|Takeaway illustration for review August 10, 2013 Sarah Lazarovic for The National|
There have been Muslims in this multi-cultural Buddhist island state off the southern tip of India since Arab traders brought their religion more than 1,000 years ago. Over the centuries they achieved positions of authority and influence, established Islam as a mainstream religion, and now represent about 10 per cent of the population.
But centuries of amicable coexistence are threatened by a new breed of increasingly violent, xenophobic, ultra-nationalist and anti-Muslim Buddhist monks headed by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS or Buddhist Strength Force).
In February, the group’s general secretary, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, said: “This is a government created by Sinhala Buddhists and it must remain Sinhala Buddhist. This is a Sinhala country, Sinhala government. Democratic and pluralistic values are killing the Sinhala race.” He urged every Buddhist to become “an unofficial policeman against Muslim extremism”.
Since then, violent rhetoric has led to physical attacks on mosques, social gatherings and Muslim businesses, particularly those associated with halal meat certification, which the BBS wants to see banned in Sri Lanka.
This culminated in the storming of a meat-inspection facility run by Colombo Municipal Council.
Matters have been inflamed by claims that the BBS has high-level government support, and came to a head with the impounding by customs officials of Time magazine’s July issue because of its cover story on Myanmar, “The Face of Buddhist Terror”.
This was reported by Groundviews, an influential Sri Lankan “journalism for citizens” website: “Equally well-documented, particularly post-war, are Sri Lanka’s own fascist Buddhist monks – their open violence and promotion of hate, their blatant lies, the complete impunity they enjoy, their heinous statements, the ready audience the president affords them no matter what they do and say, and the all-powerful Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s close association with one of the most rabid groups, the Bodu Bala Sena.”
The “post-war” allusion has particular resonance, since many believe that the celebration that followed the defeat of Tamil separatists created a climate for the BBS to incite hatred against other minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians.
A source who asked to remain anonymous because of potential repercussions said many fear that if the government does not forcibly curtail the BBS’s anti-Muslim hatemongering it could result in deep social divisions and derail post-war reconstruction.
Sri Lanka relies heavily on foreign “investment” in the form of grant aid and development loans, particularly from China and Japan, much of it geared towards strengthening the tourism industry, which suffered badly because of the Tamil conflict.
Deterring wealthy foreign visitors, particularly Muslims from oil-rich Middle East states, which the government is actively courting, would very much suit the BBS agenda and strengthen its hand in any future “peace” negotiations, the source said.
But far worse, and not entirely unthinkable, he said, would be a scenario in which fellow Muslims in India, Pakistan and elsewhere felt obligated to come to the aid of their embattled brethren, which could dangerously escalate an already volatile situation.
Hhe played down suggestions that senior government figures are deliberately stoking tensions by supporting the BBS. He said: “It’s not in the government’s interests to do anything that might spark another civil conflict. There is too much at stake. But politics is politics. This is a Buddhist state, and the majority of its citizens are Buddhists. The government is between a rock and a hard place, damned if it acts against the BBS and damned if it doesn’t.”