Plight of Sri Lankan Muslims

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By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Communal violence between Buddhist Sinhalese and Muslims has escalated in Sri Lanka.

The government imposed a state of emergency on March 6, 2018. It was the arrest of 24 Sinhalese Buddhist protestors, which triggered the unrest. In total, around 91 protestors were jailed until March 9, 2018.

The violence had spread when a 41 old Sinhalese man was killed by Muslim thugs in a small town in Kandy. Since this event, many businesses were ransacked and there was burning of around 24 mosques. Police have arrested around 24 suspects for arson.

Although, Muslim traders have been notorious for bribing police officials to get out of trouble.

In Sri Lanka, Muslims represent 9 per cent of the population, just behind the Tamils. An interesting news story from Reuters has revealed that Muslims had been accused of vandalising many Buddhist sites. They accuse Muslims of forcing the Buddhists to convert to Islam and stealing artefacts from temples.

Although, many regional Sri Lankan leaders have been reaffirming that the violence is not communal in nature, but these events reflect the opposite story.

Some Buddhists have maintained that many Muslims have migrated to Sri Lanka from Burma in their fears, as the slaughter of Rohingyas in their villages by the Burmese military has been rising.

Radical political groups such as Bodu Bala Sena and Ravana Balaya believe in ethnocentric nationalism - ‘Sri Lanka for Sinhalese Buddhists’.

As Buddhists do not practice polygamy, there has been a rancour among them that their population is under threat from local Muslims who practice it. They also accuse Muslim retailers for mixing some pill in their food to make their Sinhalese countrymen impotent.

A reporter from Associated Press revealed: "hundreds of Muslim residents of Mullegama, a village in the hills of central Sri Lanka, barricaded themselves inside a local mosque after Buddhist mobs attacked their homes Wednesday morning accusing them of stealing the donation box of a nearby temple. At least 20 Muslim homes appeared badly damaged and flames engulfed one two-story home.

"The Muslims hiding in the mosque, speaking on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals, said police prevented them from saving their property and did nothing to stop the attackers."

Sri Lankan police have been investigating whether these mobs have received any local or foreign funding. In this sensitive time in the central island, foreign tourists have been allowed to travel to the airport amidst curfew, if they had their passports with them.

The government had also banned social media websites that were spreading hate speeches against minorities. Hundreds of Buddhist monks had rallied against the minorities in Colombo sometime later.

What has been happening in Buddhist centric states such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka is making a lot of people question the peaceful message of Buddhism. It is because Buddhism and violence together make a strange paradox for many people.

In Thailand, there had been a report where a Buddhist monk immersed himself into a hot water and he had been demanding to burn down all the mosques in his town.

During the civil war also, a largely dominated Sinhalese group of people working for the state were targeting Tamil Hindu civilians. In India, where Hindu nationalist thinkers such as Sarvarkar amalgamated religions like Hinduism and Buddhism together in Hindutva philosophy, the events that have happened in Sri Lanka tell a different story.

The decline of Sufi Islam in Sri Lanka, which has been gradually taken over by Wahhabi Islam through largely Saudi institutions is keeping the Buddhist population uneasy about the growing and changing Muslim practices in their country. The Sinhalese Buddhists compare Sri Lankan Muslims to Israeli Jews who are known to be clever, wealthy and self-centred.

In the past, in 1915 Sinhalese – Muslim riots created divisions between the two communities. In Aluthgama, there was another episode of violence in 2014 on the western coast. In the recent past, Muslims had largely voted against Rajapaksa in January 2015 on the divided island. If Sri Lankans keep on lamenting on majoritarianism, it might deepen fissures. The commentators accuse the government of not doing much for the minorities.

The survivors of the 2009 civil war are still looking for their loved ones who disappeared in the war. When Tamil Tigers, the rebels demanding a separate coastal state in Sri Lanka, were wiped out in a systematic state pogrom, it included thousands of Tamil civilians who were killed by the Sri Lankan army. The war against Tamil Tigers, who fought at the behest of common Tamils, created one of those worst examples of savageries, causing worldwide condemnation.

Although, Sri Lanka calls itself a socialist country, Buddhism is the official religion. It is not that hard to lump on the fact that racial separation has been validated in Sri Lanka. Tamils study in Tamil medium schools, Muslims in Muslim medium schools and Sinhalese in Sinhalese medium schools.

Under Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman has insisted ‘swift and full implementation of the government's commitment to bring the perpetrators of the violence and hate speech to justice, to take measures to prevent a recurrence, and to enforce non-discriminatory rule of law.’

The Sri Lankan community in Dubai at their home embassy called for peace in the country. The expat population called themselves a plural community, irrespective of religion, caste or any creed.


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