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Buddhist radicalism threatens to reopen Sri Lanka’s domestic stability

Christian evangelization, Anagarika Dharampala, Maha Bodhi Society, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, Jathika Hela Urumaya, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, LTTE, Bodu Bala Sena, Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thera, Maithripala Sirisena, National Thowheeth Jama’ath,

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Buddhist radicalism threatens to reopen Sri Lanka’s domestic stability

Buddhist nationalism has been present in Sri Lanka since before its independence from British rule in 1948. While some organizations like the Society for the Propagation of Buddhism focused on countering Christian evangelization, organizations like Anagarika Dharampala’s Maha Bodhi Society used more exclusionary methods. Writes Andrea Malji

Buddhism typically evokes imagery of meditation, peace, and harmony. But this reductionist vision of Buddhism ignores the religion’s more complex history, including ties to militancy. Like most religious extremist movements, the actions of a few threaten to undermine the peaceful philosophy of the majority. Unfortunately, in both Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Buddhist nationalists have adopted a violent approach toward their minority Muslim populations. The plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar has received much global attention. A similar strand of radical Buddhism in Sri Lanka, however, is shaping the domestic atmosphere.

Fortunately, the levels of violence and exclusion seen in Myanmar have not been experienced in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, the increasing power and organization of Buddhist nationalism is concerning.  

The current wave of Buddhist nationalism

Buddhist nationalism has been present in Sri Lanka since before its independence from British rule in 1948. While some organizations like the Society for the Propagation of Buddhism focused on countering Christian evangelization, organizations like Anagarika Dharampala’s Maha Bodhi Society used more exclusionary methods. Dharampala discussed how Muslims diminished Buddhism in Sri Lanka and colluded with the British to enrich themselves at the expense of the Sinhalese. Anti-Muslim rhetoric became increasingly common and contributed to the 1915 anti-Muslim riots. Despite the riot and anti-Muslim rhetoric, the internal divisions mostly shifted away from Muslims and toward Tamils for the rest of the twentieth century.

After independence, Sri Lanka implemented Sinhalization policies that caused deep grievances within the Tamil population. These grievances eventually escalated into a civil war, which was fought between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) and the government of Sri Lanka. During the civil war, Buddhist nationalist elements became increasingly influential and involved in politics. Many Buddhist monks even entered politics through the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party. The politicization of hardline monks led to an increase in exclusionary policies and rhetoric. Many monks encouraged the state to use strong military force against the LTTE and increase public displays of Buddhist iconography and rituals.

With few exceptions, the Muslim community avoided much of the violence. However, when the civil war came to a violent end in 2009, it brought with it a new era of division. Once the war ended, the monks now focused their attention on the Muslim population and advocating anti-Muslim policies, such as a face veil ban and an end to halal-slaughtered meat. The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated these divisions by allowing the state to use the backdrop of a national emergency as an excuse for increasing authoritarianism.

Weaponizing religious nationalism to target its Muslims

Following the end of the civil war there was hope that a more peaceful future would emerge in the island country. This hope was quickly dashed with the rise of organizations like the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), who used increasingly divisive rhetoric targeting the Sri Lankan Muslim community. The BBS, which formed in 2012, began holding rallies decrying the risk Muslims pose to Sri Lanka and Buddhism. Following a 2014 altercation between a Buddhist monk and Muslim youth in the city of Aluthgama in southwest Sri Lanka, the BBS went to the town to hold a rally and enflame tensions. The rallies were coordinated by BBS leader Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thera, who utilized anti-Muslim rhetoric and called for revenge, saying: 

“In this country we still have a Sinhala police; we still have a Sinhala army. After today if a single Marakkalaya or some other paraya (alien) touches a single Sinhalese…..it will be their end.”

Within hours of these claims, anti-Muslim riots broke out throughout the region. Muslim businesses were burned and looted, mosques were damaged, four were killed, eighty were injured, and upwards of 10,000 displaced. Tensions appeared to reduce following the election of President Maithripala Sirisena, who promised an era of reform, including investigations into any wrongdoing by the previous Rajapaksa regime. Yet, as the government spiraled toward instability in 2018, the violence targeting Muslims also returned. In February and March 2018, mobs attacked Muslims, their businesses, and places of worship in the cities of Ampara and Kandy. Nearly 500 homes and businesses were destroyed while police failed to de-escalate — and some even aided the Sinhalese rioters. The riots led the government to declare a state of emergency, including a blackout of social media and a curfew. Harmful rumors on social media escalated existing tensions as WhatsApp messages and Facebook videos claimed to document alleged nefarious plots by Muslim residents to sterilize the Sinhalese population. Those plots of course were false, but that did not prevent the story from going viral and further contributing to a growing negative perception of Muslim residents.

The 2018 riots were said to precipitate the formation of the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, an Islamist group with alleged ties to the Islamic State (ISIS). The organization would later be responsible for the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, which killed 269 and injured over 500 people. Following the Easter Sunday attacks, former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his candidacy for the presidency. Not surprisingly, Rajapaksa harnessed the fear in the shadow of the attacks and utilized it in his campaign. As the defence minister during Eelam War IV (the last stage of the civil war), Rajapaksa solidified a legacy of brutality in war — but a brutality that brought the war to end and thus a hero status to many Buddhists. This history made Rajapaksa appealing to non-Muslims that feared the rise of Islamic terrorism in Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa used his historical hawkishness alongside the growing Buddhist nationalist movement to consolidate his popularity. Radical Buddhist monks joined Rajapaksa along the campaign trail and utilized exclusionary language to warn the Sinhalese about the growing danger of radical Islam in Sri Lanka and the necessity of addressing it with force. Not surprisingly Rajapaksa easily won the election. Gotabaya’s brother and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa became the prime minister shortly after. Together, the duo considered defeating the newest security threat as the highest priority. Not surprisingly, policies targeting Muslims have become increasingly common since they assumed office.

Perhaps one of the most egregious government policies has been the mandatory cremation of COVID–19 victims. Because cremation is forbidden in Islam, forcing Muslims to be cremated is one of the worst violations of their religion. Despite widespread global outcry and reassurance from local and international health agencies that burial is a safe method, the government continued their policy of cremation. The policy continued for nearly a year before the government finally announced it would be putting an end to it in late February 2021. The policy further eroded trust toward the government by the Muslim community. Protests by Buddhist monks calling for continued forced cremations further politicized the epidemic and demonstrated its communal tone in the country.

Implementing exclusionary policies

Despite the coronavirus crisis raging throughout the island, the government decided to focus its attention elsewhere. In August 2020, the government expanded a presidential task force on archaeological management in the east, which consists mainly of Tamil and Muslim communities. The task force is dominated by Buddhist and Buddhist monks and is set to identify areas of archaeological importance in the region. Although seemingly harmless at first glance, the task force may be used to dispute the historical presence of certain archaeological sites and contest non-Buddhist sites said to be in historically Buddhist areas. The targeting and destruction of Muslim religious sites has historical precedent in the country. The absence of Muslims from the council is particularly concerning given their concentration in the region.

In April 2021, the government continued to implement policies that can be perceived as targeting the Muslim population. Using the guise of national security, Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekera claimed that face veils (niqab, a veil that covers the entire face except for the eyes, and burqa, a coat-like outer garment that women use to cover their clothes from the public eye) represent a threat to national security and are a sign of religious extremism. The government had previously banned face veils following the Easter attacks, but the protocol was later rescinded. Pakistan’s ambassador to Sri Lanka claimed the ban would “hurt Muslim feelings.”  The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief went further and claimed the ban violates international law on the freedom of religious expression.

The urgent need for inclusion

The sharp and rising anti-Muslim sentiment within Sri Lanka is concerning. The government has taken increasingly exclusionary approaches to address what it states are national security concerns. The policies, however, will only further exclude the Muslim community from Sri Lankan society. Such exclusion, not face veils, threaten to nurture religious extremism. If Sri Lanka wants to heal from its history of exclusion it must move in a more inclusive direction. Otherwise, the legacy of conflict and division will continue.

Andrea Malji is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Hawaii Pacific University and a 2021 Fulbright Nehru Scholar. Her research focuses on nationalism, religious minorities, political violence, and South Asia.

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