At least three people are dead and at least 78 injured after a Buddhist monk’s hate-speech set off ethnic riots in southwest Sri Lanka.
After Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, general secretary of the Buddhist nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), spoke Sunday, mobs began marching in protest, and soon set upon the homes and business of Muslims in the town of Aluthgama, reportedly throwing petrol bombs into some.
“They keep calling us racist and religious extremists. Yes, we are racists,” said Gnanasara. “If one marakkalaya [Muslim] lays a hand on a Sinhalese that will be the end of all of them.” The rally was announced as a response to an incident days earlier when a Muslim youth allegedly assaulted a monk at a local temple.
Violence soon spread to nearby towns in the region, where Muslim communities have roots dating back many centuries, when Arab and Malay traders settled along the coast. Some have sought shelter in mosques, which were also attacked. On Monday, the Sri Lankan army was enforcing a curfew for the second night in a row.
Official media, heavily controlled by the regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, downplayed the events, leading activists and reporters to take to the web, and images of the bloodshed and destruction soon leaked out.
"Reports last night suggested media coverage was stopped by powers higher up,” Sanjana Hattotuwa, editor of citizen journalism site Groundviews told Firstpost. “There is genuine fear of reporting these events institutionally because of government and ministry of defense pushback.” In past decades, successive governments are alleged to have been responsible for the murder and disappearance of journalists.
Muslim leaders had urged the government to prevent the gathering, which was attended by thousands of hardline BBS supporters, but authorities refused to step in.
Sir Lanka has a long history of ethnic conflict, and riots in 1958, 1977, and 1983 left thousands of Tamils dead. The latter, known as the “Black July Pogrom,” led to the diaspora community abroad that would go on to fund the Tamil Tigers in their 26-year war with the Sri Lankan government that lasted until 2009.
'BBS is useful for the government, principally by distracting Sinhalese from the issues they are concerned about, like the economy, by creating a new enemy in the Muslims.'
A UN human rights team is set to begin investigations this month into allegations that government forces committed war crimes in the waning months of the civil war, when an estimated 40,000 civilians were killed. Last month, on the fifth anniversary of the conflict’s end, Tamils said they were prevented from even commemorating their dead. Sri Lanka, however, has a powerful ally and foreign investor in China. Beijing’s support has offered a buffer to international pressure on human rights and civil war reconciliation.
BBS, or Buddhist Power Force in English, has grown in prominence since the end of the war and has found a target in the country’s Muslim minority. Predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese make up three-quarters of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people, while Muslims and Hindu Tamils around 10 percent each.
Until now, Sinhalese-Muslim violence has not characterized post-independence ethnic tensions. But Rajapaksa’s regime has been accused of cynically abetting the rise of BBS, whose racism against non-Buddhists has helped cement its support among the Sinhalese masses.
Last year, Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabaya gave a speech at a BBS youth academy and later spoke about the threat of Muslim extremism around the world — a threat that simply does not exist in Sri Lanka.
“BBS is useful for the government, principally by distracting Sinhalese from the issues they are concerned about, like the economy, by creating a new enemy in the Muslims,” Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told VICE News. “This is the most serious by far of the many incidents over the past two years that has been carried out or deliberately provoked by BBS,” said Keenan.
On Twitter, Rajapaksa said the government would investigate the incident. However, the regime has launched countless investigations before, most notably a toothless inquiry into the civil war.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay, a long-time critic of the Rajapaksa regime, told reporters:“The authorities must immediately bring the perpetrators of such attacks to book and make it clear to the religious leadership on both sides, and to political parties and the general public, that there is no place for inflammatory rhetoric and incitement to violence.”
But it’s difficult for the government to investigate itself. “Either major portions of the government are actively encouraging violence, or they are losing control of the BBS,” said Keenan.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford