Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The major groups that make up Sri Lanka’s almost 2 million Muslims (2012 Census) are Sri Lankan Moors, Indian Moors and the Malays. Muslims also include smaller Islamic sects including Boras and Kolas. The term ‘Moor’ has historically been applied to Muslims of Arab origin, though ‘Moors’ are largely believed to also include Muslims of Indian origin. The Malays are Muslim immigrants from South Asia who arrived in the country during Dutch colonial rule in the 17th century. The Moors make up the larger majority of Muslims in Sri Lanka.
The majority of these live in the east, where they constitute more than a third of the population. The remaining Muslim community is dispersed throughout the urban centres of Sri Lanka. Muslims are also divided between mainly agriculturists living in the east, and traders who are dispersed across the island. Muslims of the eastern region speak Tamil.
The increasing radicalization of Tamil politics, especially the shift in Tamil demands from federalism to secession, drastically affected Tamil-Muslim relations. Muslims are strongly opposed to becoming a minority within a Tamil-speaking and Tamil-dominated homeland consisting of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. In 1990, the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE or ‘Tamil Tigers’) began a purge of all Muslims living in the north; some 70,000 lost their homes overnight and most remain in displaced camps. Muslims were the victims of attacks in the Eastern Province, which had the objective of clearing the region of non-Tamils. During 1990, 130 Muslims were gunned down at the Kattankudy mosque. In the same year a 160 were killed in a mosque attack in Eravur. Muslims also became target of other gruesome massacres by the LTTE, and this led some Muslim political leaders in 1992 to discuss the needs for a jihad, or holy war, to defend their religion. Throughout the conflict and even during the 2002 cease-fire Muslims in the east faced attacks, land loss, intimidation, harassment, abductions and extortion by the LTTE.
The formation of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) in the 1980s enabled Muslims to adopt a distinct political profile. The main demand of the SLMC – in the face of Tamil separatist demands for merger of the north and east – has been the creation of a separate regional council for Muslims in the east. The devolution proposals put forward by the People’s Alliance (PA) government after it came to power in late 1994 were welcomed by the SLMC, but there was little progress with these proposals. After the cease-fire between the government and LTTE in 2002, Muslims expressed concerns that their own rights will be undermined by the Tamils of the Eastern region.
Though the SLMC held powerful political positions and thanks to Sri Lanka’s proportional representative system of election was able to play kingmaker with new governments, the Muslim party lost some of its stature. The mysterious death of SLMC leader M.H.M. Ashroff in a helicopter crash in 2000 left the party divided. Furthermore, despite being severely affected by the conflict, Muslims continued to be marginalized in peace attempts. In the 2002 peace talks Muslims were not considered party to the process and were excluded from the negotiations.
Muslims often found themselves trapped between both warring sides. They were particularly targeted by the LTTE for human rights violations including abductions, extortion and killings. The LTTE has been responsible for taking over large amounts of lands from Muslim agriculturalists. Muslim communities were also affected by a spate of abductions and extortion conducted in the south of Sri Lanka that targeted high-profile business leaders.
While the end of the conflict enabled some displaced Muslim communities to return to their homes, Buddhist nationalists have become increasingly active in their dissemination of anti-Muslim propaganda through a range of public platforms, including social media. This wave of Buddhist nationalism was impelled by groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Sinhala Ravaya, Ravana Balaya and others. Sporadic acts of violence and discrimination targeting Islamic places of worship have been recorded from 2009 onwards by various sources, the most notable being the 2012 attack on the Masjidul Kairiya mosque in Dambulla by a large mob which claimed that it had been illegally constructed on sacred Buddhist land. Following the violence, the then Prime Minister and Minister of Religious Affairs D.M. Jayaratne ordered the 50-year-old mosque to be relocated.
However, the worst incidents of violence targeting the Muslim community in recent years were the mob attack on the Masjid Deenul Islam mosque in Grandpass in 2013 and rioting centred around Aluthgama in 2014 – widely attributed to BBS instigation, through inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric uttered at a public rally just before violence erupted. The violence in Aluthgama left four dead, many injured and displaced, and significant property damage.
Caught between the Tamil rebels and government forces during the civil conflict, Sri Lanka’s Muslims have been excluded from either a share in self-governance or an adequate social and political representation. They also suffered the effects of widespread violence and displacement. Most Muslims have now returned to their homes but were not properly compensated and continue to face severe hardships because of the creation of high security zones in the area.
Religious hate campaigns have subsequently extended to the Muslim community, a key target of ethno-nationalist violence since the end of the conflict. In 2013, for example, Buddhist nationalists launched campaigns to ban halal products and face coverings such as the hijab. Muslim women faced harassment for their dress where in some instances veils were pulled from individuals. The anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama in June 2014, as well as violent attacks on Christian churches, including a church in Kottawa in March 2013 and two churches in Hikkaduwa in January 2014, were marked by the visible leadership of Buddhist clergy aligned with various newly formed Buddhist nationalist groups. Notable is the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), founded in 2012, which later formed a political wing (Bodu Bala Peramuna) and contested the 2015 parliamentary elections. Sinhala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya are other prominent groups active during this period.
Anti-minority campaigns by these groups have included vicious propaganda, protest rallies and demonstrations, violent attacks on places of Muslim and Christian worship as well as the economic boycott of Muslim-owned businesses and halal products. These groups have operated with impunity, often in the presence of law enforcement officers. Perpetrators were rarely if ever brought before the law, despite being clearly identifiable in footage of these incidents that also shows police officers as bystanders to the violence. Inaction and apathy on the part of the state to effectively address the persecution of minorities, as well as the seeming lack of political will to control the BBS and similar organizations, suggested the tacit approval of the state. While the operation of groups such as the BBS has visibly reduced under the Sirisena–Wickremesinghe government, indicating less space for organized violence, in many cases those responsible for acts of incitement or previous incidents of violence have not been punished.
Threats and intimidation aimed at the Muslim community include boycotting Muslim-owned shops and businesses, as well as activism to ban traditionally Muslim-owned trades such as butcher shops. The community also regularly faces discrimination in the practice of their religious beliefs. A notable example was the February 2016 report of Buddhist opposition to the expansion of a madrassa in Bandaragama where, in spite of the madrassa obtaining the necessary approval for the construction, the Divisional Secretary halted the construction in deference to the objections of local Buddhist clergy. Subsequently the police conceded that the construction was legal, but advised the Muslims to abandon the extension, stating that the police would not be able to provide security in the event of an attack. Construction of a minaret at the Jumma Line mosque (also called the Malay Military mosque) in Kandy similarly drew angry demonstrations in June 2016, led by Buddhist clergy who alleged that, once completed, the minaret would stand taller than the sacred Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. The mosque is built on land gifted to the Malay Regiment by the British colonial administration in 1820, prior to which Buddhists claim it belonged to the Buddhist temple. Seeking to defuse a very volatile situation and the threat of possible violence, the mosque gave an undertaking to halt construction of the disputed minaret.
Fear-mongering is employed frequently by nationalist groups including hate speech against Muslims constructed around warnings of Islamic terrorism, Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) and the threat of Muslim dominance and expansion. Thirty per cent of incidents of hate speech address the spread of Islam and Islamic religious practices – for example, the BBS in December 2015 called for the banning of the Qur’an in Sri Lanka for the sake of national unity. Other broader issues underlying hate speech are objections to the Muslim presence and influence on Sri Lankan society, politics and culture, calls for economic embargos and conflict over land rights (as demonstrated in the resettlement of Muslims in Wilpattu and the issue of ‘traditional’ ownership of land, particularly near Buddhist sacred sites such as Kuragala).
A further outbreak of communal violence occurred in March 2018 in the central hills around Kandy, with hundreds of Sinhalese Buddhists attacking Muslim villages. A mosque was attacked and Muslim-owned businesses were set ablaze. Though initially triggered by reports of a Sinhalese man who was attacked by a group of Muslims following a traffic accident and later died of his injuries, the riots were underpinned by deeper tensions between the communities, driven in large part by the anti-Muslim propaganda of Buddhist extremists. The Sri Lankan government subsequently declared a state of emergency as the violence spread.
Updated March 2018.