Groundviews

Lankan Muslims, Extremist Monks & a Feverish Government

Photo via Al Jazeera

As Groundviews turns ten, Sri Lankan Muslims are at a crossroads. The last ten years were predominantly about tensions between Sinhalese and Tamils, Muslims seem to now be the new bogey.

Despite having been inhabitants of the island for more than a millennium, and descending from Sinhalese and Tamil women who married Arab traders and with an ethnic history that predates Islam itself, Muslims are finding themselves increasingly referred to as outsiders. Muslims in many immigrant nations are wrongly considered to be outsiders due to the fact that they consist predominantly of communities whose roots do not stem beyond a few generations. However, the same cannot be said of Sri Lankan Muslims, who bear resemblance to their Sri Lankan counterparts in every aspect other than their religious faith. While Sri Lankan Muslims are a numerical minority, their claim to Sri Lanka’s heritage is by no means a recent phenomenon.

However, it is increasingly evident that it is this fallacious narrative of otherness that the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) led Sinhalese Buddhist extremists seem to want to embed deeply within the majoritarian mentality. There is a dual impact that this seeks to achieve; a majoritarian mind-set of extremist Buddhists emboldens their rhetoric, which in turn seeks to weaken a community who would be beset by minoritarian (for want of a word) feelings of otherness.

Although Sri Lankan Muslims are a community with far greater and unmatched soft power in comparison to the Burmese Rohingya, the BBS are well and truly looking at the Burmese template for stirring anti-Muslim vitriol – going so far as to hosting in Colombo Ashin Wirathu, the spiritual leader of the anti-Muslim 969 movement in Burma whose violent attacks and anti-Muslim death squads are well documented.

The influence of monks within the Sri Lankan societal and political apparatus is not to be underestimated. In 1956, Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, a secretary of the Oxford Union no less, ran on a nationalist platform and included the monks in his election campaign as one of his so called pentamerous forces, in no small part due to the inordinate influence they had on the Sinhalese electorate. Ironically, he was later assassinated by a monk.

Buddhism is enshrined in the Sri Lankan constitution as being given the ‘foremost place’, paving way for the excessive sense of entitlement of militant monks. The perceived dearth of Buddhist political leadership led to Buddhist monks entering parliament in the general elections of 2004 and monks were instrumental in invoking nationalist fervour as a potent ingredient for military recruitment in the last phases of the war that ended in 2009. Thus, monks are seen to be the vanguards of Sinhalese Buddhist interests and this apparently insurmountable grassroots link is that which is being exploited by some militant monks.

Government Inaction

Extremist Buddhist monks have been leading provocative protests in predominantly Muslim areas. Violent slogans have been employed, and police watch meekly as they are bullied by the monks and their baying crowds, despite clear jurisprudential guidance for enacting laws against hate speech which do not exempt the clergy. Extremist Sinhalese youth groups are mushrooming around the country, fuelling and fuelled by fictitious stories of Muslim colonisation, and openly threaten Muslims with death and immolation.  All this venom is kept alive by the oxygen of social media, and is fodder to the extremist groups and their followers who are inebriated with racism.

Galogodaththe Gnanasara, the loquacious monk from the Bodu Bala Sena was seen threatening law enforcement authorities with the destruction of a predominantly Muslim suburb in Colombo if a Muslim youth whose incendiary rhetoric allegedly against Buddhism was not punished. The youth in question was arrested less than twenty four hours later. If this arrest was not a reaction to the threats of the monk in question, it certainly was too much of a coincidence. The Muslim youth was rightly arrested for ‘insulting worshippers of another faith’. The irony in this is that Gnanasara has been making the vilest threats with such confidence in public, and instead of feeling the full force of the law, he was widely reported to have had a high-level meeting with the Minister of Justice at the parliamentary complex instead. Ampitiye Sumana, another monk from the eastern province of Sri Lanka was seen to publicly remonstrate in the most disrespectful and crudest terms against a Tamil civil servant and a female police officer, has also thus far enjoyed legal impunity.

The Bodu Bala Sena is fast gaining traction amongst Sinhalese Buddhists and the dangers of race riots are increasing under the watch of the government. Unruly mobs are holding many protests soaked with belligerent rhetoric led by extremist Buddhist monks – and despite the abundant evidence of monks disturbing the peace and creating a febrile and disturbing environment for minorities, the government has so far not taken legal action against these monks who have been acting with crass impunity.

However, there are also some important home truths that need to be understood. The Bodu Bala Sena and the phenomenon of extremist monks first surfaced in 2011. They became increasingly dominant and were seen to enjoy state patronage during the regime of Mahinda Rajapakse. They were allowed to act freely and their activities that first began with anti-halal disturbances, reached a zenith with the anti-Muslim riots of Alutgama which resulted in millions of rupees worth of Muslim homes and businesses being torched. Whilst this government has evidently been slow to their feet in taking action against what is very open incitement to racial tension, it is telling that the BBS and other extremist forces are more critical of this government than the last regime. Indeed, there are reasons to believe that groups close to the Mahinda Rajapakse led opposition are galvanising forces such as racist mobs who seek to destabilise the present government.

This does not absolve the government of any responsibility, the government has failed to institutionalise law and order and is so far no different to regimes prior in its attitude towards open crime. It is a damning indictment on the government that the virulent rhetoric of the BBS has now stooped to levels worse than when the Rajapakses were in power.

The Electoral Game

At the elections of 2015, the Muslim community voted en-masse to elect President Maithripala Sirisena and the UNP led coalition government against the ultra-Sinhala Buddhist nationalist Rajapakse regime. As the weaknesses of this government increasingly frustrate the electorate, and the perception of Rajapakse as the saviour looms, the Muslim community is placed in a relatively precarious position in a milieu of political uncertainty.

In light of this, there is a school of thought that Muslims should be patient in the face of concerted efforts by many forces to destabilize this theoretically well-meaning government. This largely stems from the fear that should this government fail, there are neo-Rajapaksaites waiting in the wings to replace them – and then the status quo would be significantly unfavourable. Indeed, patient the Muslims should be, this isn’t the time for insularity and parochialism, and attaining Muslim interests within a holistic national framework should be their anchor. The government truly is battling multi-pronged crises, reminiscent of the protests and chaos President Morsi of Egypt faced before his forced downfall. But the government needs to be pressured to understanding that Sri Lankan Muslims are just as equal and important as any other, and they take Muslim votes for granted at their own peril, as the last regime learned the bitter way.

The government needs to put concerted efforts on governing actively without acting largely to stem the hemorrhaging of votes to the Rajapakse tide.

This is why the Muslim electorate has to intelligently take up issues of racism and violence with their elected representatives. The BBS can still be restrained, it only takes the legal arm to flex its muscles, and order will be reinstated. Grave dangers linger in the complacency of the government for as long as extremists are allowed to run free.

Should the ideological tectonic plates overlap, and the racism of the BBS offsets mainstream Sinhalese values regarding coexistence, the government would have been complicit in irreversible damage. Race riots are waiting to happen and every day Muslims are seen to be publicly threatened with death and destruction, and hardline coalition partners from within the government have already made mob-friendly ideological utterances that places them well to be in positions of leadership should things go awry. Indeed Gnanasara was seen insulting the Muslim God Allah in the most profane and derogatory of terms, a siren call to extremism in most parts of the world, the silence of the Sri Lankan Muslims in the face of this provocation is testament to their sense of civic responsibility.

This government was ushered in on a mandate for good governance and anti-corruption. The sharp decline into an abyss of the government risks the stability and development of a country that is already steeped in a plethora of critical issues. Civil society activists despair at the opportunity squandered to make real change and mourn the loss of strong accountable civil society leadership in the mould of Maduluwawe Sobhitha, the monk who catalysed the downfall of the autocratic Rajapakse regime.

Any individual, irrespective of race or religion should feel the full force of the law when they step over it. There should be no compromise on this and a great nation will never be built on the throes of a feverish government that turns a blind eye to injustice and racism. Should the government not call extremism for what it is and fail to take meaningful steps towards cementing law and order – this will be the death knell of their reform and reconciliation agenda and its haunting chimes will be heard for decades to come.