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Sri Lanka: And Now They Have Come For The Muslims – OpEd


By Dr Kumar David

It is alarming, what is happening to the Muslims in Sri Lanka. There is a 50:50 chance it will blow up into unrest and instability – I will explain anon why I have hedged my bets. However, there is a disease these events have exposed about which there can be no doubt. This is a deep animosity towards Muslims, which remained buried during the civil war against the Tamils, and has now broken out into the open. Explicit expressions proliferate on the web and in the media – even international sites like Youtube are used for an outpouring of hate mail. Here are two printable quotes from the web to convey the gist of it – I cannot quote more juicy examples littered with obscene expletives, or because they are in Sinhala.

Quote 1: “My Muslim brothers. Plz remember this is not a islamic republic where ‘sharia’ law is practised…
Sri-lanka is a majority sinhala country where 74% of the population are sinhalese..

Quote 2: “This could well be a self inflicted attack by the Muslims themselves in order to incriminate Sinhala people and to create havoc by rioting. The venomous atmosphere currently prevailing in Sri Lanka is the direct result of encroachment in to Buddhist Temple properties and establishing places of worship on the sly. Sinhala Buddhists co-existed with Muslim people when there were no provocation by the latter. Encroachment in to the ancient Buddhist Shrine at Kooragala, obfuscate the scrolls and establishing a tomb for worshiping, is another example of Muslim high handed and provocative activity.”

It is extremely important (I do not use adjectives carelessly) for overseas readers interested in Lanka to thoroughly apprise themselves of the factual side; I will touch on it but lightly. Two excellent sources for politically sophisticated foreign readers are the websites: (an award winning site)

The build up in outline

The Dambulla area is home to an ancient Buddhist rock temple and a Mosque has existed in the vicinity for about 60 years. On Friday 20 April the chief prelate of the Buddhist temple (Inamaluwe Srisumagala) led a large throng of slogan chanting Sinhala-Buddhists to the mosque demanding its demolition on the grounds that its presence in adjacent precincts violated the ethos and legality of the scared area centered on the temple. Shouting and rowdy scenes hovered through the dust and filthy air; men urinated on walls, a monk disrobed and exposed his crown jewels to Allah!

More worrying, Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne issued a statement justifying the call for demolition and undertook to grant land elsewhere to rebuild the mosque – President Rajapakse was abroad at the time. The incident is not isolated; it has been preceded and followed by outbreaks of religious conflict not limited to Dambulla. Reports speak of kovil conflicts in Trincomalee and attacks on a mosque in Kattankudy. Statues of Gandiji, Baden Powell, Vivekananda, Vipulananda and poet Periyathambypilai were decapitated in Batticaloa less than a month ago. An eighteen foot ladder was used to reach the head of the Gandhi statue – obviously something that cannot be done without the knowledge of the police and the security forces crawling all over town. One hundred and fifty churches have been torched in the last few years.

The Muslims called for an island-wide hartal, but the first date announced, Friday 27, passed without event; probably cooler heads prevailed and persuaded the more angry to give negotiations a chance. The President has returned and efforts are being made to diffuse the ticking time bomb and it may be possible to calm things down – that’s my first 50%. The problem is this: If it’s a matter of just incidents, however execrable they be, there is a chance of soothing nerves and letting bygones be bygones. However, if deep wells of hatred and organised evil are at work, then unfortunate Lanka will again “round and round the cauldron go, and in the poisoned entrails throw”; that’s the other 50%.

An assessment

The superficial theory that I do not subscribe to is that the Lankan regime orchestrated these events to distract attention form its worsening economic flop and the thrashing it suffered in front of the whole world at the UNHRC in Geneva. The complicity of the defence establishment also makes ethnic reconciliation an impossible headache. Clearly there is much to divert public attention from. Nevertheless, I discount this hypothesis as a knee-jerk theory because this game plan, if pursued, will blow up in the face with fatal consequences for the regime. The ruling cabal knows this; the Rajapakse siblings are not stupid. The proof of my hunch will come if you see the regime trying to defuse the crisis, rather than aggravate it.

Upon giving this benefit of the doubt to the regime the predicament becomes more alarming. The government has nurtured a viper and encouraged racial extremists in its bosom that it is unable to control. The Sinhala extremist coalition partner the JHU has spoken up in support of demolition of the mosque. In truth however, it is a deeper phenomenon that is more deadly; a certain version of Sinhala-Buddhist ideology that has impregnated society at large. The consciousness that drove forward the war also cemented a pre-existing faith that Sri Lanka is the land of the Sinhalese and the pristine home of Buddhism; other races and faiths must recognise that they live in a borrowed place on sufferance of good behaviour – my first quotation makes the point. The politicisation of Buddhism as the state religion, the constitutional entrenchment of Sinhala, and the ethnic monopolisation of state and the armed forces, have shaped the political structure of the country.

This has all been internalised in the psyche of many Sinhalese people. Indian readers will make a mistake if they equate it with Hindutva sentiments because India with many languages and castes is more kaleidoscopic, a more plural society. A bipolar arrangement (tri-polar if the separate identity of the Muslims is acknowledged) sharpens edges and fertilises, what some, as a shorthand, call the Mahavamsa ideology. (The Mahavamsa is a fifth century Pali text glorifying ancient Sinhala kings and civilisation).

President Rajapakse’s mute countenance on his return from Korea is because he recognises the depth of Sinhala-Buddhist Mahavamsa sentiment as the ideology on which his political project is founded. He is terrified to call it to order; he will not dare, and the monks know it. This to my mind is what makes the religious imbroglio in Sri Lanka, even if defused once, a slow burning fuse with timeless explosive potential. A huge campaign of public education and conscience building is needed. The government is intrinsically incapable of even touching the matter, so the task falls squarely on the shoulders of civil society in the widest sense of the term.

The regime is beholden to the Muslim governments of the Middle East which to a man voted on its side in Geneva at the UNHRC is March. Tens of thousands of Lankan ladies work as domestic helpers in the Middle East, and the tea trade, and Iranian oil, the list goes on. Notwithstanding all this the Rajapakse regime is incapable of saying boo to the Mahavamsa goose.

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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