Sri Lanka must remember hideous lessons of Myanmar


The Islamophobic violence in Sri Lanka is shameful. One man has been slashed to death with machetes, mosques attacked and Muslim-owned shops looted and torched. To its credit, the government has reacted strongly and the security forces have behaved robustly.

The chief of police, Chandana Wickramaratne, warned on television that his officers would respond to rioting mobs with maximum force. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appealed for calm. In doing so, he made the interesting point that the violence was interfering with police investigations into the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks by the local Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS) cell. Certainly, from the point of view of limited police resources, having to tie up officers to defend the Muslim community from further assault is not helping the probe into the outrage which saw the cold-blooded murder of more than 250 people. But there was also a hint in Wickremesinghe words that the mob violence against the Muslim community might cause it to withdraw cooperation with the investigators. If this was what the premier meant, then he has made a mistake, but hopefully not a deliberate mistake.

The disgust with which Muslim leaders reacted to the barbarous terrorist attacks on Christians reflected the feelings of the entire Sri Lankan Muslim community. Even in the face of mob violence, there can be no doubt that no decent Muslim would wish to do anything to hamper the inquiry. A leading imam spelt out the reality within hours of the Easter massacre. “This has been an attack on all Sri Lankans,” he said, “and we stand shoulder to shoulder with our Christian fellow citizens”.

By the same token, the evidence is that the anti-Muslim riots are being led by extremists in the country’s majority Buddhist community. It is not thought that there has been any significant presence of Christians among the rioters. Therefore, the sad conclusion must be drawn that Buddhist bigots, taking a lesson from their fellow fanatics in Myanmar, are exploiting the horrors of the Easter murders for their own warped ends. Nor should it be forgotten that as recently as this March, Buddhist mobs were responsible for other violent assaults on the Muslim community.

The parallel with what became the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the Muslim Rohingya people in Myanmar is very relevant, even if government figures in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo are seeking to play it down. The majority of Sri Lankans, whatever their faith, is committed to peace, not least because they suffered decades of savage aggression as a result of the Tamil Tiger rebellion. The final defeat of the Tigers, ten years ago this month, seemed to promise a new era in which the people of this beautiful island could rebuild both their economy and their society. Unfortunately, almost 30 years of civil war had had a brutalizing effect. In civilized societies, long used to peace and the rule of law, any outbreak of violence generates indignation. This, sadly, is not yet the case for Sri Lankans.

Buddhist community leaders must now react with the same resolution as their Muslim counterparts and make clear that the behavior of fanatical bigots in their own community must stop and the wrongdoers must be handed over. The Daesh terrorists on Easter Day wanted to set Sri Lankan against Sri Lankan. Their evil plan must not be allowed to succeed.