• Font size:
  • Decrease
  • Reset
  • Increase

The Timing of ‘Communal’ Violence in Sri Lanka Raises Questions


By Kalinga Seneviratne

This article is the 21st in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

BANGKOK (IDN) – The damage has already been done. Buddhists are accused of Islamaphobic communal attacks in Sri Lanka and tourists are cancelling their trips to the country as the international media follow a common formula denigrating the Buddhist majority, while ignoring questions that are being raised in the country on the timing of these latest “communal” attacks.

The violence against Muslim businesses and homes in Central Sri Lanka and in the East came a day before a no-confidence motion against prime mnister Ranil Wickremasinghe was to be tabled in parliament by the opposition.

It was expected to be supported by a number of MPs of his own government. The opposition was forced to withhold the motion when the riots broke out and the PM as the Minister for Law and Order immediately imposed a state of emergency across the country.

The flare up between Muslims and Buddhists came as a result of drunken behaviour by a group of youth from both communities. Ironically both Islam and Buddhism strongly reject the consuming of alcohol of any form.

In the eastern city of Ampare a group of drunken Sinhalese youth filmed a video clip of a staff member of a Muslim owned café admitting to glazing food served to Buddhist customers with a substance that is claimed to be an infertility drug. This video soon gathered traction on social media. Meanwhile near the central hill country city of Kandy, a group of drunken Muslim youth allegedly assaulted a truck driver who refused to allow them to overtake the vehicle. He later died in hospital due to the injuries sustained.

According to Sri Lankan media reports, the spiralling violence against Muslim property especially near Kandy has been instigated by outside groups who rushed to the area within minutes of these incidents that indicates an organized attempt to create a communal conflict in Sri Lanka.

These extremist Buddhist groups are largely resented by the mainstream Buddhists in Sri Lanka because they create a bad image of Buddhism in the country. When one such group Bodu Bala Sena formed a political party and contested the July 2015 general elections, it had a rude shock, because it could muster only 19,000 votes nationwide. Over 11 million Buddhist voters did not vote for them; and this fact was ignored by the international media, who often labelled them as “Buddhist nationalists”.

On February 10 this year, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who led a new political party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (Sri Lanka Commonman Party) or SLPP, won a sweeping victory in island-wide local government (LG) elections, which triggered calls for the government led by Wickremasinghe to resign.

SLPP is mainly supported by the Sinhala Buddhist masses, especially in rural areas, but, they were also able to make inroads into Muslim areas in the east and south of the island, even winning the southern coastal Beruwala council that consists mainly of Muslim voters – there was a major Buddhist-Muslim fare-up here in 2014 during Rajapaksa’s presidency.

SLPP focused their national campaign on corruption, an issue which ousted Rajapaksa from power in January 2015. The new government grabbed power campaigning on an anti-corruption platform promising to bring “good governance” known as “yahapalana”, a slogan coined together and promoted by western-funded NGOs in the country.

But, since coming to power they have been embroiled in corruption scandals one of which is what is now known as the “Central Bank Bond Scam”, the biggest financial fraud in Sri Lanka’s history. The new Central Bank Governor, Arjuna Mahendran, a close friend of Wickremasinghe, is the chief instigator of this scam that benefitted his son-in-law. An Interpol warrant is out for his arrest at the moment. The PM is seen as protecting his friend and thus implicated in the scandal.

The SLPP campaign for the LG elections was mainly focused on this scandal that has plunged the country into an economic crisis and disgusted a large segment of the Sri Lankan population, who are now willing to forgive the Rajapaksa regime for its alleged corruption because they see it as more efficient in bringing development and economic growth in close alliance with Chinese assistance.

In a media briefing on March 9, opposition member of parliament Udaya Gamanpila, who was the main organizer of the no-confidence motion against Wickremasinghe lamented the fact that the communal violence in the last few days seriously dented the opposition campaign to oust the prime minister. After winning the votes of the Sinhalese, he said, they were now in the process of winning the votes of minorities, especially the Muslims (who strongly backed the Rajapaksa regime during the war against Tamil Tiger terrorism).

“Since February 10 the main issue in this country was to get rid of the prime minster (PM). Before that the issue was that those who were involved in the bond scam were not brought to justice and the PM was not making any attempt to get Mahendran back to the country to face justice,” he pointed out, adding, “but, after these (incidents of) violence, the concerns within his own party and the government about the PM’s conduct have subsided.”

Meanwhile, in a media briefing on March 8, Health Minister Ranjitha Senaratne – a staunch Rajapaksa foe – hinted that the government may place the blame, especially for the Kandy violence, on the SLPP (they won these areas convincingly in the LG elections). The Minister said that there were seven persons involved in the conspiracy so far; two recently appointed local government councillors, two Members of Parliament, a monk affiliated to their political party, a secretary of one of the MPs and one of their party organisers.

As part of the state of emergency the government has introduced draconian measures such as shutting up social media sites across the board and threatening to arrest and jail for 20 years anyone campaigning against reconciliation.

The latter will have serious implications for freedom of speech especially at a time when there is widespread opposition among Sinhalese Buddhist voters to a new proposed constitution that the government is trying to impose on the country at the dictates of western powers exercised via the Geneva based UN Human Rights Council, who are due to meet this month to discuss Sri Lanka’s “accountability” measures.

“In a dramatic turn of events replete with irony, the yahapalana government has had to adopt some stringent, if not draconian, measures which some of its leaders condemned vehemently while they were in the Opposition,” noted The Island newspaper in an editorial, arguing that what is needed is for the president to set up an independent task forces to study the reasons for such violence from time to time taking into account views of all communities.

“It seems that certain sections that are greedy for power are planning various ploys and acts of sabotage and the disruption of normalcy. Their only trump card in arousing racism,” argued Wickemasinghe making a statement to parliament on the violence, adding, “their only objective is to obtain power by creating violence in the country. It is clearly seen that false and misleading information creating hatred among communities is being spread using social media in an organized manner.”

This is the same argument he used during the LG election campaign against the SLPP, which badly misfired. Rajapaksa was quick to respond. In a media statement, he warned that some sinister forces were at work.

“The local and foreign forces seeking to destabilise this country are trying to engineer another 1983 (when Tamils were attacked island-wide) style conflagration to drum up support for their constitutional reforms which seek to divide this country into several semi-independent states,” he argues. “I call on citizens belonging to all communities to reflect intelligently on what has been happening and to refrain from all acts of violence.”

Such statements about constitutional reforms could be construed as campaigning against the western-prescribed idea of reconciliation via unpopular constitutional changes.

Thus, misgivings of Sinhala Buddhists against this could be suppressed by the new censorship measured driving them towards the small extremist groups within the community. The western funded NGOs such as the National Peace Council have been silent on these measures. But, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka has warned the government to ensure that only those who were really involved in the acts of violence were arrested under the emergency regulations.

Former diplomat and political analyst Dr Dayan Jayatileka, in a commentary in The Island newspaper, is warning the Sinhalese Buddhist community not to force young Muslims to run into the arms of the Islamic terror groups that could open up a new front in Sri Lanka. He also notes that the timing of the latest communal violence is “amazing” and raises crucial questions.

“Mahinda Rajapaksa has just beaten both (Wickremasinghe’s) UNP and (Sirisena’s) SLFP and pretty much swept the board at the local elections. He has won back some Muslim votes and his supporters have even won Beruwela, which has a Muslim majority. He certainly does not benefit from attacks on Muslims,” says Dr Jayatileka.

On the other hand, he notes, “Ranil Wickremesinghe is on the ropes with an imminent ‘No Confidence’ motion. And “Hey presto!’ the violent Islamophobic attacks act as a giant eraser, switching the discourse, and making the political threat go away at least for the moment.”

He warns: “I would not be surprised if there are attacks on Catholics too, given that the Sinhala Catholics swung back to Mahinda in the recent election.” 

Setting up of this website was sponsored by SJ Mets Consultants PTY Ltd of Perth, Australia in memory of J.H.A. Gunadasa & S.T. Jayasinghe, beloved fathers of Sunil and Aruni.
May they attain Nibbana