Sri Lankan Authorities Arrest Policeman, Monk for Violence Against Muslims

June 22, 2017
Sri Lankan Muslim woman looks at camera in scorched building

After ongoing accusations of inaction, Sri Lankan authorities have arrested four Buddhists for promoting and perpetuating violence against Muslims.

For years, Muslim Sri Lankans—who make up nearly 10 percent of the country’s population—have been targeted in spates of religious violence. In 2014, a series of anti-Muslim riots on Muslim homes, shops, and places of worship displaced more than 10,000 people. More recently, Muslims in Sri Lanka have reported at least 16 incidents of hate crimes against Muslims since April 16.

Displaced Muslim woman and child

Image Source: Displaced Muslim woman. Photo by Vikalpa | Groundviews, Flickr Creative Commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vikalpasl/14626480382/

Many blame the heightened widespread Muslim animus on a Buddhist nationalist group founded in 2012, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). The 2014 riots took place immediately following BBS rallies during which Muslims were called rapists and BBS leaders proclaimed, “This is a Buddhist nation…. Not everyone can live under the umbrella of a Buddhist culture.”

BBS Secretary General Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, who has been in hiding since May in order to evade arrest, seems to have encouraged the most recent series of attacks. Although BBS denies responsibility for the violence itself, Gnanasara said in an interview that he does not discount the role violence might play in achieving his aims.

“When they come to disturb us, we are fighting, but that does not mean we are militants,” Gnanasara said. “I will fight until such time that a leader can say that this is a country of Sinhalese Buddhists.”

Sri Lankan Buddhist monks sit together

Image Source: Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka. Photo by Global Panorama, Flickr Creative Commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/121483302@N02/14481011304/

In 2009, Sri Lanka saw the end to a drawn-out civil war between the Buddhist Sinhalese-controlled Sri Lankan government and the ethnic minority of largely Hindu Tamils, who led a failed insurgency in hopes of creating an independent state. While many anticipated that Sinhalese nationalism would ebb with the end of the 25-year-long war, the nation’s two main political parties continue to reflect a deep schism between Sinhalese nationalists and coalition of minority groups, including ethnic Tamils and Muslims.

Muslim Sri Lankan woman looks at scorched building

Image Source: Woman looks at scorched building. Photo by Vikalpa | Groundviews, Flickr Creative Commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vikalpasl/14537002434/

Current president Maithripala Sirisena, the candidate supported by the bulk of Sri Lankan ethnic and religious minorities, has instructed police to carry out justice when citizens commit religiously-motivated hate crimes. Nevertheless, little has been done to quell anti-Muslim violence since his election in 2015 and Sirisena has faced ongoing accusations of inaction.

Many hail the recent arrests as a sign of changing tides in the Sri Lankan government’s response to violence against Muslims. The Straits Times reported that the four accused persons are “close associates” of BBS Secretary General Gnanasara. Deputy Inspector-General Priyantha Jayakody said that the group of four—which includes a police officer and a Buddhist monk—were caught on video setting fire to a mosque and a Muslim-owned bookstore.

Burned items

Image Source: Burned items left behind. Photo by Vikalpa | Groundviews, Flickr Creative Commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vikalpasl/14351942999/

The warrant for Gnanasara’s arrest includes charges of “inciting religious disharmony,” threatening police officers, obstructing police duties, and “spewing hateful sentiments.” After months in hiding, Gnanasara surrendered himself to authorities yesterday and has been granted bail.

48-year-old Sinhalese woman Amanthi Ratanakaye told Al Jazeera that radical groups like the BBS do not represent the viewpoint of most Sri Lankan Buddhists.

“We want to live peacefully and we do not support the acts that are done on our fellow Muslim neighbors,” Ratanakaye said. “They do not represent us, but they are worryingly influencing our young, which is why action must be taken against them.”

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Woman looks at camera. Photo by Vikalpa | Groundviews, Flickr Creative Commons.