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How Sinhala extremism turned against Sri Lanka’s Muslims after the civil war | Samanth Subramanian

4 August 2014

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Caravan Magazine, 1 st July 2014

Island of the Pure
How Sinhala extremism turned against Sri Lanka’s Muslims after the civil war

by Samanth Subramanian


During the final years of the civil war, Sri Lankan Buddhism had developed a muscular right wing. First, in 2004, there was the launch of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a political party led by Buddhist monks, some of whom admitted quite freely to being racists and bayed for a destructive, damn-the-consequences annihilation of the guerrillas of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Nine of its monks entered parliament, and the party became a member—and an ideological heavyweight—in the coalition that ruled Sri Lanka. After some years, even the JHU was deemed by some to be too timid. In 2011 and 2012, two other sets of monks splintered from the JHU and started the Sinhala Ravaya (the Sinhalese Roar) and the Bodu Bala Sena (the Army of Buddhist Power), hijacking for themselves the shrill energy of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism. On the flag of the Sinhala Ravaya, a lion bounds forward, holding a sword thrust forward in attack. The Sinhalese roar is practically audible.

During those two years, the Buddhist right developed a taste for straight thuggery. The Tamils, cautious and defeated, living under a crushing military presence in the country’s north and east, posed no present threat to Sinhalese Buddhism. So, instead, the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya—as well as the JHU, their milquetoast cousin—retrained their energies upon Sri Lanka’s Muslims, who form roughly 10 percent of the population. Unlike with the Tamils, no long skein of ancient hatreds between Buddhists and Muslims could be unspooled out of the island’s ancient Buddhist histories; no rankling grouses could be invoked as justifications for this new animus. But this did not matter. The Muslims were demonised, accused of eroding the country’s Buddhist heritage. In the absence of ancient hatreds, chauvinism can easily rustle up modern ones.

Through the months after I came to Sri Lanka, and in the years after I left, the country’s newspapers filled with reports of violence, and with pronouncements from Buddhist leaders on how they expected Muslims to behave. The JHU demanded the closure of Muslim-owned butcheries that sold beef, and forced the government to ban the certification of halal meat across the country. The Bodu Bala Sena attacked a popular Muslim-owned apparel store in Colombo, an incident that rose to prominence because of the size and popularity of this particular emporium. Other anonymous groups painted pigs on the walls of mosques. Some protesters stormed into the Sri Lanka Law College in Colombo, claiming that its examination results were doctored to favour Muslims. Calls went around for particular mosques and Muslim shrines around the island to be razed, ostensibly for being situated too close to Buddhist temples. Even proximity was unacceptable now. In the town of Dambulla, the chief priest of a local Buddhist temple led a protest to “relocate” a mosque. In the process, he warned, “Today we came with the Buddhist flag in hand. But the next time, it would be different.” No one stood up to these threats; Sri Lanka absorbed them passively and sailed on. It was a frightening, sickening time, plump with hatred and hostility.

THE ANURADHAPURA DEMOLITION happened early in September 2011. We went there in the very last days of the month, Sanjaya and I and another friend named Dinidu. From Colombo, we caught a night train to Anuradhapura, practically sticking our heads out of the open window for all five or six hours because our compartment was so stifling and airless. The train arrived at 3.30 am, and we were the only people to alight at Anuradhapura’s small, low station.

“During the war, whenever they wanted to make a film in which the Jaffna station appeared, they would use the Anuradhapura station instead,” Sanjaya said. He stood for a few minutes and looked up at the building’s facade, pearl white by moonlight.

In the morning, we visited Sanjaya’s contact Rizvi, himself a local journalist. He was a middle-aged man with brawny forearms and white stubble. Either he had known that we would be videotaping him or he was a punctilious dresser even at home, because he wore a white shirt with knife-sharp creases and a neat blue-and-white checked sarong. His first language was Tamil, but he spoke to Sanjaya and Dinidu in fluent Sinhalese. Whenever Rizvi said something significant, one of them would aim a translation in my direction. I sat off to the side, on a divan next to a window, scribbling.

It appeared that Rizvi was immensely fond of recounting the turns of bureaucratic wheels: petitions filed, orders issued and appeals counter-filed, deeds issued, public meetings held and reports written. From any mess of administrative detail, he was certain, a clear and potent truth would emerge. For Rizvi, everything had a procedural history, and for this reason he started the story of the dargah demolition by describing how he moved house in 1974.

Rizvi and his family used to live in a jumble of Muslim residences in the Sacred City, a zone wrapped around a giant Bodhi that was grown, according to legend, from a cutting of the original tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Some families had been living in the area for more than a century. “We moved out because the drainage in that place was so awful. But, technically, we still owned our house there.”

In May 2009, a minister in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government ordered all the houses to be knocked down, without compensation. Two weeks later the civil war ended, but Rizvi’s family felt no joy because they were so distressed about the demolition of their home.

The dargah had been in the very heart of this neighbourhood, and once the houses were stripped away, it shone through prominently. It had been built to honour Sikkandar Waliullah, a Muslim saint and healer who had been buried in Anuradhapura. No one had precisely established the antiquity of Waliullah’s life, although Rizvi claimed that the dargah had found mention in literature for at least 400 years. “Every year, there was a festival here, an urs, when holy men used to come to the dargah and hit themselves with hammers or stab themselves with knives, to prove the power of the shrine,” Rizvi said. “This at least, I know, had been happening for more than 50 or 60 years, because my uncle remembered seeing it when he was a boy.”

The very existence of the dargah now rankled the Buddhist right, as a plainly Islamic commemoration on Buddhist turf. The night before the Poya—or full-moon—holiday in June 2011, seven men on motorcycles drove up to the shrine. A Sinhalese man living in the vicinity realised they were armed with tools and crowbars, and he alerted the dargah’s caretaker. On that occasion, some tiles on the dargah were damaged, but the job couldn’t be completed. A band of Muslims confronted the seven men, the police turned up, and the wrecking crew was hustled out of the site. In response to the incident, a new, permanent police post was installed near the dargah, for additional security. “You can see it in the video of the dargah’s final destruction,” Rizvi said. “You can also see that the policemen are doing nothing.”

ANURADHAPURA WAS HUSHED and wary after this episode, bracing itself for more trouble. Around this time, hysterical pamphlets started to circulate within the town. Rizvi had saved three of them for us. Two were anonymous, but the third was signed by Amithadamma Thero, a Buddhist monk who was something of a firebrand among the local clergy. “I was surprised to see that monks were involved,” Rizvi said. “I would never have thought it possible.” The leaflets—all in Sinhalese—sealed the dargah’s fate.

The first pamphlet called the Sinhalese “the fastest vanishing race on the face of this earth,” and it worried that the country’s biggest threats came from its Muslims, who were “breeding like pigs.” There were further descriptions of Muslims, consisting of astonishing filth, and then:

We need a pureblood king who can proudly say to the world that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist nation. He should be brave enough to say: “The other races that live here have to live by those rules, or they can leave.” We don’t need multicultural, multi-religious ideas. There has to be one Sinhala Buddhist country in the world. This is that country ...

Do not sell your land and businesses to the Muslims. They are able to buy things for higher prices because of the money they get from their mosque and the Middle East for the breeding of their kind. You and I will die soon, but it is our duty to save this sacred land for the future generations ...

The closing sentence was an instruction: to circulate the leaflet among Sinhala Buddhists only.

In the second pamphlet, the authors attacked the district administration for allowing the Sacred City to be defiled by the dargah and other non-Buddhist enterprises. To prevent a religious war, it said, the dargah needed to be removed. “Don’t you cow-killing, beef-eating, Tamil-speaking people already have a mosque in Anuradhapura behind the post office? Don’t make a joke out of our Buddhist heritage.”

The final leaflet, signed by Amithadamma Thero, was dated 2 September 2011. Calling the dargah a “mosque,” Amithadamma raged that its very presence in the Sacred City polluted Anuradhapura.

Who is responsible for this?

Corrupt politicians and certain robe-wearers who bow their heads and tangle a yellow robe about them but don’t even follow the Five Precepts. Shame on the Sinhala Buddhist policemen who protect this mosque ...

Shame on the IGP [Inspector General of Police] who is using the police to protect this mosque. May Mahinda and Gotabhaya who are good followers of Buddhism become aware of this soon!

Pious monks and followers:

To save the Anuradhapura Sacred City from this Muslim invasion, come to the Dakkhunu Dagoba on the 10th of September at 1 p.m.

There was no mistaking that final line. It was a loud, clear call to action.

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The above excerpt from Caravan Magazine is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use