Tensions rise amid anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka

Submitted by SJW on 28 March, 2018 - 5:46 Author: Rohan Fernando

A state of emergency declared on 6 March to try to rein in the spread of communal violence in Kandy, Sri Lanka was finally lifted on the 18 March.

The violence was sparked by the death of a Sinhalese man, allegedly after being beaten by a group of Muslim men.
Muslim-owned homes and businesses were attacked in a series of revenge attacks, with violence escalating further when two hardline Buddhist monks arrived to negotiate the release from police custody of accused rioters.

With police unable to contain the riots, Maithripala Sirisena’s government declared a state of emergency, for the first time since the civil war that ended in 2009. They granted security forces and the police sweeping powers to detain suspects. A reported 300 arrests have been made.

Ethnicity and religion are closely linked on the island. Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Sinhalese population are about three quarters of the country’s 21 million population; the Muslim minority is about 9 percent.

Communalist politics have a long history in Sri Lanka. Tension has been rising since 2012, mainly fuelled by hard-line Buddhist groups, such as Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force), which has links with hardline Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha in Myanmar, and Mahason Balakaya. 

Such groups are often treated with impunity by the authorities as they are led or financed by Buddhist monks and temples. 
More recently, Bodu Bala Sena has been behind various mobilisations against the country’s minority Muslim and Christian communities, whom it views as a threat to Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-Buddhist “identity”. 

Fears about an increase in the population of Muslims (amplified through social media) have currency. One of the more fantastical conspiracy theories is of a Muslim plot to reduce the Sinhalese population by feeding them contraceptives. The myth has been deployed in campaigns to call for consumer boycotts of Muslim-owned shops. Other groups accuse Muslims of forced conversions and of desecrating Buddhist temples. 

Commentators also believe the recent spate of violence points to a renewal of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Buddhist-nationalist opposition movement, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, which recently secured the most seats and local authorities in local elections. Rajapaksa, the former president, condoned instances of anti-Muslim violence when in power.

The government’s response does nothing to solve underlying political issues and masks the deeper divisions in Sri Lankan society, the legacy of colonial rule and the failure of the left to organise against the communalist politics that have divided the working class of Sri Lanka.

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