How Sinhala Extremism Turned Against Sri Lanka’s Muslims After the Civil War


Samanth Subramanian in Caravan (Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP Photo):

One evening in Colombo, my friend Sanjaya dropped by, intending to collect me on our way to someplace else. I offered him a drink—beer, I seem to remember now, but given how the next two hours slipped clean out of our hands, more likely it was arrack. Arrack did that to you: it greased the passage of time. We sat around my dining table, Sanjaya telling stories and I listening. He told yarns tall and magnificent, embellishing on the run and possessing such a fondness for the absurd that he giggled as if he were hearing the tale and not narrating it. When he laughed, his eyes narrowed into letterbox slits, he quivered noiselessly, and his shoulders heaved. His mirth was tectonic.

“You heard they pulled a Muslim shrine down?” Sanjaya asked.

It had happened in the previous week in Anuradhapura, the ancient capital of Sri Lanka, and the most holy of towns for the island’s Buddhists. A group of Buddhist protesters—a busload, or two busloads, according to conflicting media reports—had arrived with crowbars and hammers and taken apart a small, old dargah. In this enterprise, they had not been stopped by the police or local administrators. Anuradhapura now bristled with communal tension.

“We should go there,” I said.

“We should,” Sanjaya said thoughtfully. “I know a guy who caught the whole thing on video.”

During the final years of the civil war, Sri Lankan Buddhism had developed a muscular right wing. First, in 2004, there was the launch of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a political party led by Buddhist monks, some of whom admitted quite freely to being racists and bayed for a destructive, damn-the-consequences annihilation of the guerrillas of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Nine of its monks entered parliament, and the party became a member—and an ideological heavyweight—in the coalition that ruled Sri Lanka. After some years, even the JHU was deemed by some to be too timid. In 2011 and 2012, two other sets of monks splintered from the JHU and started the Sinhala Ravaya (the Sinhalese Roar) and the Bodu Bala Sena (the Army of Buddhist Power), hijacking for themselves the shrill energy of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism. On the flag of the Sinhala Ravaya, a lion bounds forward, holding a sword thrust forward in attack. The Sinhalese roar is practically audible.

During those two years, the Buddhist right developed a taste for straight thuggery. The Tamils, cautious and defeated, living under a crushing military presence in the country’s north and east, posed no present threat to Sinhalese Buddhism. So, instead, the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya—as well as the JHU, their milquetoast cousin—retrained their energies upon Sri Lanka’s Muslims, who form roughly 10 percent of the population.

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