Sri Lanka has suffered a wave of anti-Muslim violence in wake of the Easter bombings. The 21 April attacks, claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), targeted churches and hotels killing more than 250 people and injuring over 500. Since then, Sri Lanka’s Muslim population has been subject to a growing backlash. The government must act quickly and comprehensively if it wishes to avoid a return to the ethnic conflict that has plagued the country in the past.
In the town of Kiniyama, hundreds of people stormed a mosque, destroying windows and burning copies of the Qur’an. This attack was triggered by a group of residents demanding to search the building for weapons, Reuters reports.
In Minuwangoda, a large, Muslim-owned pasta factory was burned down, with employees still trapped inside. The owners have accused local police of standing by and allowing the act to take place.
A Muslim man was stabbed to death after a mob attacked his carpentry business in the Puttalam District. The 45-year-old died shortly after admission to hospital.
The violence has prompted concern from the UN as the global body’s special advisers on genocide prevention and the responsibility to protect called on the government to make clear it would “not tolerate the spread of prejudice and hate among groups within its population,” stating that “to be a Sri Lankan is to be a Buddhist, to be Hindu, to be a Muslim, to be a Christian.”
After 1948, newly independent Sri Lanka sought to embed the majority’s Sinhala Buddhism within the state’s formation – holding that the island is home to the Sinhalese majority, with minorities tolerated only on the condition that they accept Sinhala hegemony. Following this came a system of racially and linguistically discriminatory policies, and deepening oppression of minority groups. The Tamil minority population in 1983 sought to create an independent state within the island, sparking a bloody civil war culminating in the 2009 defeat of the Tamil separatists via a government offensive. The UN estimates cost over 40,000 lives.
since this conflict, the persecutory-gaze of Sri Lankan nationalists has shifted to\ the country’s Muslim population. In 2018 there were anti-Muslim riots in Kandy, as a 500-strong mob set fire to Muslim homes and businesses, leading to 2 deaths and 15 non-fatal injuries.
The recent violence comes as no surprise. Indeed, following the Easter bombings, Jehan Perera, a member of non-partisan advocacy group the National Peace Council, warned of the likelihood of growing “suspicion towards them [Muslims],” and resultant “localised attacks.”
The government claims it has a grip on the violence. Shiral Lakthilaka, an adviser to the President, has said that, “the government is very determined to control this.” Since the violence began, it has enacted a curfew and enforced a ban on certain social media platforms with the aim of halting disinformation’s violence-inciting spread.
This has so far failed to quell the attacks and growing anti-Muslim sentiment. One anonymous Muslim businessman, speaking on the areas in which the curfew has been enforced, told the BBC that while “the army is on the streets with guns…they don’t take any action against the violence.”
The success of the government’s efforts to tackle this wave of violence shall be judged over the coming weeks. What is certain though is that the response to the recent terrorist attacks cannot be the persecution of minority groups. Otherwise, Sri Lanka will merely see the exacerbation of existing racial divides and risk a return to the bloody conflict that mars its history. The government must not only do all it can to halt this current wave of violence, but it must address the underlying reasons for the nation’s discrimination towards minority communities. Otherwise, it may only take another tragic incident for these tensions to return. Until then, Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka continue to live in vulnerability.