In the city of Kandy, located in the Central Province of Sri Lanka, recent attacks against Muslims by Sinhala Buddhist militants have raised fears of increased communal violence. Social media images have shown the scale of damage to Muslim neighbourhoods, with arson attacks and vandalism of Muslim-owned stores and mosques. In response the government declared a 10-day state of emergency for the first time since the end of the civil war era.
What is clear is that the recent violence is not random or isolated. Just before these current attacks, there had been an earlier attack on a mosque and Muslim businesses in the southeastern town of Ampara.
Hardline Buddhist groups’ use of social media clearly showed that these attacks were carefully planned, drawing in Buddhist militants from surrounding areas.
Since the Sri Lankan civil war ended in 2009, an increasing religious divide has grown, with a rise of militant Buddhist groups, such as Bodu Bala Sena. Tapping into longstanding insecurities that the Sinhalese and Buddhist nature of the country is under threat, these groups present Islam and Muslims as a religious, cultural and economic threat to the country. Such militant groups then use social media spaces to play on these fears, fuel tensions and encourage, incite and plan violence.
While Sri Lanka’s Telecommunications Regulatory Commission has temporarily blocked or restricted access to Facebook and other social media services this week, to curb ongoing anti-Muslim rhetoric, this is not an ideal solution given its wider ramifications for free speech.
Hardline Buddhist groups are strengthened in their actions by a culture of impunity where they are not held accountable for any hate speech or violence. Even leaving side the current crisis, it is striking what little the Sri Lankan coalition government has actually done to hold people accountable for acts of violence against Muslim communities. Long-term approaches dealing with communal tensions seem thin on the ground.
There is an urgent need for a strong response from the Sri Lankan government that ensures perpetrators of violence are held accountable for their actions. A relatively small number of militant Buddhist groups are having a disproportionate impact on local communities. If the government does not take a stronger stance – enforcing hate speech laws and arresting and prosecuting those responsible – there is a strong chance that increasingly there will be more targeted violence against Muslim communities and further communal conflict.
Dr Champa Patel, Head of Asia-Pacific Programme.
This article was originally published by the Independent.