The Sri Lankan government must act quickly to prevent further violence against its religious minorities, Minority Rights Group International said on Tuesday.
At least three people died and 78 were injured on Sunday after an anti-Muslim march organized by the hardline group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) — or Buddhist Power Force — sparked some of the country's worst sectarian clashes in decades.
According to media reports, riots erupted shortly after BBS leader Gnanasara Thero delivered an inflammatory speech calling for the destruction of Muslims in the coastal town Aluthgama. Locals had reportedly asked for the rally to be cancelled over security concerns.
‘The government appears to be giving a free rein to recognized hate preachers, instead of protecting its religious minorities from violence,' said Nicole Girard, Asia Programme Coordinator at MRG.
‘We are deeply concerned that violence could spread to other parts of the country unless perpetrators are swiftly brought to account and steps are taken to prevent the spread of hateful and inflammatory language.'
Three mosques and dozens of homes and shops were torched by Buddhist mobs chanting anti-Muslim slogans. Local Muslims have accused the police of failing to protect their property, despite the imposition of a curfew.
Tensions in the coastal town have been on the rise since last Thursday when there was reportedly an altercation between Muslim youths and a Buddhist monk's driver – creating the pretext for Sunday's rally. Aluthgama residents told the media that most of the rioters were ‘outsiders.'
In recent years, BBS has led an increasingly vocal campaign against Sri Lanka's Muslim minority, including calling on the government to formally ban halal food and encouraging citizens to boycott Muslim businesses.
Sri Lanka has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which explicitly prohibits the advocacy of ‘national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence'.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has pledged to hold an investigation into this weekend's riots and hold perpetrators to account before the law. However, the government has been slow to clamp down on hate speech and incitement to violence.
‘President Rajapaksa has promised to address the growing scourge of hate speech that has plagued Sri Lanka for years,' added Girard. ‘It is high time for his government to fulfil this promise by enacting stronger protections for religious minorities and prosecuting individuals inciting hatred towards them.'
For more information contact:
Nicole Girard, Asia Programme Coordinator at MRG
Hanna Hindstrom, Asia Information Officer at MRG