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Buddhist mobs threaten Sri Lanka's fragile ethnic peace

State of emergency declared over anti-Muslim violence

Soldiers of Sri Lanka's Special Task Force walk past damaged houses after a clash between two communities in Kandy district, Sri Lanka on March 8, 2018.   © Reuters

COLOMBO -- Roving mobs of Buddhist nationalists have been rampaging through two areas of Sri Lanka for days, straining the South Asian country's fragile ethnic peace and forcing the government to declare a state of emergency and deploy troops. The violence targeting the country's Muslim minority, which continued on Friday, was the latest in a series of outbreaks of ethnic and religious violence which have scarred other Asian countries.

Kandy district, in predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka's central hills, was the worst hit. There were grim scenes of torched homes, shops and mosques in Muslim neighborhoods. They were reminiscent of the trail ethno-nationalist violence has left in India, where Hindu mobs have terrorized non-Hindus, in Pakistan and Bangladesh, where Muslim mobs have attacked non-Muslims, and in Myanmar, where the majority Buddhists have turned on the Muslim minority.

According to Jayadeva Uyangoda, a former political science professor at the University of Colombo, ethnic politics in the region taps into any religion to unleash violence, a trend sustained by states acquiescing in "majoritarian terror" against minorities. "There is nothing specific about this in Sri Lanka or Myanmar," he told the Nikkei Asian Review. "I saw it in India, too; one can see it in Pakistan as well."

Amnesty International denounced in its latest annual report this week political leaders who exploit and ride on populist sentiments, fanning fear and "state-sponsored hate" against minorities in their respective countries. In Asia, it singled out Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Burmese military leaders for criticism.

The response of Sri Lanka's three-year-old coalition, restoring a state of emergency for the first time since 2011 -- two years after the civil war ended -- has so far failed to halt the violence. The strife has also raised troubling questions for the government, as eyewitnesses to the violence, and even government sources, have admitted that the local police and the Special Task Force stood on the sidelines as the mobs torched buildings with impunity in broad daylight.

Monks from the Bodu Bala Sena Buddhist organization listen to a speech by radical monk from Myanmar, Ashin Wirathu, at a 2014 convention in Colombo.   © Reuters

Muslims in the affected communities have been living in fear, with some families staying up at night, anticipating another rampage. Sporadic anti-Muslim attacks continued through Friday along some roads in the Kandy district. Religious leaders suggested that Muslims stagger the times of their weekly Friday prayer gatherings.

Sri Lanka is paying a swift economic price for the violence. The tourist industry, a bright star in the country's otherwise troubled economy, has been hit with cancellations at the tail end of the winter holiday season. Hotels in Kandy, home to the country's holiest Buddhist temple, are feeling pain.

This setback comes after the country had enjoyed what looked to be a record year for tourism. Industry leaders had forecast that 2017 tourism earnings, which account for nearly 5% of the $87.5 billion economy, would beat the record $3.4 billion in 2016.

Economic trouble looms elsewhere, too. Analysts expect the religious riots to undermine efforts to draw desperately needed foreign investors as Sri Lanka faces a daunting external debt schedule. By next year, the country has to start paying more than $5 billion in maturing foreign loans and interest.

It was not the backdrop that Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, had in mind, when he led a team of Sri Lankan business leaders to Singapore at the beginning of March. He was there to make the case that the country was at peace after the end of a brutal, nearly 30-year civil war, which ended in May 2009. In that conflict, pitting government troops against the Tamil Tiger rebels, over 100,000 people were killed, the majority from the country's ethnic Tamils, the largest minority.

But the violence in Kandy torched Wickremesinghe's portrait of the country. And in a rare moment of candor for a Sri Lankan leader, he did not mince his words. "These riots have delivered a huge blow to the country's tourism and on the economy as a whole, while it has also tarnished its reputation," he said in a blunt statement on Thursday evening.

What was left unsaid was the failure of the state's intelligence branch - or a failure of the government to heed warnings of tension brewing in Kandy. Community leaders had smelled trouble after a road rage incident in late February resulted in the death of a villager belonging to the country's majority Sinhalese Buddhist community. He was set upon by four drunk Muslims, according to reports now made public.

The police subsequently arrested the attackers. But that did not stop organized Buddhist hardliners from groups who have stoked anti-Muslim violence since 2014 to swarm the area in their hundreds. They turned the impoverished villager's death into a political funeral.

In Ampara, along the island's southeast coast, the spark for ethnic violence a week before Kandy was a rumor about a threat to Sinhalese Buddhist virility. A group of Buddhist youths had stormed a Muslim food shop and accused the owner of infecting food with sterilization pills that only affected the majority's manhood.

In Ampara, like in Kandy, the mobs turned to social media platforms like Facebook to fan hatred, often with snatches of video recordings. They had followed a similar tactic during the sporadic explosions of anti-Muslim attacks since 2014. "The visual nature of many of these posts also indicates that this material is primarily targeted at youth," says Raisa Wickrematunge, editor of Groundviews, an online media portal in Sri Lanka that has monitored hate speech. "Facebook remains a major source for propaganda and hate speech."

The authorities have been blocking some social media in Sri Lanka to try to calm the situation.

This week some Muslims in the affected communities turned to public solidarity to make up for the state's lapses in protecting them. Among those praised for their courage was a Buddhist monk and a group of Sinhalese youths, who spent a night at a mosque to protect it from three marauding mobs.

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