Politics & Economy

Sri Lanka’s Muslims in the cross hairs

Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists have opened a new front in their war against the island’s minorities. If for decades it was the island’s Tamils who were the focus of their hostility, it is the Muslims who are in their cross-hairs now.

Since 2011, scores of mosques and Muslim-owned businesses have come under attack from Sinhalese mobs led by Buddhist monks. In April last year, a mosque in Dambulla, a town located 150 km north of Sri Lanka’s commercial capital Colombo, was vandalized.  Early this year, a Sinhalese-Buddhist group, the Bodu Bala Sena (literally Army of Buddhist Power) (BBS) ran a violent campaign calling for the boycott of halal-certified meat. A month ago, a mob forced Muslims to shut down a new mosque in Colombo.

Anti-Muslim violence has “grown in frequency and ferocity in recent months,” a Colombo-based Muslim trader, who spoke to The Diplomat on condition of anonymity, said. Around 160 incidents of violence targeting Muslims are reported to have occurred this year.

Buddhists comprise 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people and are all Sinhalese. Hindus, Muslims and Christians are the main religious minorities. While Hindus are all Tamils, Muslims and Christians speak Sinhala or Tamil depending on where they live.

Although Sri Lanka is not a Buddhist state, its 1978 Constitution, while assuring freedom of religion to all citizens, grants “foremost place” to Buddhism and declares it “the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddhist Sasana (broad teachings of the Buddha).”

Successive governments in Sri Lanka have sought to project themselves as the guardians of Buddhism. Rather than uphold the peaceful core tenets of Buddhism, they have wooed the Buddhist clergy through generous grants for the renovation of Buddhist shrines and monasteries, or with lavish gifts to the mahanayakes (high priests) and other monks.

Meanwhile, the authorities appear to have turned a blind eye to violence instigated and unleashed by the monks. Not a single monk was arrested in the violence in Colombo last month, for instance. When the Dambulla was damaged and desecrated last year, nobody was arrested. Instead, the government bowed to the mob’s demand to relocate the mosque.

“Some of the anti-Muslim violence has distinct economic undertones,” the trader said, pointing to the drive against renting Muslim-owned houses. Indeed, even the campaign against halal certification has economic motivations.

Apparently the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulema (ACJU), Sri Lanka’s main body of Islamic scholars, charges a fee for certifying meat as halal, a cost that is passed on to Sinhalese businesses and consumers. “Only Muslims need halal certification of meat. Yet all non-Muslims too have to pay for a service they do not need,” Dilanthe Withanage, the only lay member of the BBS’ executive committee, told The Diplomat.

Muslim-owned meat shops have been attacked too. An activist of the Sinhala Ravaya, a Sinhalese-Buddhist organization that is demanding a constitutional ban on cattle slaughter and religious conversions, justified the attacks by saying that Muslim practices that go against Buddhist beliefs must be “challenged.”

“This is a Sinhalese-Buddhist country and we must act to preserve Buddhist principles, culture, beliefs and way of life,” he said.

“We are only asking for Muslims to respect the majority culture,” Withanage said.

Sinhalese-Buddhist hardliners draw on the Mahavamsa chronicles to bolster their argument that the island is Sinhalese-Buddhist land. First written in the sixth century AD by a Buddhist monk named Mahanama, and subsequently modified between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Mahavamsa is largely mythical.

However, to many Sinhalese-Buddhists its contents are irrefutable fact. To them Sri Lanka is the land of Sinhalese-Buddhists because the Mahavamsa refers to it as Sinhaladipa (the land of the Sinhalese) and Dhammadipa (land of righteousness or Buddhism).

Two myths – one about Prince Vijaya, the founder of the Sinhalese race, and the other about the Duttugamini-Ellara battle (2nd century BC) – have been particularly influential in shaping the Sinhalese-Buddhist ideology.

According to the Mahavamsa, Prince Vijaya was the son of Sinhabahu, who was born of a union between a sinha (lion) and a human princess (hence Sinhala or the lion race). Vijaya’s arrival with his band of 700 followers in Sri Lanka, the Mahavamsa says, was preceded by three visits of the Buddha, during which the latter rid the island of evil spirits and consecrated it. Thus, it was to an island consecrated by the Buddha himself that Vijaya arrived. Indeed, he set foot on the island the day the Buddha attained Nirvana. The link this myth makes between Buddhism, the Sinhalese race and the island is evident. What is more, the Mahavamsa speaks of the Sinhalese as a “chosen race,” Buddha having selected them to preserve and protect Buddhism. “In Lanka shall my teachings be established and flourish,” it quotes the Buddha as saying. Consequently, the Sinhalese see themselves as the Defenders of the Faith.

More pernicious in its impact on inter-ethnic and religious relations is the Mahavamsa’s telling of a battle between the Sinhalese king Duttugamini and the Tamil king Ellara. Duttugamini is said to have defeated and killed Ellara. What was a political conflict (before taking on Ellara, Duttugamini fought 32 kings, several of whom were Sinhalese) is depicted in the Mahavamsa as an ethnic one, underscoring the point that Sinhalese-Tamil enmity is several millennia old.

Importantly, the Mahavamsa portrays this as a religious conflict. Duttugamini went to war carrying a spear with a relic of Buddha and was accompanied by 500 ascetic monks, it says. At the end of the war, eight arrahants (Buddha’s enlightened disciples) dismiss Duttugamini’s remorse by claiming that only one and a half human beings were killed, these being one who embraced Buddhism and another who accepted the five precepts of Buddhism. Non-Buddhists are thus portrayed in the Mahavamsa as less than human, deserving of a violent death.

While the perception of the island as belonging to the Sinhalese-Buddhists and of asinhala (un-Sinhala) and abaudha (un-Buddhist) as “outsiders,” even less than human can be traced to the Mahavamsa’s myth-embellished telling of history, it is Buddhist revivalists like Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) who encouraged violence against the “outsider.”

Buddhist revivalism surged during colonial rule. The target of Dharmapala’s mobilization was the island’s religious minorities, especially Christians who under colonial rule enjoyed social and economic privileges. He drew attention to their alleged misdeeds. “Christianity and polytheism [i.e. Hinduism] are responsible for the vulgar practices of killing animals, stealing, prostitution, licentiousness, lying and drunkenness,” he said in a speech.

In the early 20th century, it was the Muslims, who dominated business and trade, who came under fire from the Buddhist revivalists.

"The Muhammedans, an alien people … by Shylockian methods became prosperous like the Jews. The Sinhalese sons of the soil, whose ancestors for 2,358 years had shed rivers of blood to keep the country free from alien invaders, are in the eyes of the British only vagabonds," Dharmapala wrote in 1915. His writing in Sinhala Bauddhaya and that of Piyadasa Sirisena in Sinhala Jathiya inflamed anti-Muslim passions in the island, culminating in anti-Muslim riots that year.

Following the riots, Dharmapala hailed the violence. “The peaceful Sinhalese have at last shown that they can no longer bear the insult of the alien,” he wrote. “The whole nation in one day has risen against the Moor [Muslims] people.”

Dharmapala’s influence survives. Similar sentiments are being articulated in Sri Lanka today. Only now, the “threat” posed by religious minorities is couched in the language of terrorism and extremism. “We are concerned about Muslim extremism,” Withanage told The Diplomat, explaining the BBS’ perception of Muslims. 

The rampaging mobs do not constitute the majority on the island. It is the support they enjoy from the government that empowers them. The BBS allegedly enjoys the support of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabhaya, who is Sri Lanka’s Defence secretary.

Besides, “the government is working in tandem with extremist Buddhist organizations to Buddhistize Sri Lanka,” the trader said. While officials of the government’s Department of Archaeology identify and cordon off land as “Buddhist areas” (even if a mosque, church or temple stands on it), the mobs unleash violence to clear the area of non-Buddhists, he alleged.

There have been attacks too targeting the places of worship of the island’s Christians and Hindus, as well.

While it is the shrill discourse emanating from the hardliners that has captured media attention, there are several ongoing efforts to build religious tolerance in Sri Lanka. Several candle-light vigils and public rallies opposing religious extremism are being held, as are inter-faith dialogues. Significantly, it is Sinhalese-Buddhists that constitute the bulk of these initiatives, signaling that extremism does not define the community, only a vocal section of it.

The Diplomat


Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues.


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Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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