Sri Lanka Analysis: Communal violence in Kandy highlights growing impact of hardline Buddhist groups, perceived governmental inaction to sustain current tensions
• The Sri Lankan government imposed a nationwide state of emergency on March 6 in response to communal violence reported in parts of Kandy District in Central Province on March 5.
• The communal violence in Kandy is the latest manifestation of ongoing anti-Muslim sentiment harbored by hardline Sinhalese Buddhists.
• The coalition government is likely to remain reluctant to prosecute perpetrators for fear of alienating majority Sinhalese population.
• Hardline Buddhist group Mahason Balakaya’s possible connections to BBS may be driving police reluctance to stem violence at the local level, raising the potential for retaliatory unrest.
• Travel to Sri Lanka, including Colombo, can continue as normal while taking basic security cautions given the threat of crime, protests and political unrest.
• On March 6, the Sri Lankan government imposed a nationwide state of emergency in response to several days of violence between majority ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslim communities in Kandy District in Central Province.
• At least three people were killed, dozens more wounded, and over 200 Muslim-owned businesses and homes were reportedly destroyed in the rioting that commenced on March 5.
• The recent wave of violence was triggered by the death of a Sinhalese man, who was assaulted by four Muslims in a road rage incident.
• On March 8, authorities announced the arrest of the suspected leader of the Mahason Balakaya, a hardline Buddhist outfit that is suspected of having orchestrated the recent wave of attacks on Muslim establishments in Kandy. In addition, the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) of the Sri Lankan Police Department reportedly raided an office of the Mahason Balakaya in Kandy on March 13, claiming to have recovered several crude bombs and anti-Muslim propaganda material. Authorities also seized several bank accounts linked to the organization during the raid. The developments occur in the aftermath of the appointment of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry on March 10 to investigate the communal clashes in Kandy.
• In February, a mob reportedly stormed a Muslim-owned eatery in Ampara District in Eastern Province over suspicions that the vendor was adding male sterilization pills to the food. A mosque in the town was also vandalized in relation to the incident. At least 20 incidents of violence targeting minority Muslims have been reported in Sri Lanka in 2017.
• Widespread anti-Muslim violence was reported in several areas of Kalutara District in Western Province in June 2014 following alleged incitement by Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, a hardline Buddhist monk heading the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or the Buddhist Power Force, during a rally. The rally was held days after an altercation occurred between Muslim youths and a Sinhalese Buddhist monk in Aluthgama in the district.
• While anti-Muslim sentiment by hardline Sinhalese Buddhists is not a new phenomenon, incidents of targeted violence against the community are believed to have markedly increased following the culmination of the decades-long civil war involving largely Hindu ethnic Tamil separatists in 2009. The outbreak of communal violence in 2014 in Kalutara District remains the largest in scale in recent years, with the BBS chief seen issuing a provocative speech against the minority community.
• A large segment of the majority Sinhalese considers themselves as a minority in relation to Muslims despite constituting approximately 75 percent of the total population in Sri Lanka. Such perceptions largely stem from considerations that Muslims, despite their lower numbers in Sri Lanka, is part of a larger community with influence across the globe. The growing number of Saudi Arabia-funded mosques in Sri Lanka in recent years has furthered resentment against the community from local Buddhists, with concerns that high population growth rate among Muslims may eventually result in the Islamization of the predominantly Buddhist Sri Lankan society.
Assessments & Forecast
Targeted violence against Muslims in Kandy is the latest manifestation of ongoing anti-Muslim sentiment by hardline Buddhists
- The violence in Kandy is the latest manifestation of ongoing anti-Muslim sentiment harbored by hardline Sinhalese Buddhists. Based on this existing animosity, seemingly trivial incidents of confrontation by either community have the propensity to devolve into broader, large-scale violence. The growing frequency of such incidents in recent years also points to growing public acceptance of the hardline Buddhist narrative on Muslims, which frames the community as detrimental to the country’s national character. The specific targeting of Muslim business establishments in most instances of recent Buddhist-led violence points to their concerns regarding the perceived growing economic clout of Sri Lankan Muslims, a factor which they fear could potentially catalyze the country’s Islamization.
- The trigger events behind violence in Ampara also speak to the growing traction of the BBS’ narrative that Muslims are trying to curb the population of Sinhalese Buddhists through forced conversions and mixing sterilization pills in food. The largely unregulated social media in Sri Lanka also enables the quick propagation of such rumors, which largely explains the government’s efforts to shut down social media altogether following the imposition of the State of Emergency.
Coalition government likely to be reluctant to prosecute perpetrators for fear of alienating majority Sinhalese population
- The appointment of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to probe the violence suggests that the government is keen to be perceived as proactively engaged in resolving the issue, at a time of heightened international scrutiny. However, and despite the arrest of several individuals linked to the Mahason Balakaya, it remains unlikely that the government will take drastic measures to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future, including enforcing a ban on outfits such as the BBS. Such measures run the risk of alienating large sections of majority Sinhalese, who could view the government as pandering to minority Muslims. The fact that the BBS is led by widely-respected monks further raises the risk of angering religious Buddhists in the event that its leaders are arrested. This likely explains the government’s slow progress regarding the arrest of the perpetrators of the Kalutara violence in 2014.
- This assessment gains particular relevance in the aftermath of the ruling coalition’s recent losses in the February 10 local council elections. The recent election was largely seen as a referendum on the government’s incapability to deliver on key reform promises, such as national reconciliation with ethnic Tamils through establishing a new constitution. The government’s slow pace on this front largely drew from similar concerns of alienating the majority Sinhalese, given the high levels of communal animosity after the decades-long civil war involving ethnic Tamil separatist militants. This reluctance is likely to impact decision-making regarding hardline Buddhist outfits for the foreseeable future. This is considering the electoral victory of the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) whose political power largely stems from the support of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist constituency in the south. The SLPP may seek to tap into fears among Sinhalese of a growing threat emanating from Muslims to sway the electorate away from the current ruling coalition.
Lack of government action expected to embolden hardline Buddhists to remain active, propagate anti-Muslim narrative
- The perceived lack of progress regarding convictions of hardline Buddhist actors involved in previous incidents of violent unrest in Sri Lanka is liable to be perceived by such groups as the tacit sanction of their activities. The fact that Mahason Balakaya was spreading anti-Muslim propaganda from an office in Kandy for several years points to a certain level of local support in the predominantly Buddhist city. This, coupled with the group’s links to the larger, more influential BBS, could have shaped local authorities’ muted response towards possible calls for the shutdown of its operations from local Muslims. More importantly, it should be noted that fringe groups like the Mahason Balakaya, despite its relative obscurity at the national level, maintain a considerable organizational capacity as evidenced by the scale of the unrest recorded in Kandy over the previous week.
- FORECAST: Despite its appointment, the Presidential Commission of Inquiry is merely tasked with probing the violence and putting forward recommendations to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. The onus of acting on the commission’s recommendations falls on the government. As assessed earlier, the government is unlikely to pursue the incarceration of prominent Buddhist figures leading outfits such as the BBS fearing a larger public backlash that could be exploited by the opposition ahead of the 2020 Presidential elections. This is expected to embolden such groups to continue their activities, including propagating hate speech against Muslims. It also remains possible that Sinhalese outfits will use the violence in Kandy for political gains, furthering hostile sentiments towards the minority community and enabling an environment for additional sporadic incidents of targeted attacks and retaliatory violence from both sides.