil separatists.

Yet what is worrying moderate Sinhala-Buddhists and others is the use of violence in the name of the Buddha. Monks in saffron robes using brutality against other communities, and even prepared to kill in the name of The Enlightened One, is nothing but a perversion of the teachings of the Buddha. As a philosophy of non-violence, Buddhism utterly rejects revenge and retaliation, and to propagate these notions is to bring Buddhism into disrepute and, by extension, the Sri Lankan people. Therefore, monks who have vowed to uphold the true teachings of the Buddha, yet who engage in brutality, are a disgrace to the Great Teacher of peace and loving kindness.

Why, then, has no government had the courage to arrest and charge these saffron-robed bigots? Is it because politics supersedes even the teachings of the Buddha whom Sri Lanka’s leaders worship almost every day?

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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