Buddhist Mob Attacks Mosque in Sri LankaAugust 14, 2013 in Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan government says a solution has been found to the dispute that led to ethnic violence flaring in Columbo over the weekend, after a mob of Buddhists attacked a mosque and injured worshippers there. Special police units were deployed to deal with the unrest and a curfew was imposed. Despite the supposed resolution, serious security issues remain in light of simmering tensions between Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhist population and minority groups, and come in light of significant clashes between Muslims and Buddhists throughout parts of South East Asia over the past year.
Trouble began on Saturday, August 10th, when a mob of Buddhists attacked a mosque in the Grandpass area of the capital, Columbo during evening prayers. Hundreds of local Muslims responded by taking to the streets, some armed with sticks, while the authorities sent in police reinforcements, including the Special Task Force commando unit, to try and maintain law and order. A curfew was imposed from Saturday evening until Sunday morning in order to disperse the crowds. 12 people were injured in the disturbances, including 2 police officers.
Muslim ministers in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government released a joint statement saying “The lukewarm and ineffective measures taken by law enforcement agencies on previous occasions…seem to have emboldened some extremist groups who seem determined to create chaos in the country”. Police Inspector General N K Ilangagoon called on the populace to “support the police to maintain law and order”. A spokesman for the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) (or “Buddhist Power Force”), a hardline group that has been trying to win over Sri Lanka Buddhists to support its anti-Muslim campaign, denied his organisation had any involvement in the events.
The incident stems from a dispute surrounding the relocation of a mosque in the area. The old mosque was earmarked for destruction to make way for new construction and after protests from hard-line Buddhists, and the new mosque had only been open a month. It had already seen protests from Buddhist monks, who had however purportedly agreed Muslims could continue praying there throughout Ramadan. Muslims in the area say the Sri Lankan government’s religious affairs ministry had given them permission to continue using the site, and had provided special police protection. Following the weekend’s disturbances, a solution has been reached that allows a return to the site of the old mosque.
However, despite a resolution of this particular issue it is extremely unlikely this will see a reduction in the continuing ethnic disputes in Sri Lanka. The country is 70% Sinhalese Buddhists, with Muslims making up 9% of the population. They were seen as remaining broadly loyal to the state during the war with the Tamil Tigers; however attacks on Muslims have been increasing over the past year led by hard-line groups of monks such as the BBS, which promote an ultra-nationalist ideology that claims Muslims are fostering anti-Sinhalese extremism and attitudes. The president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council says over 20 mosques have been attacked since last year, while recent months have seen major ethnic unrest surrounding the distribution of halal food and similar. Christian buildings and worshippers have also been attacked.
Muslim community leaders have so far remained broadly conciliatory and have stood on platforms with moderate Buddhists, while many Sinhalese express disquiet about the activities of the BBS. However, there is evidence that the strident nationalism the BBS promotes not only resonates with large parts of the population but enjoys top – level political support – powerful defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaska (brother of the president), was a guest at the opening of a BBS training school and said in a speech “It is the monks who protect our country, religion and race. No one should doubt these clergy. We’re here to give you encouragement.”
The incidents in Sri Lanka also come in light of continuing ethnic trouble across the broader South East Asian region. Major ethnic violence continues in Myanmar (Burma) between the majority Rakhine Buddhist people and minority Rohingya Muslims which has left many dead and caused chaos across numerous provinces. Last month, a bombing at one of Buddhism’s holiest sites, the Bohd Gaya temple complex in India, was attributed to Islamist extremists and explicitly connected with the broader religious conflict across SE Asia.
Currently, there is no direct threat to individuals, including Muslim ones, in Sri Lanka. It is worth noting that no one has so far been killed due to the ethnic clashes in the country, unlike incidents in Myanmar. The underlying threat from terrorism in Sri Lanka is also currently low. However, an awareness of the potential security risks should be maintained at all times. Any and all demonstrations should be avoided, and local news stations should be monitored in case of unrest or the imposition of curfews.