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Crude triumphalism in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan army base

An army base at Trincomalee - one example of a (longstanding) land grab. © Lewis Garland

In May 2009, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa greeted his victory over the Tamil Tigers with the chilling announcement: ‘We have removed the word “minorities” from our vocabulary.’ This statement has proved something of a blueprint for Rajapaksa’s post-war presidency, which has heralded an era of rampant ethnic-chauvinism.

Sri Lanka’s minority communities have seen political power and rights systematically removed, and none more so than the defeated Tamils.

Human rights violations and ethnic discrimination are rife. The mistreatment and torture of returned Tamil asylum seekers, the destruction of Tamil memorials and graveyards and the rise of Sinhalese-nationalist vigilante groups have all received attention in the international press.

But perhaps the most damaging of trends has passed all but unremarked: the insidious disempowerment of the Tamil community in their historic homelands, the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Government-sponsored initiatives to alter the demographic composition of this region have seen a major uptick in recent years. The state has annexed and placed under military control vast areas of land under the shady premise of ‘national security’. These land grabs have displaced longstanding Tamil communities. Scarcely any compensation or resettlement options have been offered, which has seriously undermined livelihoods and food security.

The land seizures have gone hand in hand with a process known as ‘Sinhalization’ – the state-facilitated settlement of Sinhalese people and imposition of Sinhalese culture in traditional Tamil areas. Thousands of Sinhalese are reported to have been settled in the North and Eastern Provinces in 2013 alone and there is evidence of the regime using employment and housing opportunities to incentivize these moves. This has been accompanied by changing the names of streets and villages and the destruction of Hindu temples and shrines where Tamils worshipped – as well as churches and mosques. The government is erecting Buddhist temples and monuments in their place.

Parallel to this ethno-religious colonization, Sri Lanka’s central government has shifted control over policing, land and economics away from the provincial councils. By doing this, it is actively reneging on its constitutional obligation to devolve power to the provinces, and denying Tamils even the slightest autonomy.

Given that Tamil self-determination lay at the very core of Sri Lanka’s quarter-century civil war, the significance of this move cannot be overstated. This is the Rajapaksa regime revelling in the most crude and cruel triumphalism.

The rise of red-robed Islamophobia in Sri Lanka

A year ago this week, on 20 April 2012, a 2,000-strong mob led by Buddhists monks stormed a mosque in Dambulla, central Sri Lanka, during Friday Prayers. They damaged both the building and property within it, including religious artefacts and texts. The Mosque had already been fire-bombed the previous evening. The mob claimed that the Mosque was situated within a sacred Buddhist area and had been constructed illegally. The reality was that the Mosque, a small, corrugated iron structure reachable only via a narrow path, barely visible from the street, had been used by the local Muslim community for over half a century without question or incident.

I was living in Sri Lanka at the time and after visiting the site of the Mosque a few days after the event, I began to follow the repercussions of the incident. What I found most shocking was that these attacks seemed to occur not only with absolute impunity but with at least some degree of official support. These attacks were committed in the presence of the police and yet no action was taken to apprehend the culprits. Moreover, two days after the incident, an order came from the Prime Minister for the Mosque to be demolished.

One year on, such instances, coupled with muted official responses, have long stopped being shocking and have become an insidious norm. Anti-Muslim fervour is now rife among the majority Sinhalese population, stirred and fed by the firebrand propaganda of extremist Buddhist-Sinhalese nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) – The Buddhist Strength Force.

Since the Dambulla incident, Sri Lanka’s Muslim community have been subjected to repeated attacks, including rotten meat being thrown into mosques during prayers, mosques being tagged with obscene graffiti, death threats, arson and Muslim-owned businesses being vandalized by marauding mobs. These attacks briefly reached international attention in March 2013 after footage emerged of a monk hurling stones at a Muslim-owned clothes shop in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, in full view of the police and media.

These attacks have been driven by a series of high-profile hate campaigns targeting Sri Lanka’s Muslim community and their practices. As Javid Yusef, founding  Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat for Muslims in Sri Lanka explained to me, the BBS have manufactured ‘distrust of the Muslims among Sinhala Buddhists by spreading untruths, half truths and lies among the populace’. These have included advocating a ban on both Hijab and Halal meat certification and campaigns encouraging the Sinhalese community to boycott Muslim-owned shops and businesses (based on claims ranging from the false: that shop-owners have been concertedly converting  their female Buddhist employees to Islam, to the nonsensical: that  shop-owners were giving free miscarriage-inducing sweets to their Sinhalese customers).

The BBS has frequently advocated vigilantism and in one rally which boasted a crowd of over 10,000, the organization’s secretary, Gnanasara Thero, called on followers to become ‘an unofficial civilian police force against Muslim extremism’.

In the midst of this ever escalating Islamophobic sentiment, the Sri Lankan government, whilst not officially patronising the BBS and its associated Sinhala-Nationalist mobs, has shown few signs of disowning the group or taking any serious action against it. The police have been shown, time and time again, standing by as stone-throwing mobs attack Muslims and Muslim property. On the few occasions in which arrests have been publically called for, the accusations have been dropped prior to any arrests taking place. Moreover, the government has bowed to pressure over the Halal issue resulting in an effective ban on Halal certification.

Perhaps more worrying is the increasing evidence linking the BBS with those inhabiting the highest echelons of power. On 9 March 2013 the Buddhist Leadership Academy of the BBS was officially opened by Defence Secretary (and brother to the President) Gotabaya Rajapaksa with the ominous words: ‘The venerable monks always came forward to protect our country, race, religion and culture.

The extent of the Sri Lankan government’s complicity in whipping up Islamophobic sentiment remains unclear. However, what is clear is that the government is acutely aware that supporters of the BBS make up a core element of its primarily Sinhalese-Nationalist support base and as a result is willing to pander to the group’s increasingly repugnant demands.

What is also clear is that these venomous attacks on the Muslim community have opened new wounds in a country still riven by deep inter-communal divisions and distrust after 27 years of civil war. In Javid Yusef’s words, there is now a ‘fear psychosis among the Muslims... relations between the [Sinhalese and Muslim] communities have been dented to such an extent that a great deal of work has to be done to repair the damage.’

Lewis Garland is freelance journalist and social justice activist. He has written on a range of issues including the rights of asylum seekers and returnees and post-conflict reconciliation in Sri Lanka. He previously worked for the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Sri Lanka.

Twitter @lewisgarland