Sri Lankan Muslim leaders unite to face upsurge of Buddhist extremism

Sri Lanka’s Muslim ministers and members of parliament, cutting across political parties, have resolved to jointly meet President Maithripala Sirisena to demand action against Sinhalese Buddhist extremist groups like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), which are attacking mosques with impunity and aggressively claiming lands held or claimed by Muslims.

PK Balachandran, Sri Lanka
Published : 21 May 2017, 02:10 PM
Updated : 21 May 2017, 08:11 PM

“Muslim ministers and MPs will meet President Sirisena at any early date. Simultaneously, the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL) is trying to make Muslim political leaders fight future elections together so that Muslim votes are not split. This will increase their numbers in parliament and force the powers-that-be to listen to them,” said Hilmy Ahamed, a top leader of the MCSL.

Mosques in Panadura and Wennapuwa had been attacked, creating fears of a repeat of the violence unleashed at Aluthgama ,south of Colombo, in June 2014, when Muslim commercial establishments were targeted with impunity.

Explaining this phenomenon, Ahamed said: “Businesses are attacked because the Muslims’ influence over Sri Lankan governments is attributed to their wealth from trading. The rioters don’t intend to kill or even destroy houses. They target business establishments to weaken the Muslims economically. During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Presidency (2005-2014), textiles and goods meant to be sold by Muslim traders during their festivals would be held up by the Customs at the harbour or airport  to deny them business at that critical time.”

Explaining the resurgence of the BBS, Ahmed said that the Joint Opposition led by former President Rajapaksa is behind it to capture the Sinhalese-Buddhist vote  in the coming elections.

And the political pusillanimity of the government led by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wikremesinghe is indirectly facilitating the activities of the BBS.

 “We have met the president twice on the attacks on the mosques. He promised to take action but did nothing. When we met the prime minister he said that the government does not want to be seen by the public to be acting against Buddhist monks at the behest of Muslims,” Ahamed said.

A burnt Muslim shop in Aruthgama.

In the case of the resettlement of war-displaced Muslims in the outskirts of the Wilpattu forest in the North West of the island, the President had refused to recognize the Muslims’ claim that they had been living there for decades before the war, and cultivating land with permits.

Sinhalese-Buddhist militancy, which was active in Sri Lanka in the last phase of the 2005-2014 Mahinda Rajapaksa Presidency, went into a shell after Rajapaksa’s defeat in the January 2015 presidential election. In 2015, it was presumed that Sri Lanka turned the corner and the country was on to a future in which communalism would not be the dominant feature of politics.

However, recent events show that such conclusions were unwarranted. Both Sinhalese-Buddhist and Tamil extremism are trying to capture the center stage once again as conditions seem to be conducive for that. And one feeds on the other to be mutually reinforcing.

Favourable conditions

The main grounds for the rise of radical communal elements are: political instability, political vacuum and political anxiety.

Two years after the change in government, what one sees is political instability, due to the brittle alliance between two traditionally antagonistic parties -  the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena, and the United National Party (UNP) headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. There is a political vacuum due to the inability of the disunited government to take decisions in time and follow up firmly.

Decisions taken by one section of the government are over-ruled by the other, leaving the people perplexed. Lack of a single decision-making centre has caused anxieties in the population. Political instability has created a political vacuum which those in the opposition are eager to fill. Opposition stalwart Mahinda Rajapaksa feels confident about over throwing the government soon.

There is political anxiety due to apprehensions about the government’s approach to the various ethnic groups in the country and also to foreign powers.

If it were not for the political vacuum and governments inability to meet the demands of the Tamils, Northern Province Chief Minister, CV Wigneswaran, would not  have said he is looking forward to the “happy day” when the Tamil people will demand loudly: “Go, back army, Go back navy, Go back force”.

Such demands coupled with the government’s silence over them has triggered, among the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority, fears of a revival of Tamil militant separatism.

Sinhalese nationalists are worried that the “minority-oriented” Sirisena- Wickremesinghe government will give in to the Tamils’ demand for devolution of power; degrade the heroic armed forces by making them face war crimes charge in a court, whether foreign or local; give in to pressure from Muslim politicians to give land and property which they could allegedly use to spread internationally powerful Wahabi Islam.

Indeed, thanks to Saudi money and influence, there has been a proliferation of mosques, and the outward appearance of the Muslims have changed to suit the tents of Wahabi Islam, which is seen as a danger to the dominant Sinhalese-Buddhist character of Sri Lanka.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher