Hatred in paradise


The beautiful island state of Sri Lanka shows a sad talent for discovering ugliness. Maybe the long battle to defeat the Tamil Tiger terrorists brutalized hearts in an unexpected way. The rebellious Tamils who sought an independent state in the north of the country were by and large Hindus with a few Roman Catholic and Methodist Christians. The majority Singhalese population is Buddhist.

The Tigers were as ruthless toward their own people as they were toward government forces. It was an inevitable tragedy that when the rebellion was finally defeated in 2009 after a 25-year bitter conflict, there would be deep suspicions between victors and vanquished. Calls for international investigations into the treatment of the Tamil population were balanced by arguments from the government in Colombo that it had to be absolutely certain that this rebellion which had cost the lives of more than 100,000 people could not flare up again. It did not want to allow Tamil Tiger sleeper cells going undetected. It also used every means possible to comb the rebel area for hidden arms caches.

All of this sat uncomfortably with international liberal opinion. But the lack of any new trouble, coupled with the slow recovery in the former Tiger heartland in the once-devastated Jaffna peninsula would seem to demonstrate the government was right.

But now at the other end of the island, the country faces a new inter-communal challenge. In the southwest province of Galle there have been ugly riots by Buddhist gangs against Muslims. This week’s thuggery, which saw the torching of vehicles and businesses owned by Muslims, followed a road crash. The authorities appear to have brought the violence under control. But three years ago, they failed to do this in the face of provocative demonstrations by a hardline Buddhist group, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). This shares many characteristics with Myanmar’s 696 movement led by the openly racist monk Ashin Wirathu who has called his country’s Muslims “dogs”.

BBS demonstrators raged through three towns in 2014 attacking Muslims and their properties. The result of this orgy of hatred and aggression, which the police initially did little to stop, was the destruction of mosques, shops, factories, schools and houses. Some ten thousand people were left homeless. The official response to this terrifying display of naked Islamophobia was to keep the news out of the media, thanks to strict government censorship. One state minister told a diplomat that keeping the riots quiet would stop them spreading. He added, perhaps with some justice, that the BBS wanted maximum publicity for their behavior and imposing a news blanket frustrated that ambition.

Well maybe. But it also meant that the Sri Lankan government could sweep the whole disgusting episode under the carpet in the hope that it would go away. This week’s new riots demonstrate just how wrong was any such plan.

Islamophobia is not simply confined to neo-Nazi bigots in Europe and North America, who play upon the fears and prejudices of uninformed supporters. It remains a potent force in India where radical Hindu elements exert important influence in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. It has found deep and poisoned wells among Buddhist extremists in other countries including Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. Indeed the seeming worldwide rise in Islamophobia must be a cause for considerable concern.