UK Rights Group Slams Attacks on Sri Lankan Muslims, Demands To Stop Pandering to Majoritarian Forces
London (8 March 2018): The specter of ethnic conflict and violence stalks the island of Sri Lanka once again. On 2 March, Sinhala Buddhist mobs and gangs urged on by sections of the Buddhist clergy have mounted attacks on the minority Muslim community of Sri Lanka in ten or more towns in the Kandy district, in the central highlands of the island. The imposition of a curfew did not bring the situation under control, and a state of emergency was declared on 5 March and the Army has been deployed. About 5 days earlier on 26 February 2018, a Sinhala gang precipitated attacks in Ampara district, also on the Muslim community.
South Asia Solidarity Group condemns the Sri Lankan government’s inaction in the face of violent communal attacks on the minority Muslim community of Sri Lanka by Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist mobs.
We condemn the complicity of sections of the Sri Lankan state such as the Police force, who facilitated the attacks or watched passively as they carried on.
We demand that the government of Sri Lanka acts expeditiously to halt these wholesale attacks on Muslims immediately. We deplore the half-hearted attempts by the government in responding to the violence and the lack of political will in dealing with Police complicity and partiality in support of the perpetrators of violence.
We demand that the government of Sri Lanka restores normalcy as a matter of urgency so there will be no further loss of life or property
We wish to express grave misgivings that the violence has continued even after a state of emergency was declared, We are concerned that the deployment of emergency powers, due to the partiality of the largely ethnic Sinhala police and security forces, may work against the safety of Muslims rather than curb the activities of the Sinhala racist mobs and gangs. We are concerned that emergency powers as in the past will be used to target critics and dissenters of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism.
According to reports, the attacks on Muslims living amidst the majority Sinhala community in various towns of the Hill country, were carried out with the police simply looking on. We are informed that the police cautioned members of the Muslim community to close their shops and stay indoors for safety, following which, shops, businesses and mosques belonging to the Muslim community were set ablaze.
While the riots against the Muslim community began after the tragic death of a Sinhala van driver at the hands of four Muslim youth over an argument about an accident, the wholesale attacks on the Muslim community are by no means spontaneous. They betray centralized organization and a clear plan and targets. The perpetrators of the communal rioting and violence have come from all over the country and as far afield as Vavuniya. Victims are clear that their attackers were not locals. During these violent incidents one Muslim young man Abdul Basith died in a burning house. Many others were injured.
A week prior to these incidents of violence in the Hill country, Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian mobs invaded the heartland of the Muslim community, in the Ampara district in the eastern province where they are the majority community. Again Muslims were beaten up and mosques and businesses were set alight .
The history of modern Sri Lanka has been marked by frequent ethnic pogroms where the minorities have been targeted by Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian forces time and time again. The first recorded communal riot was against the Muslims in fact, and occurred in 1915, while Sri Lanka was under British colonial rule. Then their attention turned to the Tamils and from the 50s onwards for the next six decades Tamils were targeted systematically in many pogroms and communal attacks which resulted in an all-out civil war. Muslims were also subjected to sporadic communal attacks during this period, by Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist forces, and by Tamil militant groups such as the LTTE. The civil war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan state cost many thousands of lives, with the final phase of the war in 2009 causing the deaths of at least 40,000 Tamils, after which the Sri Lankan armed forces emerged victors.
The Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian forces having ‘cowed’ the Tamils now turned their attention on Muslims, the other significant minority in Sri Lanka. This unsolicited attention turned into a full scale communal attack in mid- 2014 when Muslims, their businesses, homes and mosques were attacked by organized gangs in the towns of Aluthgama.and Dharga.
At the end of the civil war with the Tamils in 2009, the previous regime celebrated the victory and the ‘defeat’ of the Tamils, and in this orgy of victory celebrations a renewed commitment to Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism was anointed as the new political agenda of the then Mahinda Rajapakse regime. The regime spawned violent Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist formations and encouraged their growth.
The current government which came to power claiming to eradicate corruption and install good governance has signally failed, by its inaction and indifference, to improve the lives of minorities. Muslim activists have explained that in 2017 alone there have been more than 20 attacks on Muslims in the South and East. Rightwing Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist elements have always stalled or blocked constitutional reform that will give minorities greater political power sharing. This is an old and recurring tale.
These Sinhala Buddhist organisations’ virulently communal campaign against Muslims, their discourse, rhetoric and formation, are similar to the Hindu fascist forces in India. Just before the Ampara attacks in the east, a vicious and false rumour was spread that Muslims were mixing birth control tablets in drinks and other items they had for sale in their shops in order to render Sinhala women infertile. Such vile and false propaganda about Muslims has been vigorously spread on social media outlets. As the stage was set for the attacks by the unleashing of a racist discourse that targeted Muslims, an anti-hate speech law is desired by many minority community and progressive persons in Sri Lanka.
The Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist forces enjoy patronage from across the political spectrum, in the South of Sri Lanka. Both parties of government are neoliberal majoritarian parties, and this inevitably leads to these communal organisations and their governmental backers enjoying high levels of impunity. In this broader sense the failure of the government to curb the mobs and protect its minority citizens may be not simply a matter of inaction and inefficient governance but possibly one of design.
Looking beyond individual governments, demagogues and polemicists, the broad question is how do the vast majority of Sri Lankans of all communities who wish for peaceful coexistence bring about a change in the character of this neoliberal Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian state? How do they marginalize the chauvinist forces that feed the mobs and marauders? Minority communities are aware that very many ordinary Sinhala people stood up to the mobs and gave them refuge and support when targeted by mob violence. But these are people without political power.
South Asia Solidarity Group stands in solidarity with minority communities that are under siege in Sri Lanka and especially at this present time, the Muslim community, and with all those progressive voices that are actively opposing Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian politics in Sri Lanka. (Press release)