Sri Lanka

Attack in Aluthgama

Print edition : July 11, 2014

The remains of a bag tailoring unit that was set on fire during an attack on Muslims by the Bodu Bala Sena in the coastal town of Aluthgama, 50km from Colombo. Photo: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Muslims leave their homes in Aluthgama after the attacks, on June 16. Photo: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

A shop in the town continues to smoulder a day after the attack. Photo: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

The violence against Muslims in the coastal town by a Buddhist group leads to fears of a resurgence of the Sinhala nationalism that targeted Tamils in the not-so-recent past.

THE deadly violence that erupted recently in Aluthgama, a town on Sri Lanka’s south-western coast, has shaken the country. No one residing in the Muslim-majority town would have expected a peaceful Sunday, June 15, to turn into a day marked by brutal attacks, shops in flames and terrified residents running for safety.

A week after the incident, residents said they were scared to go back to their homes. Squeezing themselves in school classrooms and temporary camps, they passed each day in fear and evident helplessness. This is the emerging story of Muslims living in Sri Lanka.

Tensions reportedly began after a Buddhist monk was attacked allegedly by Muslim youths in Aluthgama. Soon after the incident, Sri Lanka Police arrested three persons and remanded them in custody. On Sunday, the police allowed the hard-line Sinhala Buddhist organisation Bodu Bala Sena (BBS; Buddhist power force) to hold a rally in the same town despite requests against it from several quarters. It was in this rally that its leader, Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thera, said: “In this country we still have a Sinhala police; we still have a Sinhala army. After today, if a single Marakkalaya [a derogatory reference to Muslims] or some other outsider touches a single Sinhalese… it will be their end.”

Four people died and nearly 80 persons were injured in the clashes that began that Sunday afternoon. Even a week later the area was still gripped in fear and unrest. Residents said Special Task Force personnel posted in the area remained passive, doing little to prevent the clashes from escalating.

The BBS is only two years old but has become notorious for its blatantly anti-Muslim position. Less than a year after it was formed, the organisation, which claims as its objective the preservation of Sinhala-Buddhist identity in the island, went on a campaign against halal certification. After that, in March 2013, Fashion Bug, a popular apparel chain owned by Muslims, was attacked and vandalised, an incident in which the BBS is said to have had a major role. The BBS then spoke of launching a campaign against the niqab, a veil worn by some Muslim women that covers the head and face and has a slit for the eyes, for “security” reasons. However, the Sri Lankan government has so far not condemned any of its hate speeches or actions, including the recent clashes.

The BBS office is situated in the heart of Colombo and displays on its walls happy photographs of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in their respective offices on different occasions. With the apparent patronage of the most powerful brothers on the island, the BBS has become a powerful organisation in a span of just two years. The fact that the Sri Lankan government has not yet taken a strong position on the incident strengthened fears of a state-backed Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism emerging yet again.

The last time Sri Lanka witnessed such violence and its escalation was about three decades ago, and the country paid a heavy price. The island’s ethnic conflict, which spanned nearly 30 years and claimed several thousand civilian lives, had its roots in a similar sentiment, then directed against Tamils.

The attack on the religious minority brought a sense of foreboding that the situation could end up like the anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983, which sowed the seeds for a full-fledged ethnic conflict that tore the island apart. It culminated in a brutal war between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that ended in the defeat of the latter in May 2009. People are still struggling to cope with the aftermath of that war and the “Tamil question” is far from resolved.

Simultaneously, the resurgence of Sinhala nationalism has targeted religious minorities and exhibited an unmistakable intolerance that the international community too has voiced concern about. The West has condemned the incidents, and Navi Pillay, the outgoing United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has expressed deep concern over the possibility of the intolerance spreading to Muslim communities in other parts of the country. In March, the Human Rights Council, too, expressed its alarm at the significant surge in attacks against members of religious minority groups in Sri Lanka, including Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

The Rajapaksa regime’s evident attempt to consolidate a Sinhala-Buddhist base has to be viewed in the island’s current political context. The country is due for parliamentary elections within the next couple of years and a presidential election possibly sooner.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition has clearly lost all credibility among Sri Lankan Tamils, as was evident in the massive mandate that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), an amalgam of Tamil political parties, obtained in the first-ever elections held in the Tamil-majority region in September 2013. But the Rajapaksa regime may have more reasons to worry, going by the performance of the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance in the elections held in the Sinhala-dominated Western and Southern provinces in April this year.

The UPFA won the elections —strategically timed after the 25th Human Rights Council session in Geneva so that the government could whip up Sinhala nationalist sentiment—but with a much-reduced vote share.

The increasing international focus on Sri Lanka’s human rights record, a strong United States-backed resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council against the country, and the election results put pressure on the government to act. Instead, the government retaliated by arresting leading human rights defenders in the North and by speaking of the Tigers regrouping. Around that time, the Sri Lankan police arrested over 60 persons under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Now, the Sinhala-Buddhist hardliners, who seemed relatively quiet around key events such as the Commonwealth Summit in November and the Geneva session of the Human Rights Council in March, have begun raising their heads, targeting and attacking Muslims yet again.

Predominantly Tamil-speaking, Muslims, who constitute nearly 10 per cent of the population, have over the decades increasingly articulated their identity independent of the ethnic Tamil community’s. Following major massacres in the East and their en masse expulsion from the North in 1990 by the LTTE, Muslims have reiterated their identity as a separate ethnic group.

Muslims are involved in various professions and live in pockets all over the country, are diverse socially and support a variety of political parties.

However, the recent attacks and the series of attacks before that have caused fear among members of the community and also alienated them from the present government. Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, which is an ally in the ruling coalition, expressed regret about not being able to protect his “own people”, sparking speculation over his support to the alliance. The stage may even be set for Muslims to vote against the Rajapaksa regime.

A weak opposition in Parliament—the United National Party led by Ranil Wickramasinghe is ineffective and grappling with infighting —has only made matters worse. In a climate of heavy surveillance, intimidation of dissenting voices and the absence of a free press, the victims of communal violence have nowhere to go.

Several sections of Sri Lankan society, including intellectuals and professionals, strongly condemned the incident at Aluthgama, and other voices of solidarity have also been heard. They can all see where this religious hatred is headed and are worried about how dangerous this can get for their country.