COLOMBO, Sri Lanka
Post-war Sri Lanka was rocked by the worst violence it has seen two weeks ago. On June 15, communal clashes set the southern resort towns of Aluthgama, Dharga Town and Beruwala alight. At least three were killed, 88 injured, 64 houses, 39 shops and a mosque completely destroyed while numerous others were damaged, according to data compiled by the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. Overnight, 2,248 persons were instantly displaced in the worst religious riots in Sri Lanka's recent history.
The group accused of instigating the violence is Bodu Bala Sena, whose name translates as Buddhist Power Force. Known for incendiary speech against Sri Lanka’s minorities, they gathered in the town of Aluthgama for a rally where their leader, Galaboda Aththe Gnanasara, reportedly spoke of the “end for Muslims,” before they marched into predominantly Muslim areas.
“There was tension on that particular day. We saw mobs running towards us. They began pelting stones at buildings, houses, and people, while screaming at us in Sinhala. It was like a series of shelling," Mohamed Zubair Mohamed Fasmin, a resident of Seenawatte in Aluthgama, told the Anadolu Agency.
"We ran for shelter. We did not take anything with us, but ran for our lives. We saw fire, as we ran as fast as we could. We sought refuge at a mosque. My daughter and wife are still traumatised,” he says.
Both local and international rights groups have called for an inquiry and for the government to put a stop to anti-Muslim violence. So far, 66 people have been arrested for the June 15 clashes but there are no senior figures amongst them, including Gnanasara, and Bodu Bala Sena’s leadership have tried to distance themselves from the clashes.
"Everybody blames us, but it is incorrect. There is a conspiracy against the Sinhala Buddhist," Dilanthe Withanage, Chief Executive Officer of Bodu Bala Sena, told the AA. "We were the first to request the people to be calm."
Withanage’s protestations have not received much sympathy amongst those who have observed Bodu Bala Sena’s activities. That such violence erupted was not unexpected; there has long been concern about the aggression shown by hardline Buddhist nationalists towards Sri Lankan minorities. Bodu Bala Sena’s undisputed leader Gnanasara reportedly walked into Wilpattu village in Sri Lanka’s northwest and threatened resettled Muslim villagers. He has also forcefully and fearlessly stormed into a media conference to threaten inter-faith advocate Buddhist monk Wataraka Vijitha Thero, who had condemned Bodu Bala Sena’s violence.
Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka analyst for think-tank International Crisis Group, says the violence was a "planned assault on Sri Lanka's peaceful Muslim community."
"It marks a new and extremely dangerous phase in a nearly two-year campaign by militant Buddhists, who enjoy the backing of powerful sections of the Sri Lankan government," says Keenan. "If action is not taken quickly to hold the perpetrators and instigators legally accountable and to prevent further attacks, Sri Lanka risks descending into another devastating cycle of communal violence and terror."
Moderate Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka have individually and collectively condemned the attacks on the minority Muslim community, as have other elements of Sri Lankan society. At a rally in capital Colombo on June 18, Buddhists were seen holding Tamil-language placards – one of the first times such a sign of inter-communal solidarity had been publicly witnessed.
Professor Sumanasiri Liyanage, a specialist in political economy at the Sanasa Campus, says that Bodu Bala Sena is presenting Buddhist high priests with a dilemma. Monks, scholars and laymen are all worried that the group is creating an extreme image of Buddhism.
“However, they are hesitant to resist Bodu Bala Sena, and similar Buddhist extremist organizations in public, except tongue-in-cheek statements, assuming that such condemnation would affect badly the political influence of Buddhism in the island,” says Liyange. He says most Buddhists have chosen to preserve political influence instead of defending non-violence.
“This at the end of the day, would not only create Talibanist Buddhism, but also make the country an unliveable place, raged with communal hatred, intolerance and permanent conflicts," says Liyanage.
– Government links?
Since the violence there has been no official statement from the government. There have been arrests and a curfew was imposed but locals fired accusations that police failed to protect them during the June 15 violence. The Muslim Council of Sri Lanka says the police had ignored prior requests for the Aluthgama rally to be cancelled.
Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga expressed in a statement concern over the “hate mongering and blatant violation of the law for nearly 18 months.” In that time, not only Muslim-owned property and mosques but Evangelical Christian churches also came under attack.
That Bodu Bala Sena and similar groups have been able to function relatively freely has contributed to widespread and firmly-held beliefs that the group has powerful backers, perhaps even within the government. The most high-profile link is with the President’s brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, though the government categorically denies those claims. The President himself was accused of neglecting minorities during an argument with two of his Muslim ministers, shortly after the June 15 clashes.
"He aspired to become the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and the President of Sri Lanka as a leader of the Buddhist Sinhala nation, and not as the leader for all communities,” says prominent activist Nimalka Fernando, President of the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism. “His posture is to act as the benevolent leader for others who should be thankful for the little mercies he extends from time to time."
Fernando claims that Sri Lanka’s government relies on a militarized state and has encouraged Bodu Bala Sena’s violence an excuse to increase its authority.
“As Bodu Bala Sena mounts attacks against the Muslims, resistance and reactions will emerge from the community under siege, like what happened in the North and East to the Tamil community. These responses will then be used by Gotabaya Rajapaksa to strengthen the military and provide an excuse to the international community that he is now launching another war against Muslim Jihadis," reiterated Fernando.
Bodu Bala Sena was officially established three years after the end of Sri Lanka's decades-long conflict, claiming to safeguard Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Since then, hardline speech against Muslims and Christians has led to religious clashes that have left many Sri Lankans with a feeling of unease after the civil war.
Sri Lanka's mainstream media maintained an absolute media blanket during the clashes and there was a complete media blackout, which some suggest was a result of government pressure. The story reached a wider audience primarily through the efforts of social media journalists and activists, who carefully updated twitter feeds with valuable information – though their work led to a state-owned newspaper dubbing them "twitter vultures."
The government has now assured the safety of the Muslim community, which consists roughly 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, but that did not prevent attacks on places of worship and businesses last week. Bodu Bala Sena have repeatedly had rallies cancelled and the police have banned rallies that incite hatred against other faiths. The Minister of Foreign Affairs G.L. Peiris also convened a meeting of foreign representatives, including Turkey’s ambassador.
"The greatness of an ethnic group can only be elevated by respecting the other and not by attacking the other,” said Rajapaksa from Mattala, after the clashes. “Let us join hands in brotherhood as children of one mother in the same way we do, when singing the National Anthem without dividing ourselves as Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil.”
It has been 33 years since Sri Lanka witnessed the events of “Black July” but the pogrom against the Tamil minority, which drove many from the country, has not been erased from the island’s memory. With fears heightened regarding future inter-communal relations, the June 15 clashes have already been dubbed “Black June.”