Anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka

Phil Miller on fearing for Muslim communities

Observers are worried that that Sinhalese nationalists are turning on Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority in a bid to consolidate the country as an exclusively Buddhist nation.

The government declared a state of emergency in March as riots against the country’s Muslim minority spiralled out of control. One Muslim man was killed and hundreds of Muslim-owned properties, including mosques, were set alight.

The rioters hailed from the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority and several monks were arrested for allegedly playing key roles in the violence.

Events in Myanmar, where the government has been suspected of ‘acts of genocide’ against Rohingya Muslims with the active support of Buddhist citizens, serves as a reminder that the religion’s peaceful reputation is no guard against intolerance in practice.

Analysts fear that since Sri Lankan authorities ruthlessly crushed the Tamil independence movement in 2009, Sinhalese hardliners are now transposing their hostility onto Muslim communities, who make up 10 per cent of the population and are mostly Tamil-speaking.

Evidence suggests that the rioters were aided and abetted by state security forces, in particular the paramilitary Special Task Force. A Sri Lankan government minister, Abdul Haleem, accused the squad of enabling attacks on mosques.

The group Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka collected testimony from Abdul Saleel Mohamed Fazil, a 43-year-old local councillor, who said the Special Task Force tried to frame him by planting petrol bombs on his person before binding his hand and feet and beating him with wooden poles.

These allegations have had ramifications for the UK, where the overseas aid budget is funding the Scottish Police College to train Sri Lankan Special Task Force instructors, among other police officers.

Labour’s shadow development minister, Kate Osamor, told New Internationalist: ‘These allegations, if true, raise yet more urgent questions about the UK’s secretive Conflict, Stability and Security Fund. It cannot be right if […] aid money […] is supporting riot-control training, without the checks and balances in place to prevent attacks on minorities and human rights abuses.’