In Sri Lanka, hate speech and impunity fuel anti-Muslim violence

In Sri Lanka, hate speech and impunity fuel anti-Muslim violence

Mosques, homes and businesses were vandalised and torched during the mob attacks in Kandy [Tharaka Basnayaka/AP]

A day before anti-Muslim mobs swept through a peaceful hill town in central Sri Lanka, the leader of a Sinhala nationalist group took a stroll through the town’s centre.

“We have been distributing leaflets and have now reached Digana,” Amith Weerasinghe said into the camera of his phone. “But the problem is we haven’t come across even 20 shops that are owned by Sinhalese.”

In a measured tone, he continued: “This town has come to belong only to the Muslims. We should have started to address this a long time ago.” Then he said: “We, as Sinhalese, are to blame. If there are any Sinhalese in Digana or nearby, please come.”

That video, posted on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, was shared widely.

It preceded a campaign of vandalism and arson attacks in the central Kandy district, where Digana is located, prompting the government to deploy the army, declarea state of emergency and block access to the internet.

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The violence, triggered by the death of a Sinhalese man after being beaten by a group of Muslim men over a traffic dispute, left at least two dead, and mosques as well as dozens of homes and businesses torched or destroyed.

It raised fears of instability in Sri Lanka, a South Asian nation still struggling to recover from nearly three decades of ethnic civil war.  

That conflict with Tamil separatists ended in 2009, but a fault line has emerged in Sri Lanka once again. This time it is along a religious divide, between Sinhalese Buddhists who make up about 75 percent of the Indian Ocean’s 21 million population and the Muslim minority, who make up about 9 percent.

Threatened minority 

The two communities have lived harmoniously for the most part for generations, but persisting feelings of insecurity among the Sinhalese community, as well as economic and cultural changes in Sri Lankan society in recent years have given rise to a venomous strand of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, according to analysts. 

Jehan Perera, executive director of the Colombo-based National Peace Council, said rising anti-Muslim sentiment has much to do with “the historical insecurity of the Sinhalese who see themselves as a threatened minority”.

Tamil separatists were seen as part of a bigger Tamil population across the sea in neighbouring India’s Tamil Nadu, while the Muslims are seen as “part of a larger collectivity – the global Islamic community – who may one day take over Sri Lanka”, he said. 

WATCH: Sri Lanka violence hits its economy and reputation (02:16)

That belief has caused fears over an increase in the Muslim population and birthed false rumours of a Muslim plan to reduce the Sinhalese population, including by feeding them contraceptives.

Rumours about such plans led to mobs setting fire to Muslim businesses in February in the east of the country. There, a Muslim chef was accused of adding a “sterelisation pill” to food sold to Sinhalese customers.

“These are absolutely false and made up stories,” Perera said. 

Another factor stoking anti-Muslim sentiment is small town jealousy over perceptions that Muslims hold more economic power, said Nizamuddeen Mohamed Ameen, president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka.

“This a myth,” he said. “In many cities, many of the small shops belong to the Muslims. They are traditionally business people, but their businesses are small, selling everyday things.”

Other sources of mistrust include changes to Sri Lankan Muslim culture in recent years, Ameen and Perera said.

Muslims are disproportionally represented in the more than a million Sri Lankans who go abroad to work, especially in the Middle East. When they return, they “are bringing money home and coming back with a more Arab mindset than they left,” Perera said.

“In a way, a lot of money is coming from Arab countries to Sri Lanka, mosques are being built. And many Muslim women dress differently – they were niqab unlike before,” he said referring to the full face veil worn by some Muslim women.

Ameen agreed: “Our mothers covered their hair, but they don’t wear the niqab. Muslim attire has changed, and [Sinhalese] think [Muslims] are following Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries’ model.”

Impunity

Such beliefs and rumours are spread and amplified on social media via memes, videos and posts on social media platforms, especially Facebook pages run by Sinhalese nationalist groups, analysts said.

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The most prominent of these groups are Weerasinghe’s Mahason Balakaya and Buddhist monk Galagoda Atte Gnanasara‘s Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), the latter of which has links with hardline Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha in Myanmar.

While the BBS and Mahason Balakaya do not enjoy popular support, some of their anti-Muslim sentiments are shared by the Sinhalese majority, said Perera. 

President Maithiripala Sirisena’s government failure to take adequate action against these groups despite the incitement and the hate speech has only emboldened them, other activists said.

For instance, a June 2014 speech by Gnansara is widely perceived to be the trigger for anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama, in which four were killed and at least 80 people were wounded. But he was not arrested at the time.

Later, in 2017, the police declared a manhunt for him after he failed to answer court summons to stand trial for hate speech.

He turned himself in, but was released on bail. The case is still ongoing.

In the Kandy riots case, Sri Lankan authorities arrested Weerasinghe and nine of his associates, a move critics said was too little, too late.  

Thyagi Ruwanpathira, a Sri Lankan human rights activist, said Weerasinghe’s arrest was “not at all sufficient”. 

Arrests have been made after other attacks in the past, but “we rarely see any convictions”, she said. 

“If the government and law enforcement authorities were able to break this cycle of impunity and inaction in the face of violence against ethnic and religious minorities, perpetrators would not feel so emboldened,” she said.

Religious and political leaders must communicate to the public that “violence against minorities will not be tolerated and that no ethnic or religious community are entitled to the country over anyone else”, she added.