Anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has seen a surge in anti-Muslim violence following the Easter Sunday bombings. The government has introduced curfews and bans on social media to control the unrest. Are these measures enough to maintain order in Sri Lanka, given its history of communal violence? 

Background

On Easter Sunday 2019, three churches across Sri Lanka were bombed, in addition to several other sites in the country, such as luxury hotels. At least 250 people were killed, with at least 500 injured. Sri Lanka has since been under a state of emergency. 

National Thowheeth Jama'ath (NTJ), an Islamist jihadist group, has taken responsibility for the Easter Sunday bombings. The group aims "to spread the global jihadist movement to Sri Lanka and to create hatred, fear and divisions in society."

Sri Lanka has a long history of ethnic and religious conflict. Most of Sri Lanka’s Muslims and Hindus are ethnic Tamils, while most of the countries political elite are Sinhalese. The rivalry between Sri Lanka’s Tamils and majority Sinhalese population led the country to a 26-year civil war, from 1983 to 2009. Religious conflict has been a cause for concern in Sri Lanka in recent years. In 2014, the country saw the Aluthgama riots due to friction between Buddhist and Muslim groups. Over four people were killed and 80 injured, a majority of whom were Muslim. In 2018, Kandy District saw mobs of Sinhalese Buddhists and mobs of Muslims attack each others’ places of worship. Two died, while over 100 were injured. Currently, Muslims make up almost 10% of Sri Lanka’s 22 million-strong population. 

Analysis

Following the Easter Sunday Bombings, Sri Lanka has seen a surge in anti-Muslim violence. Mosques and Muslim-owned shops have been vandalised or set on fire. One Muslim man has been slashed to death. On several occasions, police have fired warning shots and used tear gas to disperse mobs. Sri Lanka’s police chief, Chandana Wickramaratne has authorised officers to respond to rioters with “maximum force.” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called for calm, saying that the unrest was hampering investigation efforts into the Easter Sunday attacks. 

The unrest mostly took place three districts north of Colombo. The area has a traditional Sinhalese Buddhist majority, with a Tamil Muslim minority. In Kiniyma, in north-west Sri Lanka, copies of the Koran were thrown on the floor, while windows and doors of a mosque were smashed. The incident followed inspections by soldiers at a nearby lake. A group of people then demanded to search the mosque building. In majority-Catholic Chilaw, a dispute that began on Facebook resulted in Muslim-owned shops and mosques being vandalised. A Muslim businessman who authorities identified as the author of the Facebook post was arrested. In Hettipola, at least three Muslim-owned shops were burned down. In Puttalam District, a carpenter who was attacked by a mob at his workshop died from stab wounds. Authorities say that this is the first death from the unrest.

Authorities have vowed to control any unrest and have urged Sri Lankans not to share rumours on social media. Sri Lanka has blocked some social media platforms and messaging apps, including Facebook and WhatsApp. As seen in Chilaw, a Facebook post caused significant unrest and damage. Authorities believe that blocking social media platforms will help curb the spread of misinformation. In a sign that authorities are increasingly worried that such attacks could quickly spiral out of control, a nationwide curfew has been imposed from 9 pm to 4 am. PM Wickremesinghe has led the official response, while President Maithripala Sirisena is on a trip abroad. The commander of the Sri Lankan army said that all branches of the military were deployed across the country. Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake said in a statement, “We will take stern action to apprehend, arrest and even to fire and use a minimum or maximum powers given under the emergency.”

However, reports suggest that police have struggled to contain the mobs. This is evidenced by an attack close the country’s international airport which is meant to be well-guarded. The president of Sri Lanka’s Muslim Council said, “The attacks are happening in spite of the curfew in place.” Ruaff Hakeem, a cabinet minister and head of the largest Muslim party said that one of the instigators of previous incidents of communal violence in Kandy is “helping spread the unrest.”

Counterpoint

While it is true that extremists in Sri Lanka have used social media platforms to stoke anti-Muslim fear, it has also been used as an essential tool for people to share pertinent information with one another. In a country with a recent history of communal violence this information could help save lives.

Assessment

Our assessment is that curfews and bans on social media are unlikely to be enough to maintain law and order in Sri Lanka. This is especially important given Sri Lanka’s history of government-sanctioned communal violence. We believe that expanded emergency powers given to Sri Lanka’s security forces, as well as social media bans and curfews only strengthen sectarian divisions. NTJ’s goal “to create hatred, fear and divisions in society” is aided by the policy. Continued curfews and media bans create echo chambers within sub-groups. This helps those divisive sentiments in a country which a decade ago was embroiled in a gruesome civil war. We feel that Sri Lankans need to unite against extremists by viewing the Easter Sunday bombings as an attack on all the islanders by unwelcome elements. This position would aid authorities in its investigation efforts while ensuring the state remains stable. 

 

Image Courtesy - Vikalpa | Groundviews | CPA from Sri Lanka [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]