Sri Lankan Buddhists: Peace Messengers to Terror Monk[ger]

South Asia Conflict Monitor, March 2014

Vehemently opposing the Human Rights violation report submitted by the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navnanethem Pillay, the Sri Lankan (SL) government has recently rejected her call for establishing ‘an international inquiry mechanism to further investigate the alleged rights violations (both Human Rights and Humanitarian Law) and for monitoring any domestic accountability process in Sri Lanka. The report claims to have found proof of sporadic attacks on minorities: Muslims and Christians in the country and that the “government has failed to take any action against the perpetrators.” The SL government may not accept the other aspects of report, but the fact is that attacks on the minority groups have increased manifold. A closer look at the attacks on the minorities by Sinhala extremist Buddhist organisations showed that the report has some substance. The continuation of the attacks for a long period also reflects that the present government has either a tacit understanding with the radical groups or completely subservient to them since they can swing the vote bank during the elections. Perhaps this has emboldened the extremists to continue their attacks on the minority groups.


Both government and private sources have confirmed regular attacks on the minorities in Sri Lanka especially in the post-civil war period.  First, the Colombo Police informed that nearly 20 mosques were attacked in 2013. Second, the Presidential Commission investigating alleged abductions or disappearances of residents in the Northern and Eastern Provinces during the period 1990-2009 pointed out that around 5,000 Muslims had gone missing in the country during the period of the war. Third, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Secretary handed over a special report to Navanethem (Navi) Pillay during her visit to SL in August last year.  According to this special report, there were some 280 incidents of threat and violence against Muslims in 2013, as well as attacks on mosques and places of business. Christian groups also reported more than 103 incidents of attacks on churches and Christians in 2013.[1] Lastly, media report indicated that major actions are taken by the Buddhist radical groups in 2013-14. Some of them are: 

  • February 16, 2014: More than 200 Buddhist activists of the Sinhala Ravaya, an extremist Buddhists outfit, threatened self-immolation if the government did not ban the slaughter of cattle.
  • January 12: 2014: Around 200 people led by Buddhist monks attacked two Christian churches in Hikkaduwa.
  • October 15, 2013: Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), an extremist Buddhist outfit, threatened to re-commence its agitation against the issuing of halal certificates in the country.
  • October 06, 2013: The BBS declared that a crusade would be launched in support of allowing the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to engage in politics.
  • September 20: A group of radical Sinhalese Buddhists attacked a Protestant church.
  • August 11, 2013: The BBS attacked a Muslim prayer centre at Grandpass area of Colombo.


Given the frequent attacks and the absence of action against the perpetrators, the minorities feel insecure. There is a perception amongst the minority groups that Buddhist radical groups especially the BBS, have the sympathy of defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The minorities feel that the BBS and other Buddhist organizations maintain double standards on cattle slaughter, and this is a conspiracy with a hidden agenda. The interpretation of the minorities seems to be correct to some extent right, as the Buddhists themselves consume beef and meat. Some also believe that these are political strategies of the government to hide its inadequacies by pitting the monks against the people.


There are allegations that the BBS has the political patronage of the present government. The BBS’s political affiliation can be discerned from the fact that Gotabaya inaugurated the Buddhist Leadership Academy of the BBS on March 09, 2013 at Galle. Even other Buddhist organizations are critical of the BBS’s anti-minority policy and extremist views.


A closer examination of the radical Buddhist groups’ demands and statements indicate that there are political and economic aspects to these attacks. Politically, these attacks are motivated to suppress the minority groups with an objectiveto form a single Sinhala nation.. After the fall of the LTTE and establishment of absolute control over the north-eastern provinces, the government feels that the Tamil minority may not be a major threat towards its goal of establishing  Sri Lanka as a Sinhala-dominated state. Therefore, the next targets are Muslims and Christians, who constitute roughly 8 and 7 per cent of the total population respectively, of the 21 million inhabitants of Sri Lanka. The Christians are targeted because Buddhists feel insecure about perceived rapid conversion of Sinhala people to that religion.


Economic Causes

Available documents suggest that the Tamils were attacked in 1983 because of their economic prosperity and domination in the service sectors. They had prospered in the major cities of Sri Lanka, including Colombo.  Since the Tamils are now politically marginalized after the fall of the LTTE, the government reportedly has been trying to contain the other religious minorities. Since the Muslims have dominated economically like Tamils did in 1980s, the government has been using Buddhist radical groups to keep a check on  them. The Sri Lankan Muslims are mainly from India or the Arab nations. Although the Muslim  population is comparatively less, they are the most affluent community in Sri Lanka. All major business houses are controlled by them in the eastern provinces like those in Ampara, Batticaloa and among others. Some Sinhala businessmen reportedly pay money to the Buddhist organizations to harass the Muslim business groups. Media reports indicated that in January 2013, Buddhists called for boycott of Muslim-owned businesses and ban on headscarves and halal foods.


The Crisis Group report in November 2013 found that five years after the end of the civil war, the Rajapaksa government needs new issues, in order to cover for its failure to deliver good governance. The government seems to be "tacitly encouraging, and in some cases directly supporting, the anti-Muslim campaigns led by militant and often violent Buddhist organisations."[2]


Political Causes

Not only the Buddhist radical groups, but also both Rajapaksa himself and his other coalition partners are not happy with the SLMC, which represents a large portion of the Muslim community form the north-eastern part of the country. The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a coalition partner in the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) criticized the SLMC  leader Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem for his alleged intervention in the legal education system in the country. The JHU alleged that Hakeem has been trying to 'Muslimise' the legal sector of Sri Lanka.


The party even labelled Hakeem as a racist and argued that the number of Muslim students has increased because Hakeem has tampered with  the Law College Entrance Examination rules to allow for the accommodation of Muslim students.  In fact, the allegations are very close to the BBS, which charged that there was a scandal behind the disproportionate increase of Tamil and Muslim students who passed the law entrance examination in 2013. The outfit also organized street protests against Hakeem. This reflects that thereis common ill-feeling on minorities at the party, government and civil society level.


Other than this, a rift has also occurred within the SLMC and UPFA over the former’s sharing of the a report on the number of attacks on minorities in the northeastern provinces to Navi Pillay. In this regard, in early March, President Rajapaksa  personally during a cabinet meeting, asked Hakeem to decide whether he and the SLMC want remain in the Government. The cabinet felt that the Tamil Diaspora have been campaigning in Muslim countries for vote in favour of the March 26 Human Rights resolution against Sri Lanka.


The rift appeared during the provincial elections, while the SLMC opposed the Government’s position on the 13th amendment. Then, the ALMC hinted that Muslims do not trust the Rajapaksa Government. It joined the Government to share  power to offset the domination by by Tamils. Therefore, the SLMC contested the north-eastern provincial council elections independently.


Since the BBS has committed to carry out protest rallies to impose ban on Halal meat, cattle slaughter and use of Purdah/Burka, the Muslim community might oppose that strongly.  The Sri Lankan Government therefore would tacitly encourage the religious tension in the country for some time, to divert international attention over the Human Rights issue. The politicization of the minority issue might widen the trust deficit between the Sinhalese and other communities. In that case, the country may soon witness another round of civil war.

[1] “U.N. rights boss seeks international probe into Sri Lanka war crimes”, Reuters, February 25, 2014.

[2] Sri Lanka’s Potemkin Peace: Democracy Under Fire, Crisis Group Asia Report No. 53, 3 November 2013, p.27.


Author Note
Courtsey: South Asia Conflict Monitor, Volume 1, Number 10, March 2014.