With Buddhist extremism and Islamophobia sweeping across Sri Lanka, Sudha Ramachandran fears that the island’s history is repeating itself
Sinhalese-Buddhist radicalism has reared its ugly head yet again in Sri Lanka. On June 16, Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana, one of the island’s senior-most Buddhist monks, called on Sinhalese-Buddhists to stone Muslims to death and to boycott Muslim-owned businesses.In a speech broadcast on national television, Gnanarathana referred to rumours of a Muslim doctor having sterilised around 4,000 Buddhist women in the central Kurunegala district and claimed that Muslims have poisoned and are plotting to destroy ‘our people’ [Sinhalese] by turning them sterile.
Such ‘traitors’must not be left in peace, said Gnanarathana.
Understandably, Sri Lanka’s Muslims areterrified that, as a result of such rhetoric,they will be violently attacked by Sinhalese-Buddhist mobs.
A fortnight ago, a Buddhist monk, Athuraliye Rathana, went on a hunger strike and threatened to fast to death if President Maithripala Sirisena did not remove a minister and two provincial governors whom he alleged had links to suicide bombers. Rathana’s unsubstantiated allegations against the three Muslim politicians prompted eight other Muslim ministers to resign in an act of solidarity and protest.
It is now over two months sincesuicide bombers, on April 21,carried out a series of brutal attacks on churches and luxury hotels in Colombo and Batticaloa. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attacks, which were executed by local Islamist radicals. Since that time, a wave of Islamophobia has swept across the island, fuelling several incidents of violence targeting Muslims, their homes, places of worship and businesses.
Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious country, thoughBuddhism is the religion of the majority of Sri Lankans: an estimated 70 per cent of the population is Buddhist and almost all of them are Sinhalese. Religious minorities include Hindus (12.6 per cent), who are mainly Tamil-speaking, Muslims (9.66 per cent) and Christians (7.6 per cent). Although Buddhism advocates peace, the way it is practised by a fringe – albeit one that is growing and politically powerful – is fanatical, far from tolerant and increasingly violent.
Understanding how Sinhalese-Buddhists perceive themselves is critical to comprehending the violence they unleash against minorities. Their self-perception has three components. The first is that they belong to the ‘Aryan Sinhala race’ and that Sri Lanka is their homeland; the second is that they are defenders of the Buddhist faith and that the Buddha himself assigned them this role; and the third is that Sri Lanka is the only home of the Sinhala language.
This self-perception has created a virulent form of Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism. Underlying this ideology is the ‘Mahavamsa mindset’ – that is, the belief that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist land because the Mahavamsa, a 6th century chronicle that is more myth than history, says so. Other ethnic and religious groups, being ‘asinhala’ (un-Sinhala) and ‘abaudha’(un-Buddhist) are considered ‘outsiders’ or ‘foreigners’.
Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism received a shot in the arm during colonial rule. Colonial policies were seen to have benefited the minorities and this evoked great resentment among the Sinhalese Buddhists. Revivalists like Anagarika Dharmapala carried out powerful campaigns targeting Muslims. The Muslims were ‘alien invaders’ who used ‘Shylockian methods [to become] prosperous like the Jews’,he said, alleging that their prosperity came at the expense of the ‘sons of the soil’, namely, the Sinhalese. Sinhala publications carried inflammatory articles that were said to have incited the anti-Muslim violence of 1915.
Post-independence, the role of Buddhists in Sri Lankan politics grew substantially. In the 1950s, the island was swept by a wave of Buddhist resurgence in the wake of the 2,500th death anniversary of the Buddha. It is in the Buddhist revivalism of this period that the beginnings of the conflictual relationship between the Sinhalese and Tamils can be traced. Political monks, enjoying the patronage of politicians, repeatedly unleashed violence to obstruct a federal solution to the ethnic conflict. This plunged Sri Lanka into a bloody civil war.
For almost six decades, the Sinhalese-Buddhist supremacist project thrived by depicting Tamils as ‘the enemy’. With the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam vanquished in 2009, Sinhalese extremists needed a new ‘enemy’ to keep the project alive. Muslims emerged as that nemesis.
Since 2012, Muslimsfigure in the cross-hairs of Sinhala-Buddhist extremists. Outfits like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Sinhala Ravaya and Sinhale accuse Muslims of procreating at a faster rate than the Sinhalese and of engaging in forced conversions of Buddhists to Islam. They have stoked Sinhalese insecurities and incited violence targeting Muslims.
In 2018, for instance, these outfits circulated rumours that Muslims were implementing plans to reduce the Sinhalese population. A video of a Muslim cook confessing to adding ‘sterility pills’ to food served to Sinhalese went viral on social media. Soon after, Sinhalese thugs went on a rampage, targeting Muslim homes, mosques and business establishments.
Anti-Muslimviolence is rarely spontaneous and is said to be organised and orchestrated by outfits close to politicians. Perhaps as a result of this, the guilty have seldom been punished.
Sri Lankan analysts have drawn parallels between the aggression unleashed by the island’s Sinhalese-Buddhist majority on its Tamil and Muslim minorities. Just as repeated attacks on Tamils prompted the latter to turn to armed struggle, the current violence against Muslims can be expected to push Muslim youth to extremism. In the wake of the violence against Muslims in 2018, political commentator Dayan Jayatilleka warned that Sri Lanka was ‘one step closer to the emergence of Islamist terrorism’. That prediction came true on Easter Sunday this year when local radical Islamists blew themselves up and killed an estimated 250 people.
Sri Lanka is due to vote in presidential elections in a few months. Candidates vying for the votes of the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority can be expected to engage in incendiary rhetoric and actions. Both former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the incumbent Maithripala Sirisena are eyeing the majority vote. As in the past, they can be expected to pander to majority extremism. On May 22, Sirisena pardoned Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, leader of the BBS, who has a strong record of inciting anti-Muslim violence. The extremist monk had served just nine months of a six-year sentence when he was set free.
The provocation of Sinhalese mobs by monks and other radicals, egged on by politicians, could trigger more violence and counter-violence in Sri Lanka. After a period of relative peace, recent history is now repeating itself.