Home Contact Us  
   

South Asia - Articles

Print Bookmark Email Facebook Subscribe
#4577, 24 July 2014
 
Sri Lanka: Understanding the Buddhist-Muslim Communal Clashes
Zarin Ahmad
Visiting Fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi
 

In June 2014, history repeated itself when three Muslims were killed and over 50 injured in Aluthgama, Sri Lanka. Almost 100 years ago, in May 1915, communal violence erupted between Sinhala Buddhists and Muslims in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

The 1915 riot was a spontaneous expression of deep economic hostilities with Muslim traders. This time the island’s Muslim community finds itself at the receiving end of a concerted and well thought-out attack by the jubilant Sinhala-Buddhists in a post-war Sri Lanka. The militant Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), an off-shoot of another hard-line Sinhala organisation the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) is spearheading a movement against Muslims. Over the past two years, the BBS has organised a systematic and structured attack on Muslim places of worship, dress-code, dietary practices, and business establishments. In February 2013, the BBS went on an aggressive campaign against ‘halal’ certification of foods that follow Islamic dietary guidelines. Later, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama withdrew the ‘halal’ certification in the domestic market ‘in the interest of peace’. Soon after, the Islamic dress-code of the ‘abaya’ became the new bone of contention and drew the ire and disdain of the BBS. Since 2012, the BBS has been distributing pamphlets to discourage people from buying products from Muslim-owned establishments.

Why has there been this aggressive campaign against Muslims, and what has been the Muslim response in the island’s politics? The answer lies in the island’s complex political history. Muslim identity in Sri Lanka grew within and as a result of competing Sinhala and Tamil identity assertions. Muslims are the third largest community in the island-nation. According to the 2011 census, they constitute 9.7 per cent of the country’s population. Despite a sizeable number, they are scattered across the country, particularly in the eastern province, and in Colombo. Ethnically they comprise Sri Lankan Moors, Indian Moors, Malays, Memons and Bohras. The term ‘Moor’ was used by the Portuguese, and later the Dutch, to refer to Muslims of mixed Arab origin living in the coastal cities of Sri Lanka.  A majority of the island’s Muslims claim their ancestral connection to Arab maritime traders – that predates the birth of Islam. Except southern Muslims who are bilingual (i.e they speak Tamil and Sinhala), Muslims are predominantly Tamil-speaking. In a country sharply divided along linguistic lines, they formed an identity on the basis of religion.

Due to a history of persecution (under Portuguese and Dutch rules from the 1600s to the beginning of the 1900s), scattered geography, and competing Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms, Muslims have by and large maintained a low-profile in the complex dynamics of the island’s politics. However, in the 1980s, when the fight for a Tamil homeland was happening literally in their backyard, Muslims could not remain out of the fray. They opposed a merger of Northern and Eastern Provinces fearing that they would become a ‘minority within a minority’.

They demanded that the predominantly Muslim areas in the Eastern Province should be linked together as a single political and administrative entity. This was also the period when their political and electoral identity crystallised with the formation of the island’s first effective Muslim political party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) under the aegis of the late MHM Ashraff. Socially, Muslims expressed an identity based on their religion to distinguish themselves from Tamils. However, despite being geo-politically located in the locus of the war, Muslims did not resort to militancy like their Tamil counterparts.

In the immediate post-war political dynamics, the SLMC initially supported the opposition coalition. However, the lasting impact of the total obliteration of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 and the overwhelming electoral victories of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) hereafter put minorities, particularly Muslims, on the political back foot and an end to a viable opposition. The SLMC joined the ruling coalition in 2010.

This brings us back to our initial question – why is there a systematic attack against Sri Lankan Muslims? First, this could be yet another reflection of rising Islamophobia in the Indian Ocean region as asserted by Justice Minister and SLMC leader, Rauf Hakeem. Second, the demographic number game has been critical in Sri Lankan politics. The 2011 census indicated a positive curve in the Muslim population. This growth is perceived as an upsurge of growing Muslim domination. Third, the military victory over the LTTE in 2009 gave the Sinhala Buddhist hardliners a strong ‘imagined’ sense of preserving the ‘homeland’ for themselves.

In a much delayed response to the riots of June 2014, Hakeem threatened Muslim radicalisation and claimed that Sri Lanka could become a fertile ground for 'outside' forces. Going by the history of Sri Lankan Muslims, this may well be another strong statement by the SLMC to assert to its electorate that it is the only party that stands up for Muslim rights. But what is more disturbing is the growing latent hostility in a section of the majority mind-set.

Print Bookmark Email Facebook Subscribe
IPCS Columnists
Af-Pak Diary
D Suba Chandran
Resetting Kabul-Islamabad Relations: Three Key Issues
Can Pakistan Reset its Relations with Afghanistan?
The New Afghanistan: Four Major Challenges for President Ghani
Big Picture
Prof Varun Sahni
Understanding Democracy and Diversity in J&K
When Xi Met Modi: Juxtaposing China and India
Pakistan?s Tactical Nuclear Weapons: The Inevitability of Instability

Dateline Colombo

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera.
Sri Lanka: Moving Towards a Higher Collective Outcome
The Importance of Electing the Best to our Nation's Parliament
Sri Lanka: Toward a Diaspora Re-Engagement Plan
Dateline Islamabad
Salma Malik
Pakistan's Hurt Locker: What Next?
IPCS Forecast: Pakistan in 2015
India-Pakistan Relations in 2015: Through a Looking Glass
 
Dhaka Discourse
Prof Delwar Hossain
IPCS Forecast: Bangladesh in 2015
18th SAARC Summit: A Perspective from Bangladesh
Bangladesh in Global Forums: Diplomacy vs. Domestic Politics
Eagle Eye
Prof Chintamani Mahapatra
India-US: Significance of the Second Modi-Obama Meet
Has President Obama Turned Lame Duck?
Modi-Obama Summit: Criticism for Criticism?s Sake?

East Asia Compass
Dr Sandip Mishra
India-Japan-US Trilateral: India?s Policy for the Indo-Pacific
China-South Korea Ties: Implications for the US Pivot to Asia
Many ?Pivots to Asia?: What Does It Mean For Regional Stability?
Himalayan Frontier
Pramod Jaiswal
Nepal?s New Constitution: Instrument towards Peace or Catalyst to Conflict?
IPCS Forecast: Nepal in 2015
Constitution-making: Will Nepal Miss its Second Deadline?

Indo-Pacific
Prof Shankari Sundararaman
IPCS Forecast: Southeast Asia in 2015
Indonesia's Pacific Identity: What Jakarta Must Do in West Papua
Modi in Myanmar: From ?Look East? to ?Act East?
Indus-tan
Sushant Sareen
IPCS Forecast: Pakistan in 2015
Islamic State: Prospects in Pakistan
Pakistan: The Futility of Internationalising Kashmir

Looking East
Wasbir Hussain
Myanmar in New Delhi's Naga Riddle
China: ?Peaceful? Display of Military Might
Naga Peace Accord: Need to Reserve Euphoria
Maritime Matters
Vijay Sakhuja
Indian Ocean: Modi on a Maritime Pilgrimage
Indian Ocean: Exploring Maritime Domain Awareness
IPCS Forecast: The Indian Ocean in 2015

Nuke Street
Amb Sheelkant Sharma
US-Russia and Global Nuclear Security: Under a Frosty Spell?
India's Nuclear Capable Cruise Missile: The Nirbhay Test
India-Australia Nuclear Agreement: Bespeaking of a New Age
Red Affairs
Bibhu Prasad
Countering Left Wing Extremism: Failures within Successes
Return of the Native: CPI-Maoist in Kerala
The Rising Civilian Costs of the State-Vs-Extremists Conflict

Regional Economy
Amita Batra
India and the APEC
IPCS Forecast: South Asian Regional Integration
South Asia: Rupee Regionalisation and Intra-regional Trade Enhancement
South Asian Dialectic
PR Chari
Resuming the Indo-Pak Dialogue: Evolving a New Focus
Defence Management in India: An Agenda for Parrikar
Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan: Implications for Asian Security

Spotlight West Asia
Amb Ranjit Gupta
Prime Minister Modi Finally Begins His Interaction with West Asia*
A Potential Indian Role in West Asia?
US-GCC Summit: More Hype than Substance
Strategic Space
Manpreet Sethi
India-Russia Nuclear Vision Statement: See that it Delivers
Global Nuclear Disarmament: The Humanitarian Consequences Route
Nasr: Dangers of Pakistan's Short Range Ballistic Missile

The Strategist
Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Jihadi Aggression and Nuclear Deterrence
The Blight of Ambiguity
Falun Gong: The Fear Within


OTHER REGULAR contributors
Gurmeet Kanwal
Harun ur Rashid
N Manoharan
Wasbir Hussain
Rana Banerji
N Manoharan

Ruhee Neog
Teshu Singh
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Roomana Hukil
Aparupa Bhattacherjee


 
Related Articles
Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy,
"Sri Lanka and Myanmar: Understanding the Rise of Buddhist Radicalism," 24 July 2014

Browse by Publications

Commentaries 
Issue Briefs 
Special Reports 
Research Papers 
Seminar Reports 
Conference Reports 

Browse by Region/Countries

East Asia 
South Asia 
Southeast Asia 
US & South Asia 
China 
Myanmar 
Afghanistan 
Iran 
Pakistan 
India 
J&K  

Browse by Issues

India & the world  
Indo-Pak 
Military 
Terrorism 
Naxalite Violence 
Nuclear 
Suicide Terrorism 
Peace & Conflict Database 
Article by same Author
Then They Came for Him

Sri Lanka - Reflections on the Elections

ADD TO:
Blink
Del.icio.us
Digg
Furl
Google
Simpy
Spurl
Y! MyWeb
Facebook
 
Print Bookmark Email Facebook Subscribe
Year 2017
 January  February  March  April  May  June  July  August  September  October  November  December
 2016  2015  2014  2013  2012  2011  2010  2009
 2008  2007  2006  2005  2004  2003  2002  2001
 2000  1999  1998  1997
 
 

The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) is the premier South Asian think tank which conducts independent research on and provides an in depth analysis of conventional and non-conventional issues related to national and South Asian security including nuclear issues, disarmament, non-proliferation, weapons of mass destruction, the war on terrorism, counter terrorism , strategies security sector reforms, and armed conflict and peace processes in the region.

For those in South Asia and elsewhere, the IPCS website provides a comprehensive analysis of the happenings within India with a special focus on Jammu and Kashmir and Naxalite Violence. Our research promotes greater understanding of India's foreign policy especially India-China relations, India's relations with SAARC countries and South East Asia.

Through close interaction with leading strategic thinkers, former members of the Indian Administrative Service, the Foreign Service and the three wings of the Armed Forces - the Indian Army, Indian Navy, and Indian Air Force, - the academic community as well as the media, the IPCS has contributed considerably to the strategic discourse in India.

 
Subscribe to Newswire | Site Map
18, Link Road, Jungpura Extension, New Delhi 110014, INDIA.

Tel: 91-11-4100-1902    Email: officemail@ipcs.org

© Copyright 2017, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.