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15 July 2014, Gateway House

Lanka’s anti-Muslim violence

The rising number of anti-Muslim attacks in Sri Lanka has grave security implications for South Asia, including India. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government must take steps to address the situation immediately, even if it comes at the cost of losing votes

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The recent rampage by extremist Buddhist groups in the Muslim-dominated towns of Aluthgama, Dharga Town and Beruwala, near Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, is a defining moment for the country. Three Muslims were killed, and over a thousand people left homeless in the violence which was allegedly instigated by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Sinhala Buddhist organisation.

While President Mahinda Rajapaksa was quick to order a probe, civil society leaders want the government to react more assertively against the BBS and its leader Galaboda Aththe Gnanasara for his provocative statements against the Muslim community There is a general feeling that the BBS enjoys the support of the government – a perception that has been fuelled by President Rajapaksa’s speech after the violence where he is reported to have said that while Sri Lanka had religious freedom, there was a need to protect and promote the Buddha sasana.

There is a growing conviction that the Rajapaksa government is going soft on hardliners as the Sinhala Buddhists form a crucial vote-bank. Many believe that the fervour whipped up over the so-called threat to Sinhala nationalism has helped the Rajapaksa government hide its poor performance on the human resources front.

The largely Tamil-speaking Muslims make up just about 10% of Sri Lanka’s 20 million people. Their leadership is faction-ridden, and usually support whichever coalition comes to power regardless of ideology.

Initially, the government tried to suppress the mainstream media from reporting the violence, but the images and accounts went viral. Now it is openly cracking down on any dissenting voices – both on social media and among NGOs. A reporter from the international news channel Al Jazeera is being investigated for a report that showed saffron-clad monks leading a group of attackers.

The developments are very likely to test Sri Lanka’s “all weather friendship” with Pakistan. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has also expressed its concerns to Sri Lanka, and the matter is also expected to figure prominently during discussions at the forthcoming UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), resulting in further erosion of the president’s image at home.

The other more insidious challenge for Sri Lanka is from terrorist groups who could try to exploit the situation by playing on the inflamed sentiments of the local Muslim population. It is well known that the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) had used safe houses in the country to train and infiltrate extremists into India. The LeT might exploit the strong sectarian divide between the largely peaceful Sufi Muslim population and the smaller fundamentalist Wahhabi elements to further its interests.

A small Wahhabi fringe group, the Tauheed Jamaat (TJ), known for its anti-Buddhist rhetoric, already exists in Sri Lanka. It has links with the TJ in Tamil Nadu which is led by former members of the proscribed terrorist group Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI). This link has the potential to whip up religious passions among Muslims to condone, if not support, terrorist acts.

Last month during his meeting with President Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Modi had discussed the arrest of a Sri Lankan Muslim in Chennai who was allegedly spying for the Pakistani intelligence. The agents who had employed the suspect were found to be operating from the Pakistan High Commission in Colombo. Afraid of the implications to its national security, the Sri Lankan government recently decided to expel 1500 Pakistani asylum seekers living in the country.

Sri Lanka, which has been criticised for failing to protect its minority religious groups, is already facing a UNHRC investigation into the civil war against Tamil separatists in 2009. Going ahead, President Rajapaksa must remember to calibrate his political priorities while handling anti-Muslim activities, lest he jeopardises Sri Lanka’s national interests.

Col R Hariharan is a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia. He served as the Head of Intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 90.

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