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At least three Muslims were shot dead in southern Sri Lanka after a hardline ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ group went on the rampage. Dozens more were injured and buildings set alight as the Bodu Bala Sena marched on Aluthgama and surrounding areas.
Rumours spread after a heated argument apparently broke out between local youth and a Buddhist monk’s driver. The police allowed violence to flare, though a curfew was later put in place. The government must bear a share of the responsibility for a surge in open prejudice against ethnic and religious minorities.
While the Buddha’s teachings focused on the importance of compassion, clear thinking and non-violence, in Sri Lanka there are some who see Buddhism more as a marker of communal identity. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the authorities backed the rise of this toxic distortion of the Buddhist faith and unleashed violence against the Tamil minority.
This fuelled a murderous form of Tamil nationalism, in which the Tiger rebels also terrorised helpless civilians. Meanwhile many mainly Sinhalese youth in the south, frustrated at state repression and lack of economic opportunities, rose up against the government too.
This uprising was brutally crushed but, by this time, the rule of law had largely collapsed. Even senior ministers were not safe, as a ‘dirty war’ raged in parallel with bombing and shelling elsewhere in the island. Some measure of order and democracy was restored in the south, but many in the north and east continued to suffer.
Five years ago, government forces finally defeated the Tigers, killing tens of thousands of non-combatants in the process. The United Nations has condemned both the state and the rebels for war crimes.
Rather than try to rebuild trust among minorities, the government has tended to treat them in a discriminatory way, while becoming increasingly authoritarian in its dealings with people of all communities. Power is now largely in the hands of President Mahinda Rajapakse and his brothers. This suggests that the lessons of the past have not been learnt.
Justice minister Rauf Hakeem, himself a Muslim, visited the towns of Aluthgama and Beruwala. He said he was “outraged” and “ashamed” at the government’s failure to prevent the violence.
It is time for the Sri Lankan authorities to take firm action to end anti-minority harassment and seek to rebuild democracy and respect for diversity, before the situation further deteriorates.
© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sectorTweet