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Down a Familiar Path

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From what has transpired in Sri Lanka over the recent past, it is unfortunate that religious-based conflicts are increasing and are becoming more intense. The otherwise peaceful island nation, which is just recovering from a bloody conflict against the LTTE, has now been pitted into another strife. Interestingly, the standoff between the Sinhalese majority population of Sri Lanka and the minority Muslims had been cooking for some time as it seems the Sinhala Buddhists have lost their enthusiasm for interfaith harmony and now seem to regard Muslim and Christian minorities as a threat to Buddhist culture. Vigilante Buddhist groups led by monks are known to have been running campaigns against Muslims and there have even been calls to ban halal meat.

Muslims account for about 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population. After recent attacks on Muslim life and property, commando forces have stepped up security measures around Muslim-owned businesses and homes around the nation to counter mobs of Buddhist extremists who have taken to setting fire to Muslim businesses in the capital Colombo and in other parts of the country. The Muslim Council of Sri Lanka has even warned that anti-Muslim disturbances are pushing religious and ethnic tensions on the island to the limits and this is despite the fact that the majority of the Buddhist population does not support such activity. In fact, one of Sri Lanka’s most vocal and prominent Buddhist nationalist groups, the Bodhu Bala Sena, or BBS, has denied that they are involved in these acts. This is heart-warming because the BBS has been known to continually make inflammatory remarks against the Muslims. BBS officials have claimed though that Muslim students receive favorable treatment in schools and are carrying out illegal practices related to the slaughter of livestock. Some nationalist Buddhist monks also accuse Muslims of constructing too many mosques, seeking to forcibly convert Buddhists to Islam and of having too many children in order to increase their influence in society.

A part of the anti-Muslim rage on part of extremist Buddhists in Sri Lanka emerges from the belief of the Buddhist Sinhala population that Sri Lanka is the only country now left for the Sinhalese whereas, they claim that historically speaking countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and others were all Buddhist countries. In such a backdrop, those who say that at the heart of the Sri Lankan conflict is racism may just be right. This racism is accompanied, as usual, by insecurity, envy and hatred. Some analysts believe that extremist Sinhalese Buddhists, having recently defeated Tamil Hindus, are now targeting the Muslims to enforce their supremacy. However, they are also of the view that in a country like Sri Lanka, that prides itself on being ‘multinational,’ such racist sentiment will only serve to damage its future. Nationalistic ideals fueled by racism cost the country 30 years of civil war and it is therefore quite a pity four years down the road of peace that Sri Lanka again appears to be heading towards another bloody and unnecessary conflict. It is encouraging that the Sri Lankan authorities have taken due cognizance of the situation and elite police commandos and army units have been ordered to patrol the suburbs of the Sri Lankan capital to diffuse tensions. But those in charge would have to look much deeper and address the problem at its very roots. President Mahinda Rajapakse, who is a Buddhist himself, had urged monks earlier this year not to incite religious hatred and violence. He would be very much aware that Sri Lankan Muslims living in the north were subjected to ethnic cleansing by the Tamil Tigers in the early nineties as a result of which thousands were driven southward from their homes and farms in the mostly Tamil north. Where do they go now? Perhaps, along with the Sri Lankan government, this is also a cause for the world’s Muslim community to consider and address – before it is too late.  


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