The Buddhist-Muslim fault lines in Sri Lanka

Communal violence in Althugama

Just more than a year ago, I wrote an article about a new conflict that was threatening to overshadow Sri Lanka’s post conflict reconciliation journey, writes Amjad Mohamed Saleem in Colombo.

The fear was that the constant organized provocation by extreme Sinhalese Buddhist groups (particularly on the Muslims) would necessitate a response, thereby culminating in communal clashes of a severe magnitude. The fear for many was that a repeat of the infamous 1983 “Black July” pogrom (then against the Tamil community) would once again be re-enacted.

The 1983 state-sponsored pogrom is a stain on Sri Lanka’s conscience and history but in effect led to the 30 year old conflict which came to a bloody conclusion in 2009. Like then, there was a ramping-up of provocative rhetoric against the Tamils until an incident against the Sri Lankan army by the then relatively small LTTE group provoked the organized response.

Whilst there was a pubic apology in 2004 by the then president, the underlying issues have never really been discussed and potential fault lines have been hidden.

BBS is an extremist Buddhist group. (Reuters)
BBS is an extremist Buddhist group. (Reuters)

On Sunday, those fears once again resurfaced after clashes erupted between Sinhalese protesting in a Muslim majority town in the south of Sri Lanka and Muslim inhabitants. Like many of these incidents, it is hard to pinpoint who instigated what, but it is clear that there was enough of a provocation from the Sinhala Buddhist extremists to warrant a response from the Muslim community.

The rest is – as they say – history. As riots, attacks and rumours started circulating, it was clear that the government was either caught off-guard or as some people have alleged, was reluctant to properly intervene. There is strong suspicion of state complicity because clashes could have been avoided, had the planned protest through the Muslim town been prevented as many community leaders had requested.

In addition, the self-censoring of state and national media to highlight the events taking place, the lack of an official statement on the issue, and the general intransigence of the law enforcement agencies highlight a drop in confidence with regards to the intentions of the government at least amongst the Muslim community.

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Despite this, social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook were able to keep an international spotlight on the incidents. Of course, the events are evolving and there are reports of a snowball effect with clashes taking place and tension in other parts of the south. It is not necessarily clear whether these are linked, or whether they are copy cat incidents.

However, it does point to a wider malaise within society of a breakdown of understanding and trust between communities. It is clear that there are deeper issues which are manifesting and being exploited into violence.

Muslim fears

As things begin to calm down slowly, the effects of the weekend violence have long-reaching ramifications. There is an uneasy calm in Colombo as people are unsure of what the next couple of days hold. Many Muslim children have not gone to school and businesses seem to be quieter than usual.

In other parts of the country, there have been protests. There is a fear as to what the international community’s response would be, especially the Muslim countries and in particular the Middle East. Sri Lanka has long depended on the latter for support in international forums such as the UN Human Rights Council sessions, whilst a large proportion of Sri Lankans are employed in the Middle East providing a huge contribution to the GNP.

It is also clear that the relationship between the communities has been affected. Beruwala (where some of the violence broke out) is reputed to have the oldest mosque in Sri Lanka and is one of the first areas where Arab and Muslim traders came to the country. The Muslim communities in the south have traditionally prided themselves on their close relationship with the Sinhalese and have always formed the Muslim political leadership that engaged within the political process and with the main political parties.


But this familial trust has now been broken and will take a long time to be rebuilt. It is not just about a political solution now but it involves moral and astute religious and community leadership from all sides. For the Sinhalese Buddhists in particular, it will need greater protection and confidence as they come under pressure from their extremist constituent’s for “betraying” their community. There is hope though in terms of the monks and the lay people who have spoken out against the violence.

There is no justification for the violence that ensued, but what is clear is that like in Myanmar, the Buddhist extremist groups are on a campaign to denigrate and eradicate the Muslims. The Muslims of Sri Lanka can not fall into that trap of reacting as is expected nor can Sri Lanka go down the route of the xenophobia exhibited by Myamar. They can take some comfort from the fact that with social media, there are more people speaking out and campaigning to stop such violence.

The international Islamophobia campaign that seeks to denigrate Muslims in the West has a ready audience in places like Sri Lanka and Myanmar where these extremist groups latch onto the hate rhetoric. Unlike in the West though, where the campaigns are really steered around the issue of immigration and assimilation of migrants, in his part of the world, where the Muslim communities are indigenous and native, the rhetoric is spun around the very existence of the communities.

Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious fault lines are no closer to being healed or solved by this violence. However, what this has shown is that any part of the country (and not just the former war-affected areas) are not only vulnerable but extremely fragile.

It is clear as the weekend violence has shown, that personal disagreements between people of different faith and ethnicities have a potential to flare up into communal clashes. Thus community, religious and ultimately political leaders have to ensure that these differences are not hijacked by extremists.

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