Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar have found themselves caught in another sectarian struggle, this time in Sri Lanka, reports Neville de Silva

Earlier this year 31 Rohingya Muslims, fleeing persecution in mainly Buddhist Myanmar, found themselves in another South Asian country which is predominantly Buddhist: Sri Lanka. And there too they were persecuted.

The refugees, including seven women and 17 children, some in their mothers’ arms, were picked up last April by the Sri Lankan navy while drifting in a derelict boat. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) placed them in a three-storeyed house in Mount Lavinia, a coastal suburb of Colombo, the capital. Under an arrangement with the Sri Lankan government, they were to remain until the UN agency was able to find a third country willing to accept them for settlement.

This was not the first time that Rohingyas had been brought ashore by the navy. As far back as March 2008, at the height of Sri Lanka’s war against the Tamil minority secessionists, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the navy rescued survivors from a wrecked boat. They were cared for by the UNHCR until 2012, when they were resettled in the US. Again in 2013, a total of 170 Rohingyas were rescued, and resettled in the US and Canada in 2014 and 2015.

Until this year, all had lived peacefully in Sri Lanka until they were found new homes in the West. But suddenly the latest group to be given refuge were attacked by a mob, led by some Buddhist monks in their traditional saffron-coloured robes, and a radical Sinhalese group called the Sinhale Jathika Balamuluwa (Sinhalese National Movement). Smashing the gates of the house, they destroyed furniture on the ground floor while the frightened Rohingyas huddled together on the upper floors.

Sinhala Buddhist society is becoming more aggressive as Buddhist monks renew their engagement with power politics

A Facebook video shows one of the monks pointing to women refugees with children in their arms, saying: ‘These are Rohingya terrorists who killed Buddhist monks in Myanmar.’ Police managed to rescue the refugees, but two were treated in hospital after being injured by flying stones. The frightened Rohingyas were taken for their safety to a detention centre in the southern town of Boossa.

What precisely provoked this unprecedented attack on foreign refugees remains unclear, but a Rohingya woman who was discharged from hospital was reported to have complained that she was sexually harassed by a police constable escorting her home. He is now facing charges. The attack is believed to have been organised by associates of the policeman. Seven people were arrested, including a Buddhist monk, Akmeemana Dharmarathane thera, a police constable and a woman. Another monk, Arambepola Rathanasara thera, evaded arrest for a month before a special police team detained him.

The Finance and Media Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, described the attackers as ‘a group of thugs in robes’. He condemned their actions ‘as a Buddhist, a Buddhist who is very proud of the fact that Buddhism is a religion of non-violence and compassion’. Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, a cabinet spokesman, commented that this ‘is not what the Buddha taught. We have to show compassion to these refugees. These monks who carried out these attacks are actually not monks but animals.’

Nothing was heard, however, from President Maithripala Sirisena or Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Their silence was not because they are indifferent to the plight of the Rohingyas, but because they do not want to tangle with the Buddhist clergy at a sensitive time in Sri Lanka’s politics.

In predominantly Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, religious influence is pervasive

Those behind the Mount Lavinia attack intended to stir anti-Muslim sentiments. After the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009, hardline Sinhala groups are turning on the Muslims, who make up about 10 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million population. Terrorism abroad, and reports of local Muslims leaving Sri Lanka to join Islamic State or other jihadist groups, have caused alarm among some Sinhala communities. There is opposition to foreign Islamic preachers being let into the country, for fear of radicalising Muslim youth.

The attack on the Rohingyas is just the latest occasion that Muslims have become victims of ultra-nationalist Sinhalese groups, often led by Buddhist monks. One of the most serious incidents was in June 2014, when three Muslims died and nearly 80 people were injured in clashes with Sinhala Buddhist groups in the southern town of Aluthgama. Such events show the dark underside of Sinhala Buddhist society, which is becoming more and more aggressive as Buddhist monks renew their engagement with power politics.

POLITICAL SILENCE: President Sirisena (l) and PM Wickremesinghe have kept quiet on the Rohingyas' plight
POLITICAL SILENCE: President Sirisena (l) and PM Wickremesinghe have kept quiet on the Rohingyas’ plight

In predominantly Buddhist countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, religious influence is pervasive. The priesthood has a strong impact on a wide swathe of institutions. In Sri Lanka they recall their ancient role as advisers to the Sinhala kings, and their hallowed responsibility as guardians of the nation until the era of western colonialism, which lasted from the beginning of the 16th century until independence in 1948.

As advisers to the monarchy, the monks did not have to dabble in partisan politics. But today’s influential priesthood wants to re-establish a power base, and is seeking to exploit favourable political forces. Sinhala Buddhist zealots see the former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the embodiment of their values. His votes in the 2015 presidential elections came substantially from sections of the southern Sinhala community. With the current unity government’s popularity haemorrhaging, and important legislation and local government elections due early next year, its leaders cannot afford to lose the support of the Buddhist monks.

In mid-October the council of monks of the two most powerful Buddhist monasteries – Malwatte and Asigiriya chapters – issued a strong statement against the efforts of the government to draft a new constitution, specifically its proposals for provincial devolution, which they fear would undermine the country’s unitary status and unseat Buddhism from its place as the foremost religion.

In warning the government not to enact legislation that they do not approve, the Buddhist monks seem ready for a fight. The saffron robe symbolizes worldly renunciation, but today some have turned it into one of denunciation and political intimidation.

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

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