Don’t forget the role of the state in Sri Lanka’s violence

Attacks on minorities in Sri Lanka need to be seen in the context of an ethnocratic state and a climate of impunity for the incitement and mobilisation of mob violence.

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The following appeared as a letter to the editor in Süddeutsche Zeitung on 5 June 2019, reacting to an article about incidents of anti-Muslim violence in the North-Western Province of Sri Lanka that had originally been published on 14 May 2019. The translation is mine. 

A broken window in Gintota (near Galle in the South), where a mob attacked Muslim houses and mosques in November 2017.

As you report, after the terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, there were riots against Muslims. It is important not to disregard the role of the state and of impunity in that regard. In contrast to your wording, there weren’t “clashes between Christians and Muslims” recently. More to the point, according to available reports, it was racist violence. In the past years, there have repeatedly been such acts of mob violence, including in Aluthgama in 2014, in Gintota in 2017, and in Ampara and Digana in 2018. Frequently these are violent acts that are organised and incited by radical Singhalese-Buddhist organisations . They use busses to carry groups of perpetrators to a location, where those people systematically attack Muslim shops, houses, and mosques. Sri Lankan security forces intervene only belatedly. Once arrested, many perpetrators are being released after protests.

Recently, the police arrested Amit Weerasinghe  from the organisation Mahason Balakaya. Weerasinghe had already been arrested as one of those inciting the riots in March 2018, but during the constitutional crisis last autumn, he was released. Speaking about religious “clashes” between two communities obscures the one-sidedness and organisation of this violence. It is not spontaneous, but originates in a climate of impunity, structural discrimination, and negligence of security tasks by the authorities.

Since I submitted this letter, things have only got worse. President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, a Buddhist monk and the General Secretary of Bodu Bala Sena, on 23 May 2019.  Bodu Bala Sena, or BBS, is a radical Buddhist organisation, that has been implicated in many of the violent incidents mentioned above, including Gnanasara personally. In 2014, after initial tensions in the area, BBS held a rally in Aluthgama, where Gnanasara gave a speech threatening “If one Muslim lays a hand at a Singhalese, that will be the end of all of them.” During the violence, at least four people were killed, and many houses damaged. In 2016, he warned of “another Aluthgama”. In March 2018, Gnanasara was again at the scene just before mobs descended on the central towns of Digana and Teldeniya, although BBS claimed he wanted to clam things down. Gnanasara has a close partnership with Wirathu, a radical Buddhist monk inciting hatred in Myanmar.

For none of those events did Gnanasara, or BBS, face judicial consequences. Only in June 2018, Gnanasara was sentenced to six years in jail for contempt of court, after he had interrupted a hearing of a prominent case of an allegedly disappeared cartoonist, and intimitated the cartoonist’s wife, Sandya Eknaligoda. After Gnanasara was released, the president met him in person.

On 31 May, another Buddhist monk, Athuraliye Rathana Thero, began a fast unto death at Sri Lanka’s most sacred Buddhist temple in Kandy, to pressure a Muslim minister and two Muslim governors to resign from their positions, following his allegations about their possible links to the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attacks. On 3 June, Gnanasara issued a deadline for their resignations. Shortly thereafter, the governors and all 9 Muslim MPs involved in the government, i.e. also those no involved in any allegations, resigned from their positions. More and more, events on the street dominate politics in Sri Lanka.

Author: Gerrit Kurtz

Researcher working on conflict prevention, diplomacy, peacekeeping and the United Nations, with a focus on South Sudan and Sri Lanka. Research Fellow, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin.

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