Gliding across the luscious green meadows, the cool breeze refreshing your every step with the faint sounds of elephants trumpeting in the distance; Sri Lanka is every dreamer’s paradise. Indeed, there is a legend that Prophet Adam (AS) when banished to earth walked his first steps in Sri Lanka. Today this place is called “Adam’s Peak”, but whatever the truth of this – there are Buddhist claims to it being the place where Buddha’s footprint was found – the people of Sri Lanka, of all faiths and none, are in the grip of an existential crisis. This economic catastrophe can be traced directly to the recently deposed incompetence of the Rajapaksa political family.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected to power in 2005 on the platform of Sinhalese supremacy and an electoral promise to end the brutal 25-year civil war which had raged between the Sinhalese and Tamil. The latter is a minority ethnic Hindu group in Sri Lanka who fought to create a separate state after decades of discrimination following independence from colonial rule.
Led by Velupillai Prabhakaran the Tamil Tigers mounted a ruthless and relentless suicide bombing campaign and managed to rule much of northern and eastern Sri Lanka for a decade.
President Rajapaksa did not elect to end this war on the negotiating table but instead, in 2009, chose to massacre some 40,000 trapped civilians and Tamil fighters on a beach. There are reports that many of the dead were burned or buried in secret mass graves.
The late Marie Colvin, a journalist who was murdered by Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria in 2012 whilst reporting from the besieged enclave of Baba Amr, had in 2009 been asked by the Tamil Tigers to negotiate their surrender.
Rajapaska personally approved the surrender of senior Tiger political leaders and their families, only for them to be shot dead as they walked out of the kill zone whilst holding white flags aloft. Colvin commented:
After the brutal crushing of the Tamil guerrilla campaign, the political elite of Sri Lanka identified a new public enemy to reinforce their Sinhalese supremacy raison d’etre. Attention soon turned to the other ethnic minority in the population: the Muslims. Under the cover provided by the global war on terror, the Sinhalese political elite joined hands with Buddhist militant monks, such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) to initiate a campaign of anti-Muslim harassment, discrimination, and even violence.
Buddhist militant monks such as Galabod Aththe Gnanasara, the head of BBS, cultivated the otherisation of Muslim Sri Lankans, by successfully indoctrinating the majority Buddhist Sinhalese to believe that Islam was a threat to their existence and, like the Tamils before them, wanted a state of their own and ultimately the whole of Sri Lanka.
Through large public rallies and successful strident social operations, the BBS was able to normalise hate speech and so foster a climate in which everyday low-intensity harassment of Muslims became the norm.
Galabod Aththe Gnanasara and his followers enthused the baying crowds recalling that countries such as Afghanistan were historically Buddhist until the ‘invading’ Muslims conquered them and that ‘Lord’ Buddha himself had warned against them.
BBS did not stop at mere rhetoric. In a speech in 2014, it claimed that the group would dictate the outcome of the election and the future of the country by ensuring each of the 5,000 monks at the convention should create a vote bank of 1000 Buddhist votes – so as to control at least 5 million Buddhist votes.
Ashwin Wirathu is a name that may be familiar to many readers because of his involvement in the 969 movement and its war crimes in Myanmar. In 2014 he announced a partnership with BBS to ‘defend’ their religion.
Wirathu who had been granted a visa by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, claimed in a speech in Columbo in 2014:
As the embers from the burned Tamil Tigers cooled, the Sinhalese political and Buddhist religious elite ratcheted up their anti-Muslim hostility. Groups such as the BBS mounted an anti-halal campaign and began to lobby for the end of halal certification of foods falsely claiming such money was used to fund terrorism. Their campaign was met with success.
The BBS General Secretary, Galaboda Aththe Gnanasara, at a rally in Columbo in 2013, claimed “only monks can save this [Sinhalese] race” and, in a clear attempt to intimidate the minority Muslim populace, that monks were ready to fight. He said:
The vigilante group is said to have enjoyed political support at the highest level and indeed the anti-halal meat campaign gave rise to a number of attacks on mosques and Muslim businesses whilst the perpetrators of the hate speech and those who acted upon them went largely unchecked by state police.
The following year saw further riots including in the coastal towns of Aluthgama and Beruwala when Sinhala Buddhist mobs swept through the towns targeting Muslims after attending a rally by the BBS.
For two days Buddhist mobs rioted and looted Muslim homes and businesses. Four people were killed, and scores injured whilst 60 Muslim homes and businesses were set on fire and several mosques were damaged.
It was hoped that the elections of 2015 and the newly elected government would bring some security for ethnic groups in the country. However, attacks against Muslims continued including in Ginthota in 2017 and Digana and Ampara in 2018. According to a report by Amnesty International:
Kyle Ward, Amnesty International’s Deputy Secretary General said in 2021:
“While anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka is nothing new, the situation has regressed sharply in recent years. Incidents of violence against Muslims, committed with the tacit approval of the authorities, have occurred with alarming frequency. This has been accompanied by the adoption by the current government of rhetoric and policies that have been openly hostile to Muslims.”
“The Sri Lankan authorities must break this alarming trend and uphold their duty to protect Muslims from further attacks, hold perpetrators accountable and end the use of government policies to target, harass and discriminate against the Muslim community.”
Then came the Easter Sunday attacks. 250 Christians attending mass on Easter Sunday were killed as they worshipped. The attack was later claimed by ISIS and said to have been carried out by a local group of Sri Lankan nationals.
Many within the Sri Lankan Muslim community have disputed the providence of the attacks, especially as the Muslim community had enjoyed cooperation with the Christian community – which had itself been targeted by Buddhist militants in previous years. The attacks however gave impetus to an escalation in anti-Muslim violence and systematic discrimination.
When, in 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, was nominated as presidential candidate, he unabashedly announced:
The following month, even before ISIS had claimed responsibility, Buddhist mobs rampaged through Muslim towns attacking worshippers during Ramadan with many mosques being damaged in the process. Rather than cool the febrile climate, the Sri Lankan Government sought to fan the flames by rushing through legislation which allowed them to arrest hundreds of Muslims without cause.
Legislation, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act, was used to arrest and detain hundreds of Muslims without charge or being brought before a Court. Under the act, suspects can be held for up to 18 months before being brought to a court; enough time to destroy the life prospects of any innocent young man.
Two prominent individuals who have been targeted with the act include Hejaaz Hizbullah, a lawyer and activist who had been detained for more than 15 months, and Ahnaf Jazeem, a poet and teacher, who was arrested on 16 May 2020 following unsubstantiated claims about his Tamil language poetry.
Ahnaf Jazeem who had been held for nearly two years on baseless claims of promoting “religious extremism” in his poetry said upon his release: “[the police] kept me handcuffed and isolated for 14 days. They forced me during this time to deliver a confession.” Jazeem went further to say he was threatened with imprisonment, “for 15 or 20 years” and that his fiancé may well also be arrested unless he confesses.
Hejaaz Hizbullah is a prominent lawyer and minority rights activist. During the Covid-19 Pandemic he wrote to the Sri Lankan President about the government’s decision to compel Muslims to cremate their dead. Hizbullah detailed how doing so was not only a breach of Sri Lanka’s constitution but also of international law which protected the right of freedom of religion.
The next day the senior lawyer got a knock on the door. The prompt response took the form of police from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) who handcuffed and placed Hizbullah under arrest. When the family asked if the police had an arrest warrant they were ominously warned not to ask questions.
Coronavirus and Muslim Cremation
Covid-19 has swept across the world leaving in its wake 570 million cases and 6.4 million deaths. Whilst each death and many cases tell their own tragic story, few people other than Sri Lankan Muslims have suffered the indignity of not being able to bury their loved ones in a manner consistent with their beliefs.
This patently discriminatory policy which had no scientific reasoning underpinning it and disproportionately affected the Muslim and Christian communities of Sri Lanka gained international attention when a 20-month-old baby was cremated.
Both state and private media were complicit in the demonisation of Muslims, with many outlets accusing Muslims of being “backward” for wanting to bury their loved ones in accordance with their beliefs. To some, it seemed, setting fire to them seemed far more civilised.
Following interventions from the World Health Organisation and British Members of Parliament such as Naz Shah who condemned the forced cremations, the Sri Lankan government reversed its policy.
However, what it gave with one hand it took with another as, with almost depressing inevitability, Muslim women’s choice of attire had now become the focus of attention.
On March 13 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, Sarath Weerasekara, Sri Lanka’s minister of public security announced the government would take steps to ban the burka and close more than 1000 Muslim faith schools.
The male minister justified the position by stating “the burqa” was a “sign of religious extremism” and had an impact on “national security.” At a time when many people across the globe were being required to cover their faces, the Sri Lankan government decided to ban the face-covering chosen by a small fraction of Muslim women.
If the proposed Burqa ban was a sign of “religious extremism”, then it should be noted that such extremism as defined by the BBS or Sri Lankan government seems to cover most normative Muslim’s practices and ostensibly has little to do with countering politically motivated violence.
Aside from the so-called burqa ban and closing of Muslim faith schools, the government declared that all Islamic books imported into the country would need Defence ministry approval in an unapologetic securitisation of the Muslim community.
Several days later and with ominous tones of “deradicalisation” of Chinese concentration camps, the Sri Lankan Government published a set of regulations under the title: “Deradicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology” under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
The regulations gave the authorities the power to arrest and send persons (Muslims) to a rehabilitation centre to be “deradicalised” for up to one year. Subjects need not be convicted of any offence – mere suspicion was sufficient to be entered into the “rehabilitation” centres.
Anti- Muslim Hate as Political Strategy
The religious and political elite have routinely fostered ethno-religious animosity to mobilise their constituency. In November 2020, President Rajapaksa said that:
The demonization of Muslims as an electoral strategy has largely gone unchallenged. That is until recently. The Rajapaksa family’s mismanagement of the economy, including compelling farmers to switch overnight to 100% organic farming, and together with the collapse of the tourist industry because of Covid-19, led to dreadful living conditions for the Sri Lankan people.
Inflation has risen to more than 50%, there are significant shortages of food and fuel and the country defaulted on its foreign debt in May 2022. This economic catastrophe needs to be seen in the context of political corruption, economic mismanagement, and the Belt and Road project.
This monumental Chinese project is beyond the scope of this article but let’s take one example as an illustration of Chinese strategy and power.
Some have called this strategy the “Debt-trap-diplomacy” strategy in which eye-watering sums of money are borrowed for internal investment to build large and glamourous infrastructure projects – only for the debt to become so colossal that it suffocates the country until it defaults. This is of course in very simple terms, but many have suggested it is what happened in the Hambantota port development.
In 2017 when Sri Lanka failed on its loan repayment for the US $1.1 billion, it was forced to sign over the above port and thousands of acres of land surrounding it to the Chinese on a 99-year lease. In doing so, Sri Lanka lost some of its sovereignty that day.
100 days of protest
On 9 July after days of relentless protests, the people of Sri Lanka stormed the Presidential Palace and the Rajapaksas fled. Many in Sri Lanka are hoping this will mark a new chapter for the country in which the political elite do not demonise the Muslim minority community in an attempt to divert attention from its own misconceived policies.
The international Sri Lankan Muslim diaspora can assist by highlighting the plight of the minority Muslim community in their homeland. The about turn with the forced cremations and recent embarrassing government defeat at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which passed a resolution empowering the UN High Commission to investigate war crimes during the brutal civil war was a slap in the face. The motion was only passed because of a loss of support from majority Muslim countries who abstained from the vote in the aftermath of the forced cremations. Indeed, the resolution referenced the government’s treatment of the minority Muslim community in Sri Lanka.
Furthermore, Sri Lanka enjoys tariff-free trading access to the European Union. This access is however contingent on not falling foul of international law including the prohibition of arbitrary arrest or religious discrimination.
Sri Lanka, much like other countries in the area has for some time been manipulated by its political elite into believing that their friendly, peaceful and hard-working Muslim neighbours are the enemy. This sleight of hand, this con, has been called out for what it is in Sri Lanka. It’s time others in the region noticed.