According to a report, the present unrest in Sri Lanka began when a Sinhalese Buddhist died following injuries at the hands of some Muslims in Sri Lanka’s Kandy district last week. The riot between the two communities took no time once this news was spread around Kandy.
Even though the persons involved in the incident were arrested, but the violence of Sinhalese on the Muslims continued. Social media has made the situation worse by spreading anti-Muslim sentiments. The situation reached a stage that the authority had to impose curfew in the district on 4 March. However, when the violence was continuing even ignoring the curfew, a nation-wide emergency was declared the next day. The United Nations has condemned the violence and urged Sri Lanka to restore normalcy in the affected areas.
Like other South Asian countries, communal riots in Sri Lanka are nothing new. Although there were riots between the Hindu and Muslim communities in India and Pakistan, but most of the conflicts that took place in Sri Lanka were between Sinhalese and Tamils. In fact, those were more than riots; civil war, that means armed conflicts. It was a civil war between the Tamils’ armed organisation LTTE and the Sri Lankan government for more than 25 years. Actually, political motives worked more than the religious sentiments behind that. In 2002, there was a riot between two Muslim sects, ie Wahabi and Sunni Muslims. We saw a similar riot between Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims a few years ago, in 2014. In that riot, 4/5 people lost their lives and hundreds were wounded. We know 2,500 years ago, Gautam Buddha declared killing as a great sin. But, later, the Buddhists were seen to commit or incite violent activities.
A religion would be deviated from its place if it is used for particular motives of a person, group or state. It creates opportunities for misinterpretation of religious discipline or customs. In that situation, religious people become fearful. Sometimes, it weakens their tolerance. As a result, they become engaged in quarrel, conflict, riot or terrorist activities. But none of these are desired at all. It is necessary for a state or society to maintain such an environment so that no one gets the opportunity to create any nuisance. If anybody is seen engaged in violent activities, we have to take immediate action in order to control it before turning it into a bigger issue. If it cannot be controlled at the initial stage, the ultimate sufferers would be the state and its people.
In Sri Lanka, though nearly three decades of civil war ended in 2009, but the state of emergency was lifted in 2011. Emergency, perhaps, once again, has been imposed during the present riot. There might not be a situation to impose an emergency. However, this action has been taken as a precaution so that the communal violence does not spread across the country or brings any major disaster. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena visited the riot affected areas in Kandy and ordered the police to arrest the culprits involved in the riot. The army has been deployed in Kandy to ensure security. According to sources, situation is currently under the control of the government, though fear and insecurity among the Muslims is prevailing. Meanwhile, the government has announced the investigation of this communal riot.
The hardliner Sinhalese rioters have demolished more than 200 houses and business establishments of Muslims in several areas of Kandy. Even mosques were not spared. However, the exact information of the casualties is still unknown. Meanwhile, educational institutions of that district have been closed. The telecom authority asked internet providers to block access to all social networks, including the Internet and Facebook to prevent the spread of anti-Muslim writings.
Sri Lanka is a country of about 23 million people. 70 per cent of the population are Sinhalese, 15 per cent Tamil Hindus, 9 per cent Muslims, and 6 per cent others. The number of minority Muslims is slightly more than 2 million, which is much less than the Sinhalese i.e. the Buddhists. It is not understood how Muslims, being a minority group, could be a threat to the majority Sinhalese. Rather, the communal riot of 2014 made the Sri Lankan Muslims traumatic from insecurity. I had the opportunities to know this during my discussions with the sufferers at that time. Above all, they are Sri Lankan citizens like Sinhalese Buddhists or Tamil Hindus. Sri Lanka is also their motherland with equal rights. Articles 10, 11 and 12 of chapter-III of the Constitution of Sri Lanka ensure the fundamental rights of each citizen irrespective of race, religion, language, caste, sex and political opinion. Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice. In fact, the constitution has not given more rights to the majority Sinhalese than others.
But the present riot between Buddhists and Muslims does not seem to have any religious basis. There might be economic or other reasons. According to the Executive Director of the National Peace Council in Colombo, economic and cultural issues have created envy for Muslims in the minds of Sinhalese. Sri Lankan Muslims, though minority, are in a better position economically than the majority Sinhalese. According to him, Sinhalese feel themselves isolated internationally than people of other ethnical groups living in Sri Lanka. There is no Sinhalese living anywhere in the world except Sri Lanka. However, although, the first cause bears some logic, the second cause does not have any basis to inspire the Sinhalese for this riot.
The civil war, continued for several years between Tamils and Sinhalese, had hampered Sri Lankan over all development. Being a very resourceful and promising country, Sri Lanka’s economic development could not progress. Therefore, Sri Lanka must not allow occurrence of any new civil war as it is crossing the transition. Violence should be controlled firmly. Government should not give any space in this regard. However, the maintenance of harmony between the people of different religions and races falls on the majority Sinhalese along with the government. To keep humanity intact, Sri Lanka’s Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, or Christians – all have to resist violence together. In many parts of the world, peace-loving people are the sufferers from violence, terrorism, and even armed conflicts. Understanding the world realities, every Sri Lankan citizen should continue their efforts so that religious fanaticism cannot arise in any way. Violence should be resisted before it turns into something devastating. Every nation of Sri Lanka, irrespective of race and religion, will take Sri Lanka to the right direction of prosperity standing on the bonds of tolerance and fraternity - the peace-loving people of the world honestly expect that.
The writer is former Ambassador and