Buddhist Agitations Threaten Muslims in Sri Lanka

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Islam in Sri Lanka is practiced by 9.7 percent of the population. According to the 2012 census, 1.9 million people are Muslim.

The attitude among the majority of people in Sri Lanka is to use the term “Muslim” as an ethnic group specifically when referring to Sri Lankan Moors. The Sri Lankan Civil War from 1983 to 2009 between the government and separatist militant Tamil Tigers caused significant hardships for the population, environment and the economy of the country with an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people killed throughout its course. Sri Lankan Muslims were targeted by the Tamil Tigers during the civil war. Hundreds of thousands were expelled from their homes and their property was destroyed and many were killed. In order to achieve their goal of creating a homogenous Tamil state in northern Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers forcibly expelled the 95,000 strong Muslim population from the Northern Province. The expulsion still carries bitter memories for Sri Lankan Muslims. In 2002, the Tamil Tigers’ leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, formally apologized for the expulsion of Muslims from the north. There are few Muslim professionals in accounts, medical, engineering or other professions. Due to a lack of opportunity in Sri Lanka, many Muslim professionals are immigrating for employment abroad to places such as the Middle East, US, Canada, Australia and Europe. Sri Lankan Moors had better social and economic mobility thanks to the historic head start they had in education and government jobs.

Muslims in Sri Lanka are handled by the Muslim Religious and Cultural Affairs Department, which was established in the 1980s to prevent the continual isolation of the Muslim community from the rest of Sri Lanka. Despite the pressure, there are 749 Muslim schools in Sri Lanka, 205 madrasas teaching Islamic education and an Islamic university in Beruwala.

In June 2014 anti-Muslim riots broke out in southwestern Sri Lanka. Muslims and their properties were attacked by Sinhalese Buddhists, at least four people were killed and 80 injured. Hundreds were left homeless following attacks on homes, shops, factories, mosques and a nursery. About 10,000 people – 8,000 Muslims and 2,000 Sinhalese Buddhists – were displaced by the riots. The media in Sri Lanka censored news about the riots following orders from the Sri Lankan government.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern over the anti-Muslim riots and communal violence and urged the government to ensure the safety of all Sri Lankans. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement that expressed alarm at the riots and urged the government to halt the violence and hate speech and bring the perpetrators to justice. An EU delegation in Colombo, with the support from the Norwegian, Swiss and Turkish Embassies, issued a statement in June 2014 condemning the violence and urging the government to uphold the rule of law. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) secretary-general expressed serious concern about the violence against Muslims and observed a rising trend of violence by extremists. Amnesty International urged the government to take action to end the violence immediately, rein in groups targeting religious minorities, protect Muslims and bring to account those responsible for the violence. Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the government to urgently investigate the violence, identify and investigative those responsible for attacks on Muslims.

Although the war has been over for years, the wounds it caused continues to threaten a relapse into new forms of conflict. The long unresolved issue of displaced Muslims who wish to return to their original places of residence continues to foment a sense of bitterness and injustice that undermines the efforts to promote post-war reconciliation. An estimated 80 percent of them continue to live outside their original places of residence. The issue of displaced Muslims was highlighted in the past weeks due to allegations in the media and by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist groups such as the Buddhist Power Force (BBS) were being illegally settled in Wilpattıu National Park. This led to public protests and to fact-finding missions and there seemed to be a possibility of anti-Muslim agitation taking on a larger political dimension as it did during the last phase of the previous government.

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