A study of Contemporary Buddhist-Muslim Relations in Sri Lanka Part 1
Posted on September 27th, 2017

by Prof. G. H. Peiris

August 27, 2017


Muslims in the multi-ethnic polity of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka shares with the other nation-states of South Asia the phenomenon of complex ethnic diversities based upon distinctions of religion, language, caste and tribe. Three ethnic groups – Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim – make up more than 99% of its population, with the Sinhalese accounting for 74%.  As enumerated in 2011, the Tamil segment of the population which accounts for 15.5% of the national total comprises two groups – ‘Sri Lanka Tamils’ (11.2%) and ‘Indian Tamils’ (4.3%). Moors and Malays (adherents of Islam) make up 9.6% of the population. In addition, there are the numerically small communities of Burghers (people of mixed European descent), Parsees (immigrants from western India), and Veddas (regarded as the aboriginal inhabitants of the country).

In the country’s demographic spectrum of religion, Buddhists account for 70% – a proportion smaller than that of the majority religious group in other countries of the region. The political significance of the minorities constituting in aggregate as much as 30% of the population of Sri Lanka is enhanced by the presence of spatial agglomeration of one or another such group in certain parts of the country where traces of Buddhism have been largely obliterated and replaced by cultural elements associated with Hinduism, Islam or Christianity.1 On the basis of general impressions it is also possible to suggest an enhancement of this geographical polarisation by a tendency towards ethnic ghetto-formation, especially pronounced in, but not confined to, the larger urban areas of the country.

From historical perspectives the association of Theravada Buddhism[i] with the civilisation that evolved in the island over several millennia is comparable to the Hindu-India symbiosis witnessed in most parts of the adjacent sub-continent. Indeed, despite the highly controversial nature of issues concerning the national identity of Sri Lanka that prevails in the context of the recently concluded secessionist war and the lingering diversities of interests and aspirations among the country’s religious groups, there has never been a serious refutation of the perception that Buddhism has provided the distinctive elements of the country’s cultural heritage from the past, despite the fact that in Buddhist-Hindu relations throughout history there were, at the plane of popular religion, close links in the form of similarities in beliefs and value paradigms, complementary rather than conflicting associations in religious ritual, and shared deities and places of worship.

In respect of both doctrinal basics as well as ritual Islam stands apart from Buddhism and Hinduism. Yet, what appears prominent in the long history of relationships between these religious groups in Sri Lanka is that, especially in pre-modern times, religious distinctiveness by itself seldom acted as a barrier to peaceful coexistence.[ii] There is no denial implicit in this assertion of the brief spells of violent confrontation between the Muslim community and other groups, the most thoroughly investigated among which being the ‘Riots of 1915’. It was featured mainly by attacks against the Muslims living in some of the predominantly Sinhalese areas of the country for the suppression of which martial law was exercised by the colonial government with ruthless disregard of the norms of judicial procedure. In an incisive analysis of this episode of turbulences de Silva (1981:381-5)[iii] has clarified that  the riots were directed specifically at the section of the Muslim community called the ‘Coast Moors’, and has explained the virulence of the outburst with reference to the … ubiquitous activities of the Coast Moors in retail trading (that) brought them in contact with the people at their most indigent levels (which ) … earned them the hostility alike of the people at large and of their competitors among the Sinhalese traders … who had no compunctions about exploiting religious and racial sentiments to the detriment of their well-established rivals”.[iv] Michael Roberts who is also an eminent Sri Lankan scholar  has refuted certain aspects of de Silva’s sketch of this conflagration, referring to it as a “pogrom”, rejecting the use of the term ‘riot’ with which it has often been referred to by many other analysts.

Ethnicity and Muslim Political Mobilisation

The emergence in the closing decades of the 19th century of a vibrant press in the two local languages – Sinhala and Thamil – with their distinctive readership orientations, on the one hand, and the confluence of Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim revivalist movements with the embryonic campaign for independence from British rule, on the other, were prominent strands in the processes of Sri Lanka’s political modernisation during the early 20th century. Unfortunately the political significance of ethnicity was enhanced when universal adult franchise was introduced to the elections to the legislature in 1931, seventeen years before the country gained independence – a quantum leap towards ‘democracy’ which only Britain had achieved up to that time. The enfranchisement of the entire population – male and female – above the age of twenty-one at a time when a political party system offering a spectrum of alternative socioeconomic policy options to the electorate was yet to be developed had the impact of bringing into the forefront of the country’s politics the conflicting interests of the different religio-linguistic and caste groups which had, in fact, been in evidence even earlier when political participation was largely confined to the educated and property-owning elite.[v] In such a context, many among those aspiring to positions of political leadership (including those seeking the consolidation of leadership positions already held) had to appeal to primordial loyalties of language, religion and caste, and to espouse related sectarian interests. Though the semblance of a modern party system did eventually develop (largely through an almost haphazard process of polarisation among leaders of existing primordial groups, except in the case of the ‘Marxist Movement’), by independence, the labels of language, religion and caste had become almost as important as party affiliation in the electoral politics of Sri Lanka (And, remember the comedy of the 1947 elections to parliament when, in certain electorates, there were several nominees from the same party in mutual competition?).

The ‘All-Ceylon Moors’ Association’ and the ‘All-Ceylon Muslim League’ were influential organisations formed during the pre-independence era. These were dominated by the wealthy, urban-based elite of the Muslim community of Sri Lanka.  Many of the key personalities of these organisations became supporters of the UNP.  There were also a few prominent Muslims among the founder members of the SLFP in 1951.

The political alignments of the Sri Lanka Muslims have been succinctly outlined as follows (de Silva, 1986:445):

“The story of the Muslims in post-independence Sri Lanka is a story of how a small minority converted their intrinsic disadvantages (smallness of numbers and spatial scatter) into positive advantages in their struggle to strengthen their position in the Sri Lanka polity.  They were helped in this quite substantially by Sri Lanka’s political system in which from 1956 onwards the ruling party was defeated on six consecutive occasions (including 1956).  The result was that the Muslims had opportunities for political bargaining which they used to the great advantage of their community”.

Against the backdrop sketched out above, there was, for several decades after independence, no widely perceived need for political parties exclusively representing the interests of the Muslims.  In the more recent past, however, certain changes of circumstances – notably, the resentment on the part of an emerging leadership from the predominantly rural Muslim population concentrations such as that of the Eastern Province against the dominance of the urban-based elite in Muslim political affairs – led to the formation of Muslim political parties. Among these, the ‘Sri Lanka Muslim Congress’ (SLMC), inaugurated in 1988 in the context of deteriorating Tamil-Muslim relations in the Eastern Province, made rapid headway as an influential force in parliamentary politics. Several more recently formed parties such as the ‘Muslim United Liberation Front’ and the ‘Sri Lanka Muslim Katchi‘ are evidently intended to appeal to different regional and/or ‘class’ interests or personal loyalties within the Muslim community. Despite this trend, it seems likely that a large segment of the community, and even the exclusively Muslim political parties referred to above, will continue to retain links and loyalties with the UNP and the SLFP.

It should not be forgotten that at various stages of the ‘Eelam War’ (mid-1980s to 2009) certain Muslim leaders in mainstream politics (including Rauf Hakeem, the SLMC chief) were not averse to the prospect of forging a formal understanding with the LTTE leadership, independently of the stance of the Colombo government in which they held ministerial posts. Moreover, in the ‘Government-LTTE Peace Negotiations’ of 2001-2003, the principal demand of the Eastern Province Muslims, articulated mainly through the SLMC, was that any compromise worked out to meet the LTTE claim for autonomy in the ‘north-east’ should be accompanied by an arrangement facilitating self-government for those inhabiting the main Muslim areas in that part of the country.

The coastal lowlands of the Eastern Province have hardly ever been entirely free of localised friction between the Tamils and the Muslims constituting (according to the 1981 census data), 42% and 35%, respectively, of the total population of the province. These, it must be remembered, have all along been areas of excessively high population density in which residential loci of one community are juxtaposed by those of the other in an intricate and closely entwined micro-spatial mosaic. The eastern lowlands are also featured by resource scarcity, agrarian unrest and widespread poverty, and hence, frequent interpersonal disputes with communal undertones.

This was the demographic and socio-economic setting in which several Tamil militant groups began in the early 1980s to build a support-base among those of their own community. At that stage, evidently in response to harassment by the Tamil militants, the Muslims of their larger communities also attempted to form armed groups, and did achieve some success in their attempt.  Thus, for example, in the Allai area (south of Trincomalee harbour) an armed group which called itself the Jihad Movement” is said to have gathered a small but ardent following.  Again, in coastal Ampara (southern parts of the Eastern Province), a movement referred to as Al Fatah” mobilised some support from among Muslim youth. These, however, soon succumbed under the weight of the overwhelming might of the Tamil militants.

Following the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 the SLMC decided to collaborate with the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) in accordance with Delhi’s pledge to restore normality in the ‘north-east’. Observers believe that it was at this point that the LTTE turned its wrath in earnest towards the Muslims in this part of the country. Thus, following the withdrawal of the IPKF from Sri Lanka in the early months of 1990 and the concurrent emergence of the LTTE as the most powerful among the separatist groups, Muslim communities in the Eastern Province became the target of large-scale ‘Tiger’ attacks. These evidently represented an attempt at ethnic cleansing” of the Traditional Tamil Homeland”. Several gruesome massacres of Muslim civilians, each involving death-tolls exceeding one-hundred, were carried out by LTTE cadres, resulting in mass evacuation by the Muslims of certain localities. By January 1991, about 350,000 Muslims had been displaced from their villages and towns of the Eastern Province. In October 1990, the LTTE also evicted en masse all Muslims (total number estimated at about 70,000) from the Northern Province.  Thought the 1990s and well into the landmark ‘Mavil Aru-Muttur’ battle between the Sri Lanka army and the Tigers,[vi] the LTTE attacks were sporadically targeted at the Muslims.

In the longer term the Muslim fears of becoming a beleaguered minority in the entire country could have been reinforced by several brief localised Sinhalese-Muslim clashes of the recent past ̶ in the township of Mawanella in May 2001, and in northern Colombo in October 2002 (examined in detail in later stages of the present study). There is, in addition, the long-standing dispute in the interior of the Eastern Province concerning an alleged encroachment by the Muslims of land belonging to ancient Buddhist temples and archaeological sites.

Socioeconomic Perspectives

Among the other dimensions of ethnic relations in Sri Lanka that need to be highlighted as background to the present study is the declining trend of the correspondence between socio-economic stratifications and religious differences that prevailed in the country at independence seventy years ago and, in consequence, the absence in comparable magnitude today of an economically dominant” religious group similar to, say, that of the social privilege and relative affluence of Christians (especially the Protestant segment thereof), on the one hand, contrasting with the deprivation and despair that featured the lives of the overwhelming majority of Hindus in the plantation sector, the Tamils and Muslims in the rural areas in the northwest and the eastern lowlands, and the Sinhalese peasantry in the drier parts of the island, on the other.

The declining trend referred to above is largely attributable to transformations of the ethnicity-based functional specialisation brought about by the economic transformations witnessed under colonial dominance becoming indistinct since the termination of British rule in Sri Lanka. In British Ceylon the livelihood of the large majority in the Sinhalese segment of the population was in subsistence farming – the production of rice and a few other staples for local consumption with some among those inhabiting the maritime fringe deriving an income off-shore shallow water fisheries. The ‘Ceylon Tamil’ community, achieving greater upward social mobility through education than the other ethnic groups, acquired a proportionately large share of while-collar employment (including those in the professional fields), emerging mainly from an agrarian base oriented towards the production of “subsidiary food-crops” and tobacco for an all-island market, while harvesting the rich source of marine fish in the Mannar, Wadge and Pedro ‘banks’ in the island’s northern waters. In the case of Muslims, the semblance of a special focus of economic function could be discerned in the fact that, while participating in the entire range of economic activities, they had a share of trade transactions of the colony that was far in excess of their population ratio which was, to some extent, a legacy of commercial transactions of the Kandyan Kingdom. ‘Indian Tamils’, largely confined as they were to the plantation sector, constituted its poverty-stricken labour force inhabiting parts of the ‘Central Highlands.

The dissipation of this pattern of ‘specialisation’ which was associated with post- independence socioeconomic changes had significant repercussions on ethnic relations, most of it – especially those impelled by educational advances that facilitated social mobility – inevitable and salutary; but not devoid of a politically destabilising impact of intensifying inter-ethnic rivalry for space within the different fields of the economy in the context of a largely stagnant economy and a rapid expansion of population from about 7 million to 14.7 million in the first thirty years after independence, and then to  about 19 million in the next thirty years.

A socioeconomic phenomenon of utmost relevance to a study of relations between the Sinhalese majority community and the Hindu and Muslim minorities that has not received adequate scholarly attention is that in the daily lives of the large majority of people living in most parts of the island their inter-ethnic relations are seldom interaction among equals. The exceptions to this phenomenon are found perhaps only at the apex of society and in segments of the city working-class. More specifically, the large majority of the poor of any ethnic group has hardly any direct contact with the poor of other groups, being kept apart by barriers of geography, language and culture. Thus, for example, in most of the Sinhalese-majority areas, Sri Lankan Tamils and Muslims with whom the poor among the Sinhalese come into routine contact have all along been persons of higher social strata –  professionals, high and middle-level state sector employees, traders etc. With the steady post-independence increase of the Sinhalese proportion in the upper and middle grades of the state sector workforce, the mirror image of this feature came to be replicated (though somewhat less distinctly) in at least some of the main Tamil and Muslim majority areas of the northeast where, from about the mid-1980s, as the police and the armed forces gradually became almost exclusive Sinhalese domains, it assumed greater prominence. Accordingly, regardless of the fact that poverty has always been a phenomenon shared almost equally by all ethnic groups, to the poor in any one group, those of the other ethnic groups invariably appears economically privileged” and powerful”.

Emerging Buddhist-Muslim Rivalry in Sri Lanka?

The remaining segments of this study are presented in two parts the first of which is intended to contextualise, in the broader setting of recent political transformations witnessed in Sri Lanka, the proliferation of information on violence targeted allegedly by Sinhalese-Buddhists on the Muslims, which those responsible for disseminating such information often portray as a trend of intensifying rivalry between the two ethnic groups. The second part contains a critique of the thematic submissions in a similar portrayal presented by John Holt, Professor of Comparative Religion at a prestigious liberal arts college in the United States, as the ‘Keynote Address’ of a research conference on the subject of Ethnic Conflict in Buddhist Societies in South and Southeast Asia: The Politics behind Religious Rivalries’ conducted three years ago by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Kandy. The special attention I devote to Professor Holt is due entirely to the fact that the ‘Rashomon Effect’   ̶ the same event or phenomenon being interpreted in diverse ways by different persons, impelled by their subjective interests and motivations ̶ is far less evident in his keynote address than in others presented as scholarly works which I have come across on this subject.

Part 1: Glimpses of the ‘Regime Change’ Strategy

At the time of the conference referred to above the prevailing political ethos in Sri Lanka was such that there was reason to place trust in the government, guided as it was by the strength of its convictions and commitments to our foremost national interests, having the capacity to withstand the internal and external destabilising pressures being exerted against the country’s steady (but not entirely unblemished) ‘post-war’ recovery. Hence it was possible to regard even the blatant distortions of ground realities of ethnic relations in our country, including those that took the form of pseudo-academic research, churned out mainly by a set of foreign-funded Colombo-based NGOs, as no more than irritations of tolerable impact which small countries such as ours need to bear with fortitude while safeguarding rights as sovereign nation-states. It is now becoming increasingly evident that the ‘regime change’ of early 2015 has brought about a dire necessity to abandon that earlier attitude of laissez-faire indifference towards the spread of disinformation, subversion (including clandestine incitement to violence) and intimidatory threats based presumably on the pernicious doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect’,[vii] because the newly installed puppet regime, in its wayward responses to the resulting pressures, has been leading the nation relentlessly towards  the same state of anarchy and chaos as those targeted in the recent decades by the so-called democratisation efforts and humanitarian interventions of the NATO superpowers.

Even in the course of the 30-year ‘Eelam War’ there were attempts made by the LTTE and the leaders of the ‘Sri Lanka Tamil’ community in mainstream politics to attract at least a segment of the Muslim community into their secessionist campaign. When that proved to be futile, the Muslims living in the ‘North-East’ of the island became targets of diverse forms of terrorist brutality that included mass murder (remember Eravur and Kattankudi?) and forced displacement of entire communities (in Mannar, more excruciatingly than elsewhere). Since the Eastern Province was liberated from the clutches of the LTTE in late 2006, the government was able to embark on rehabilitation and reconstruction in that part of the ‘war zone’ well ahead of the end of its Vanni military operations in May 2009, using aid funds specifically earmarked by the donors for that purpose. This resulted in a spectacular re-development of socioeconomic infrastructure in the densely populated coastal periphery of the east where the largest Muslim settlements are located. In addition, the Muslim political alignments in the immediate aftermath of the war could also have been influenced at least marginally by the cordial relations which the Rajapaksa regime had maintained with several Islamic countries – especially Pakistan, Iran, and the Palestinian government of the Gaza Strip.

These probably constituted a significant set of reasons for Mahinda Rajapaksa obtaining 57.9% of the popular vote at the euphoric presidential election of January 2010 in his contest against the other formidable ‘war hero’ of that time, General Sarath Fonseka (the candidate backed by the UNP, JVP and the disgruntled loyalists of ex-president Chandrika doing her “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” act). In fact, Rajapaksa surpassed even the support garnered by J R Jayewardene at peak popularity in 1982 (52.9%) – the only previous nationwide poll free of serious insurrectionary disruption since the inception of the ‘executive presidential system’ in 1978. Based on the fact that Muslims in all parts of the island were sharing the economic benefits of the ‘peace dividend’ – especially in trade and commerce – it could be surmised that the Rajapaksa camp continued to retain the support of the Muslim community at the parliamentary elections conducted a few months later at which the UPFA secured 60% of the overall total of votes, while the UNP share had dwindled to 29%.

It should, however, be stressed that in the entire electoral history if independent Sri Lanka, the allegiance of the Muslims – almost 10% of the all-island vote –  for one or the other of the parties commanding the bulk of the Sinhalese support has all along been ephemeral. This, in my understanding, has been a fact of vital salience to the ‘regime change’ project referred to above, given the overall electoral morphology in which: (a) the Buddhist support (70%) gets divided (both directly as well as indirectly through the JVP, the JHU and the ‘Old Left’) among the two main parties; (b) support for the Rajapaksa regime from the ‘Sri Lanka Tamil’ community remains minute; and (c) the Hindu vote in plantation areas (about 4% of the national total) with its comparatively more distinct community cohesion, being vulnerable to en bloc external manipulation (including RAW intervention as rumoured in the local press but substantiated by Dersil Patel, in the journal Defence New issue of 29 July 2015) in favour of what Delhi preferred.

It is not possible in a dispassionate attempt to contextualise the ‘regime change’ project referred to above to discount the significance of the foregoing sketch of electoral arithmetic. It would, indeed, be downright stupid to ignore the fact that promoting estrangement of Buddhist-Muslim relations, especially through clandestine support to the rabble-rousing lunatic fringe of the Buddhist segment of the electorate, on the one hand  (the well-known columnist Izeth Hussain, writing for The Island on 5 May 2017, was certain that “the Islamophobic hate campaign is  obviously foreign-funded and foreign backed”)  paralleled by a propaganda campaign designed to magnify the violent exemplifications of the alleged hostility of the Buddhists such as homicide and grievous physical injury, desecration of mosques, arson, property damage, looting etc., which, in addition, contained the damning charge that the government remained inactive or even supportive of the violence because of its subservience to Buddhist interests.

These modalities of destabilisation have by no means ceased with the toppling of the Rajapaksa regime. What is of direct salience to a reappraisal of evidence for the claimed intensification of Buddhist-Muslim rivalry is that the same ‘regime change’ strategies are now being pursued with enhanced vigour for protecting  the tottering regime installed in 2015, with a short-term focus on averting its probable collapse at the forthcoming all-island local government elections  ̶ a debacle to somehow mitigate at least in the main municipal areas such as Colombo and Kandy where there is an electorally formidable Muslim presence.

The extracts from a recent analysis by Tamara Kunanayakam reproduced below contain a set of persuasive evidence on the persistence of the United States in its efforts to ensure that the present government of Sri Lanka remains subservient to its geopolitical fiat, and enforcing its will on Colombo.[viii]

“It is indeed symbolic that the US Ambassador chose to announce Washington’s decision to ‘assist’ Sri Lanka draft its Constitution and implement the Human Rights Council resolution from the amphibious warship USS New Orleans, which is used to land and support ground forces on enemy territory and patrols provocatively close to China. It is also ironic that it is from Temple Trees that the Acting US Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells declared, last week, that ‘the United States is – and will continue to be – an Indo-Pacific power’. She was the first to announce America’s ‘first ever naval exercise’ in Sri Lanka in October, in Trincomalee”.

“US interference in Sri Lanka began long before the resolution was adopted (at the 30th UNHCR Session in September 2015). It was, however, the Yahapalana regime that gave it wings and also international legitimacy”.

“The US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Sri Lanka to fix the road map even before a legitimate Government was in place. The two visits to Sri Lanka of Jeffrey Feltman, the UN Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs, are also significant. On his first visit shortly after the 2015 Presidential elections, Feltman declared he was here to assist in the process of accountability and reconciliation.” On his second visit last month he revealed that accountability and reconciliation had meant changing the Constitution. He came to monitor progress”.

“Feltman is a former US Assistant Secretary of State, a neoconservative hawk linked to Robert Kagan – their theoretician, Victoria Nuland and Samantha Powers. Feltman has been involved – at the highest level – in regime change, destabilization, the break-up of sovereign States into ethnic enclaves, fomenting violence. I would require more time to give an account of his role in covert operations in the Ukraine, Russia, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Moldova, Georgia, Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador, etc.”

“Other significant visits include that of Samantha Power, also known as the ‘Liberal War Hawk’ and George Soros, US multi-billionaire who believes we don’t have enough ‘constitutional democracy.

My present comments on the empirical basis of the claimed intensification of Buddhist attacks on the Muslims in Sri Lanka is based on a fairly detailed study of the abundance of related reports available in published form including those documented in the mainstream press and the so-called ‘social media’.[ix] In addition, I have gathered information through ‘field investigations’ in four of the trouble spots – Mawanella, Dambulla, Mahiyangana and Aluthgama – which entailed random interviews with community leaders (clergy and lay persons, men and women) and, in respect of the ‘Grandpass Riot’, several persons including a Christian clergyman and a senior government officer very familiar with their respective areas.

There are certain commonalities in the documentations referred to above. First, the overwhelming majority of my sources refer to an increasing incidence of hostility targeted at Muslims by either unnamed mobs or cliques variously referred to as “Buddhist extremists/fanatics/racists/bigots”, “followers of Bodu Bala Sēnā” (or other fringe group like Rāvanā Balaya, Sinhala Rāvaya and Sinha Lē), “criminal elements”or, as in a recent media reports, “a rampaging drug addict”. The frequency of occurrence of these events of violence is also occasionally indicated with reference to some time-frame, or is simply described as “many”, “extensive”, “widespread”, “increasing”, “escalating”, “ratcheting” etc., indicating that the impression most of the writers wish to convey is the prevalence of an ominous trend.

What I find strange in this body of evidence is the fact that it is loaded with trivia such as those referred to in the list compiled by the Sri Lanka Muslim League (SLMC, the largest Muslim political party in Sri Lanka) evidently for submission to the UN High Commission for Human Rights),[x] and an overall scarcity of precise information indicating the intensity of the reported events. Barring a few exceptions (one of the most noteworthy exception being a report compiled by the International Centre of Ethnic Studies Colombo, that furnishes fairly detailed information on several major flashpoints such as Mawanella, Aluthgama, Dambulla and Grandpass, and has made a partially successful attempt at suppressing some of the innate anti-Buddhist prejudices),[xi] the overwhelming majority of the sources do not furnish information that would facilitate a comparative assessment of the real gravity of the problem which, to my mind, is essential for us to understand the seriousness of this claimed trend in comparison to intergroup conflicts elsewhere in the world  ̶  not only in Buddhist countries of South and South East Asia, but in predominantly Hindu, Islamic or Christian countries in some of which ethnic conflict of one form or another is almost endemic. It is, indeed, unfortunate that we do not have a reputed scholar-journalist of the calibre of Asghar Ali Engineer who has monitored in detail the tragic Hindu-Muslim conflagrations in a large number of Indian cities, all of them published in the Economic and Political Weekly over several decades, apart from the reports of thorough and impartial investigations conducted by India’s presidential commissions on the more disastrous episodes of intergroup violence.

Given the lacuna of comparable in-depth analysis on Sri Lanka, it would not be possible for the world to gauge how the widely publicised Aluthgama flare-up, for instance, compares with, say, the demolition of the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in 1992 or the atrocities committed by Hindu mobs in the Muslim ghettoes of Ahmedabad ten years later; or whether the role of Ven. Galagodaattē Gnānasāra of the BBS is comparable to that of the Burmese monk Ven. Ashin Wirathu and his ‘969 Movement’, or  Swami Chinmayananda Sarasvati of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, (referred to sometimes as a leader of the “militant wing” of the BJP); or the extent to which Mahinda Rajapaksa’s alleged inaction in the face of sporadic inter-ethnic clashes during his second presidential tenure could be regarded similar in its causal nexus to that of Aung San Suu Kyi since her elevation to the office of ‘State Counsellor’ in April 2016, or of Chief Minister Narendra Modi during the deadly ‘Gujarat Riots’ of 2002. In the absence of the type of specific information on the spatial and temporal perspectives and some indication of the duration and destructive impact of the alleged Buddhist violence, the related sources of information and analysis, even those produced with the noble objective of safeguarding Buddhism from bigotry, could well be part and parcel of a process of rubbishing Sri Lanka and the religion of its majority community in the arena of global politics.

I should illustrate the point being made here by referring to an article by Dr. Jehan Perera, well known for his pacifist and democratisation efforts, titled ‘Anti-Muslim Violence: The Puzzle of Continuing Impunity’, published in The Island of June 5, 2017. As a launching pad for his denunciation he has used the “grease devil” (grease yakā) reports that appeared in the press from time to time from about 2011 (the most recent one being dated May 27, 2017). Although the supposedly eye-witnessed ‘grease yakas‘ (nude men, covering themselves with grease, and raiding homes at night to terrorise the occupants, especially women; but, in most cases, getting away with plundered booty and/or perverted satisfaction) have been reported from all over the island – Battaramulla and Talangama (suburbs of Colombo), Ähäliyagoda and Pälmadulla (Ratnapura District where the ‘grease yaka’ terror was tied up with several heinous murders related to the narcotic transactions), Kalpitiya (Puttalam District), Galenbindunuweva (Anuradhapura District), Middeniya (Matara District), Kattankudi (Batticaloa District), Haputalē (Badulla District), and several rural localities in Jaffna District. These details appear to have been of utmost irrelevance to the reconciliation efforts hawked by Dr. Perera. Thus, having recast just one published version of questionable authenticity of the ‘grease devil’ exploits to a story obviously intended to be understood by those unfamiliar with conditions in Sri Lanka as a planned campaign of terrorising Tamil communities in the north, conducted from the bases of an “army of occupation” of Jaffna peninsula to harass its civilian population in a quasi-military strategy of subjugation (!), he has, through a curious verbal sleight-of hand, proceeded to link it to a supposedly escalating series of attacks by grease yakas on Muslims living in predominantly Sinhalese areas, the evidence intended to substantiate it being a Baron Munchausen-type fabrication of “burning a section of the Alutgama Town” (a fairly large urbanised area midway between Colombo and Galle). Thereafter, Dr. Perera, has drawn a parallel between the tragic fate of the stateless Rohingya Muslim refugees (described in several international publications as “the most persecuted ethnic group in Asia“) living in the Rakhine tribal homelands in Myanmar, with that of the Muslims in Sri Lanka, spicing his horror story with a passing reference to past attacks on the Christians, and ending with a condemnation of the government for making it possible for Buddhist miscreants to get away with impunity, but making the censure palatable to the Yahapālana regime by mentioning extenuating circumstances, as we can see in the following extract from his essay, thus killing several birds with a hail of stones.

“It may be that the governmental leadership does not believe that this is the time to act. The massive crowds bused (sic) in by the Joint Opposition for their May Day rally was larger than any other. It is also indicative of the political opposition’s ability to muster people power onto the street, even if they have to be provided with a handout inclusive of transport, meals and drinks. In this context the government’s instinct may be to delay taking decisive action and hope that the problem will go away. The government may also be trying to follow the example of Myanmar, where the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi has sought to accommodate the hardline Buddhist nationalist groups within the government in order to win their support”.

The Aluthgama Riot of mid-June 2014 has, indeed, been documented in detail by the media. More than 50 of these could be easily accessed via internet as film clips and news reports. Collectively they represent no more than a patchy coverage of what really happened. Apart from the print media in Sri Lanka, some of the major news firms of the ‘West’ also covered the episode, projecting it mainly as yet another example of a rising tide of “Buddhist violence” in Asia. In addition, it received attention in several scholarly works. In my assessment, the most detailed account of the riot setting, including vitally significant disclosures not found elsewhere in published form, has been authored by the well-known free-lance journalist, Shenali D. Waduge.[xii] There are, in addition, reports published by two fraternally linked Colombo-based NGOs –’International Centre for Ethnic Studies’, and ‘Law and Society Trust’.[xiii] The former, though described by its authors as a “research report” conveys no more than what could be described as a conventional account of the episode, its redeeming feature being that it has labelled what occurred as a ‘riot’ rather than a Buddhist attack on Muslims. The latter is very definitely a product of fairly detailed post-riot field investigations based largely, it seems, on random sources of information.

The thematic thrust of the study by Sonali Waduge (July 2014) is that biased reporting, especially in the English language press and other documentations, has conveyed a distorted version of the circumstances, especially the concealment of the responsibility of Muslims miscreants in Dharga Town that culminated in the riot that began in the late afternoon of 15 June 2014. A summary of the related facts presented by Waduge reads as follows:

“Please take note that the throwing of the carcasses, throwing of blue dye onto the Buddhist priests, the destruction of the Dharmachakra in the temple Kurunduwatte Sri Vijayarama, the humiliations that priests walking along the road to the temple passing the mosque was subject to were all done in the absence of any involvement or presence of the BBS. These were all taking place over a period of time. The Buddhists of the area had to silently suffer because neither the police nor the politicians took the issues on the merit of attempting to ensure that people lived peacefully. These grievances numbered many and included how politicians would attend birthday parties of Muslims but not attend the funeral rites of a Buddhist priest. The unheard of grievances were many.

The Buddhist priests of the temple including the chief incumbent (Ven. Ayagama Samitha, the victim of the assault on 12 June) had no history of any altercation with the Muslim community whatsoever to be subject to the abuse and humiliation that they suffered. This background information has been purposely blacked out by media”.

In contrast, Dr. Jehan Perera’s sketch referred to above and the supposedly more scholarly ICES study an extract from which is reproduced below, shares with many other accounts of the ‘Aluthgama Riot’ disseminated worldwide, attempts to trivialise the hostilities suffered by Samitha Thero and other monks of Sri Vijayārāma – a temple said to be well over one-hundred years old in a predominantly Sinhalese village into which there has been a large influx of Muslims in the recent decades and a change of name to ‘Dharga Town’, and now, one of two Buddhist shrine there in uneasy coexistence with four mosques – and thus to place the blame for the riot squarely on the BBS rally and Gnanasara Thero’s incitement.

“Ethnic riots erupted (on 15 June 2014) in Aluthgama, Dharga Town, (and the adjacent) Valipanna and Beruwela towns located in the South of Sri Lanka. The area has a large Muslim population that lived alongside a larger Sinhalese community. Amity between the two communities remained somewhat fragile, as communal violence had erupted previously, almost a decade earlier. The incident that reportedly triggered the riots in 2014 was an altercation between a Buddhist monk and three Muslims from the area. Following the incident, a large rally was organised on 15 June to condemn the alleged attack on the Buddhist monk. The BBS participated in this rally and Galagoda Aththē Gnānasāra Thero, the General Secretary of the BBS, made racist and inflammatory remarks against Muslims at the rally” (italics added).

The events that led to this unexpected attack by a mob of Muslim youth, and the massive conflagration it ignited to last over several days, constitute a tragic story which must be looked at in detail because it illustrates several features of thematic relevance to the main objective of the present study. My reconstruction of that story is presented in Part 2 (pp. 37-43) of this paper.

The overall impressions conveyed by that story could be summed up here as follows:

  • There is no doubt that the BBS meeting and Ven. Gnānasāra’s presence and his public utterances were potentially (Note that the injured Ven. Ayagama Samitha, the victim of the attack by several Muslim youth on 12 June was ushered on to the stage in the course of the meeting).
  • However, it should not be forgotten that prior to the riot on 15 June there was a build-up of explosive communal tensions in the Dharga Town area at least from about the first week of that month warranting police action, both when serious complaints were lodged regarding a paedophilic rape committed on a Sinhalese child by a Muslim trader (8 June), the overt aggressiveness displayed by certain Muslim riffraff in Dharga Town towards the Buddhists, and  on the assault suffered by Ven. Samitha (12 June), as well as when representatives of the Muslim community conveyed to the police their fear about a possible outbreak of mob violence in the area. Whatever justification the police might have had for their inaction, my informants indicate that there were undercurrents of suspicion among the Sinhalese that the police were in the pay of the Muslims business community.
  • The large influx of people to the BBS meeting venue is likely to have been a result of malevolent rumour mongering and, of course, the undeniable entertainment value of the BBS leader (Didn’t some of us in our youth go all the way to enjoy the ‘May Day’ performances especially by the inimitable scholar, pioneer Marxist and legal luminary, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva in the Trotskyite “extra-parliamentary mode of capturing state power” in vogue at that time, roaring “gahapalla” (attack), his silhouette pointing at the old parliament complex against the crimson sunset over Galle Face green.
  • On the 15th eve senior police officers were reluctant to exercise force to prevent signs of potential violence. There was no immediate action taken by them to stop the stoning. They preferred instead to attempt pacifying the more agitated persons in the crowds, realising no doubt that their interventions were being recorded by the media and the users of ‘smart phones’.
  • Thus, the offensives in Aluthgama were very definitely not one sided. People on both sides engaged in, and suffered from, the violence – with more Muslims than Buddhists among the victims in the post-riot stock-taking of overall damage. Although later records referred to death-counts of up to about 8 Muslims and a Buddhist monk, no such claims were made in the course of many recorded random interviews at that time.
  • “Burning of a section of the Aluthgama town” is a highly exaggerated and unwarranted description of this sad episode, no different from the type of hyperbole often employed by Gnānasāra Thero in his public utterances, unless one were to argue, like school boys sometimes do, that even a lamp-post could be considered a section of a town.

On several occasions certain Buddhist community leaders of the area joined their Muslim counterparts in appealing for calm and peace while standing amidst fairly large gatherings that appeared to endorse what they said. This conveys an impression that goes completely against an article published by the ‘Centre for Policy Alternatives’ (presumably to commemorate the third anniversary of the riot) according to which there is absolutely no hope for ethnic reconciliation in Aluthgama.

Part 2: A Reappraisal of Evidence and Claims

A rising tide of Buddhist hostility?

There is no dearth of writings that make the claim of Muslims in Sri Lanka being a minority that has, for long, suffered discrimination and harassment and, in the more recent past, been the target of “Islamophobic” persecution by the Buddhists. The more refined among these are some of the ‘features’ authored by the inimitable Izeth Hussain (ex-diplomat  and regular columnist), hitting hard all round the wicket, as it were, often with easy elegance, and always, despite the pretence at intellectual detachment, with passionate commitment to his team’s victory. There is, of course, nothing wrong in that, except his occasionally getting caught at silly point.

Professor John Holt’s keynote address I referred to at the outset does not stand alone as an elevation of this pernicious claim to the plane of scholarly research. Among the others I have read, there are (a) the ICES and Law and Society studies (referred to earlier)[xiv] which I think are the best of their kind, (b) Zuhair, 2016[xv] which, in my assessment, would have been excellent had the author matched its elegant style with prejudice-free substance; and (c)  a monograph by Ameer Ali,[xvi] one of my former faculty colleagues now living in Australia, titled ‘Four Waves of Muslim-Phobia in Sri Lanka: c.1880–2009’, published almost at the same time as Holt’s study, a brief comment on which is presented below.

In Ameer Ali’s analysis of the “fourth wave” (post-2009) – that of the earlier “waves” are no more than an exercise in re-inventing the wheel – lacks the sedate, persuasive approach typical of John Holt. Apart from the invective, there are several misconstrued references by Ali to several Buddhist outrages not referred to by John. These include “the destruction of a 400-years old Muslim shrine at Anuradhapura” (a mind-boggling archaeological discovery, according to a veteran historian whom I have consulted)[xvii], prefaced by a tirade which accuses President Rajapaksa of “…benevolently tolerating, if not openly supporting, … a vicious campaign to terrorise the Muslims, destroy their economy and demonize Islam through acts of intimidation, insult, incendiarism, and outright thuggery by ultranationalist organizations like the BBS, its surrogate parent JHU and the Sinhala Rāvaya”, and attributes the presidential neglect to a mindset of “triumphalism and malevolence” towards the minority communities after the victory over the LTTE in 2009. Does Ali demonstrate more than all else that the ‘key’ to understanding the real nature of this entire conflict is to realize that the honourable don Ali is as eloquent in his lingo as the venerable monk Gnānasāra is in his, and that such eloquence in the dissemination of half-truths and falsehood has much the same destabilising impact – that of rousing the rabble? Surely, the failure of the government at that time to curtail Buddhist megalomaniacs is, in terms of realpolitik, comparable to the failure of earlier regimes to tame the ‘Tiger’ megalomaniac for well over two decades; and, moreover, those holding the reins of office in Colombo have always, in both war as well as peace, been in desperate need of at least a segment of Muslim electoral support and goodwill. What is this psychoanalytical tripe about a “triumphalist mindset”?  So, let’s move out of this garbage replete as it is with ethnic prejudices, and focus in this part of the article on the issues raised soberly by Professor Holt.

In addition to stating that there were over “150 documented perpetrations by Buddhists against Muslims” from early 2013 to mid-2014,[xviii] Professor Holt has referred specifically to eight such hostilities (listed below), seven among which had occurred during the 18-month period preceding the ICES conference of 2014. This set of information certainly conveys the impression of an increase in the incidence and intensity of attacks on the Muslims in comparison to the previous 11-year spell between the Mawanella riot and the “demolition” of the Dambulla mosque. Yet, it is only in the light of what really happened at these flash points would it be possible to substantiate the claim of increasing hostility of Buddhists towards the Muslims. The sections of this paper that follow are devoted to such a probe, leaving the campaigns of protest and propaganda referred to by John Holt for subsequent perusal.

  • “Mawanella Riot” in 1999 (Sic)
  • “Demolition” of the mosque at Dambulla in 2012
  • BBS campaign against the production of Halal food (2013-14)
  • BBS proposal to ban the burka (2014)
  • Ravana Balaya’ (sic.) protest march (2013)
  • “Desecration” of a mosque in Mahiyangana (2013)
  • Grandpass “mob attack” on Muslims (2014)
  • Aluthgama-Dhargar Town clash (2014).

Mawanella Riot

The ‘Mawanella Riot’ of 2001, when placed in the context of the general contention of escalating Buddhist hostility towards the Muslim in Sri Lanka since the end of the ‘Eelam War’, appears to be intended to underscore the fact that, in earlier times (i.e. before the end of the ‘War’) there has been nothing comparable to a persistent trend of intensifying Buddhist violence targeted at Muslims since about 2012. Such a perspective, needless to stress, conforms to the thematic thrust identifiable in several writings including that by Professor John Holt on ‘post-war’ ethnic relations in Sri Lanka – a rising tide of Buddhist intolerance towards the other religious groups of the country.

That my interpretation of the information pertaining to this issue is entirely different has already been stated in the first part of this paper.  Briefly recapitulated, the conclusion I draw from the mass of related evidence available is that in each of the serious conflagrations that has occurred in the period leading up to the national elections of 2015, what stands out is the sinister manipulation of a potentially volatile situation in one or another part of the country by those who pursued the ‘regime change’ objective of destabilizing the Sri Lankan polity and installing a regime that would, if they so desire from geopolitical objectives, eventually bringing about the disintegration of its national territory. To me the ‘Mawanella Riot’ illustrates certain ingredients of that latent volatility more clearly than some of the other conflict situations probed in later sections of the paper. Yet, in its causal nexus it is different from those on which the present study is focused in the sense of the similarities it bears to the sporadic Sinhalese-Muslims flare-ups of earlier times in, say, Puttalam, Kottaramulla, Galle and several localities of Colombo North that were ignited invariably by localised altercation involving persons from the two communities often with undercurrents of rivalry in electoral politics appear more pronounced than in the ‘post-war’ turbulences.

In sketching the geographical setting of this riot reference should be made to the fact that Mawanella town is located in the verdant foothills of the Central Highlands about 90 km from Colombo along the main highway to Kandy. The ‘Kandy Road’, one recollects, was one of the earliest products of the policy of “roads, roads and more roads” initiated by Governor Edwards Barnes (1824-31) soon after the consolidation of British rule over the Kandyan Kingdom. Of interest from historical perspectives is the fact that ‘Galboda Korale‘ (of which Mawanella is a part) was a major source of spices and other farm products over several centuries, and the ‘Mid-Country’[xix] trade in pepper, cloves, nutmeg and arecanut was largely under the control of Muslims even in pre-British times as it is at present. Since the early 20th century natural rubber produced on peasant smallholdings of this area also emerged as an important item of Muslim intermediary transactions in which, in the more recent past, their competition with Sinhalese traders has become somewhat intense.

Recent demographic changes in this part of the country, despite the lack precision in the related data (due mainly periodic changes of their spatial frames) suggest, however, the likelihood that there has been a very rapid growth of its population in the recent decades – i.e. roughly, 60% since the Census year of 1981 when the population of the ‘Town Council’ of Mawanella was placed at 13,891, and the present population of the Grama Niladhari units that corresponds to the ‘Town Council’ area of 1981 (i.e. the urbanised parts of the Mawanella Pradesheeya Sabha area) of about 22,000. An ethnic disaggregation of this latter total is not available. But, in the ‘Town Council’ area of 1981, 61% and 36% were the population ratios, respectively, of Muslims and Buddhists (i.e. 8,438 and 5,062 in the total of 13,891 at that time). This fact – i.e. the Muslim ratio of 61% – should also be regarded as an atypical feature in the demography of the string of urban centres along the Colombo-Kandy highway.

On the socioeconomic circumstances that are of salience to an understanding of the ‘riot’, I can do no better than to cite a passage from an article by three reputed scholars It reads as follows:[xx]

“There are two popular and, to some extent, mutually contradictory explanations of May 2001 riot in Mawanella. One is that it was an outcome of economic and political competition among various interests groups in this booming urban center in an emerging urban corridor in Sri Lanka. The other is that it is an ethnically motivated riot reflecting increasing ethnicisation of political and social processes in the country. This paper argues that while there is an element of truth in each of these explanations, a synthesis of the two arguments is necessary in order to fully understand the nature and causes of these riots. It is true that simmering economic competition and business rivalries within the Mawanella town has been an important underlying factor in the social history of the town since 1930s. Mawanella is an important urban centre where collection and bulking of important economic produce in the surrounding countryside, including spices, has been the primary economic activity. In more recent times certain service sector activities, including employment bureaus recruiting overseas migrant workers, have been added to the spectrum of urban economic enterprises.[xxi] Most of these economic activities are controlled by Muslims, while the Sinhala peasants in the surrounding hinterland have encountered many difficulties due to landlessness, poverty, unemployment and lack of economic opportunities in general. While analysis of this economic backdrop is necessary for understanding the wider context of the riots, equally important are politicization of ethnicity (emergence of ethnically-oriented political parties among both Sinhalese and Muslims), manipulation and mobilization of ethnic symbols by both groups, increased pattern of ethnic segregation in spatial terms and increased tendency to attribute one’s own vulnerabilities to the ethnic other”.

Electoral politics should also be accorded prominence in this ‘background’ sketch. A study of voting patterns in Mawanella at national elections since the early 1990s indicate pronounced fluctuations in the voter support which the two main rival camps (coalitions led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party – SLFP) and the United National Party – UNP) have been able to muster. In addition, my ‘field information’ for this and an earlier study[xxii] also suggests that, regardless of fluctuations in the electoral fortunes of these two groups of parties in Mawanella, they have all along been able to match each other in their campaign efforts of which the exercise of muscle-power and, indeed, the entire range of malpractices in electoral politics, have been an integral part. This is of special relevance to the acts of violence in the ‘Riot’ of 2001 when contextualised in the intense turbulences that accompanied the national elections – presidential (1999) and two parliamentary elections (2000 and 2001) – of this time.

There is almost unanimity among my informants that a group of henchmen of a leading political personage of the ruling party in Kegalle district, in the course of extracting kappan (protection payments) on the morning of 30 April 2001 from a Muslim restaurant-keeper, assaulted him probably in order to demonstrate the consequences of resistance.[xxiii] Since a complaint made to the police evoked no response (widely attributed to the power of the politician who ruled the roost in this part of the district for well over two decades), a large group of people (according to media accounts, about 3,000), mostly Muslim, assembled outside the police station two days later and staged a boisterous protest which according to some, had considerable UNP backing. Although the protesters appeared to have been pacified with a pledge of immediate ‘law enforcement’, a larger crowd of gangsters descended on the scene and engaged in a rampage of assault, plunder, arson and desecration targeted at the Muslims whose youth, in turn, also attempted futile resistance and retaliation. The lopsided riot continued, especially in the outskirts of the town, despite the imposition of a curfew over several days. As far as I could ascertain, the most blatant “religious” atrocity committed in the course of the riot was the destruction of newly installed mosque at Hingula located about a kilometre from the Mawanella town.

The assertion that scores of Muslim businesses were burnt out” in the Mawanella riot is a gross exaggeration made in whatever source John has relied upon.[xxiv] I had an unusual opportunity (courtesy of a senior police officer – a former student) of seeing the extent of the damage soon after the rioting had been brought under effective control, but before curfew was lifted, when I observed about twenty-five shops and houses bordering the Kandy-Colombo highway and in the bus-stand venue, belonging to Muslims and Sinhalese, that had suffered various extents of damage (ranging from a few shattered glass-panes to total wreckage) during the riot (it occurred in May 2001 and not in 1999 as John’s informant appears to have said).

Needless to say, the media, local and foreign, accorded the ‘Mawanella Riot’ wide and sensationalised publicity. Since the ‘9-11’ was still to happen, and the moribund Chandrika Kumaratunga regime was not to the liking of Western diplomatic and media personnel in Colombo, there was an abundance of well-deserved sympathy lavished on the Muslims, with the culpability for the riots promptly but undeservedly placed wholesale on the Buddhists.

Several persons with whom I have discussed the Mawanella Riot, among them my former colleague A. S. M. Naufhal whose ancestral home is in that town, have assured me that since 2001 there has been no Buddhist-Muslim friction in the area. He mentioned that even the obnoxious politician referred to above has, since then, sponsored certain government projects that are directly beneficial to Muslim communities. Kabir Hashim, an Economics graduate from Peradeniya, a member of parliament recently elevated to the post of Chairman of the UNP, is also said to have been instrumental in maintaining ethnic harmony in the area. This perception of continuing peaceful coexistence among the religious groups finds support in an Anthropological study led by Professor Kalinga Tudor Silva[xxv] the opening paragraph of its synopsis, is reproduced below.

“Commenting on post-war politics and social dynamics in Sri Lanka some researchers have claimed that there is a shift in conflict dynamics in Sri Lanka from ethnic hostilities to largely religiously inspired hostilities (Holt 2016; Wickramasinghe 2015, Herath and Rambukwella 2015, Klem 2011). The rise of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and aggressive Muslim reform movements resulting in interreligious as well as intrareligious tension are presented in support of this argument. With a view to contributing to this debate, the present study focused on three religious sites with a multi-religious heritage in central Sri Lanka. This study, however, did not find evidence for an unambiguously ‘religious turn’ in social conflict in Sri Lanka in the post-war era. The religious sites studied with a history of multi-religious engagement between Buddhism and Islam have potential for promoting conflict as well as solidarity. The current situation in these three sites does not indicate a major rupture in terms of interreligious relations” (italics added).

“Demolition” of a Mosque in Dambulla

The urban functions in Dambulla until about the late 1970s were represented by no more than a small cluster of shops and primary-level outlets of government services traversed by the Kandy-Jaffna highway. The income of this sleepy township was derived mainly from the tertiary services the cluster provided to the thin scatter of peasant settlements in its hinterland and from pilgrims visiting the historic Rangiri cave-temple dating back to the pre-Christian era. Several changes witnessed since the 1980s ̶ the opening up of ‘System H’ of the Mahaveli Programm, invigoration of international tourism, the advances in transport and travel that accompanied ‘liberalisation’ of the economy, and the rapid population growth attributable mainly to immigration   ̶  made Dambulla one of the largest market towns located mid-way between Sri Lanka’s Central Highlands and the northern plains, and to emerge as the foremost centre of wholesale trade in perishable farm products commanding a commercial catchment extending over a large part of the island including the Colombo metropolitan area.

At the census of 1981 Dambulla Town Council (TC) area had a population of 3,613 out of which 3,263 were Buddhists. Thus, the Hindus (193), Muslims (111) and ‘Others’ (46) constituted less than 10% of the total. The area of authority of the Assistant Government Agent of Dambulla had at that time a rural population of 35,509, the Buddhist accounting for 33,710 of that total. By the census enumeration of 2012 the TC of Dambulla which had been elevated to the status of an ‘Urban Council’ had a population of 23,814 in its area of authority.[xxvi]

[i].  In highly simplified form Theravada is regarded as the orthodox school of Buddhism that has its literary traditions in the Pali language. It is the main form of Buddhism prevalent in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.  Sri Lankan Buddhists believe that Theravada adheres closely to the original teachings of the Buddha and that, historically, their country has been the citadel of Buddhism in its pristine form. This belief is regarded by scholars as a major ideological ingredient of Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism.


[ii].  In the coastal lowlands of the east where Tamil and Muslim settlements are often form an intricate spatial mosaic, there have been innumerable local-level clashes between the two communities. These, as McGilvray (1997, ‘Tamils and Muslims in the Shadow of War: Schism or Continuity’, South Asia: 20) has pointed out, have rarely been triggered off by religious issues. Several detailed studies have also shown that during the ‘Kandyan Period’ (c. 16 to 18 century), land grants were donated to Muslim communities in proximity to the core of the highland kingdom and, even in its peripheral areas of the kingdom, Muslims were fully integrated into the tenurial system and arrangements of trade and taxation. See, for example Devaraja, Lorna S (2008) The Kandyan Kingdom of Sri Lanka, 1708-1782, Stanford Lake Publication, Pannipitiya: 187-188 & 231-232.

[iii].  De Silva, K. M. de S (1981), A History of Sri Lanka, Oxford University Press: 381-5.

[iv].  Roberts, Michael (2009), ‘Marakkala Kolahalaya: Mentalities Directing the Pogrom of 1915’, in Confrontations in Sri Lanka, Vijitha Yapa, Colombo: Chapter 5.

[v]. Roberts, Michael (1982) Caste Conflict and Elite Formation: The Rise of a Karava Elite in Sri Lanka, 1505-1931, Cambridge University Press.

[vi]. Peiris G. H. (2006) The Muttur Tragedy: A Re-examination’, The Island of 22 November 2006,  and (2009) Twilight of the Tigers: Peace Efforts and Power Struggles in Sri Lanka, Oxford University Press: 217-218

[vii].   Peiris, G. H. (2008) ‘The “responsibility to Protect” and External Intervention in the Sri Lankan Conflict’, Proceedings of the Jagran Forum, New Delhi.

[viii].  Kunanayakam, Tamara (2017) ‘Sri Lanka: The new Constitution – a neo-colonial project!’

      Defend Democracy Press, 17/09/2017 http://www.defenddemocracy.press/sri-lanka-the-new-constitution-a-neo-colonial-project.

     Note that Ms. Kunanayakam was Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations Office in Geneva from 2011-15, in the course of which she also served as the Chairperson for the ‘Inter-governmental Working Group on the Right to Development’ of the Human Rights Council. It is widely believed that among those who represented Sri Lanka at the bi-annual sessions of the UNHCR in recent years she was far more effective than any other (mainly because of her long years of experience in working in diplomatic circles and her overall professional competence, rather than her ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ identity) as a spokesperson of Sri Lanka’s interests, and that her transfer from Geneva to Havana – a less significant diplomatic post – was a consequence of machinations Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

[ix].  These include the proceedings of the ICES conference referred to above; many news reports in the mainstream media; relevant statements by spokespersons for the government, political parties, and state sector institutions such as the police, semi-official organisations like the Bar Council; statements issued by certain ecclesiastical bodies and civil society outfits; publications in Sinhala and English by several religious organisations that have figured prominently in issues pertaining to ethnic relations, and articles and comments on this subject that have appeared in two English language national newspapers and in internet blogs and other websites.

[x].   SLMC (2015) Report intended to be submitted to the UN High-Commission on Human Rights, titled Religious Violence in Sri Lanka, January 2013 – December 3013. See, imrad.org/wordpress/wp_content/uploads/2016/07/IMARD_SriLanka_CERD90_July2016

[xi] .  ICES/International Centre for Ethnic Studies (2015) The Chronic and the Acute: Post-War Religious Violence in Sri Lanka, http:equitas.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/ICES-Equitas-Research _Report _Final

[xii] . Waduge, Shenali D. (2014) ‘Sinhala-Muslim “Riots”: Sri Lanka Local Media Blackout on Version of Ayagama Samitha Thero’, http://www.onlanka.com/news/sinhala-muslim-riots-sri-lankan-local-media-blackout-on-version-of-ayagama-samitha-thero.html

[xiii]    ICES, 2015, op. cit.; Law & Society Trust (2015) Where have all the neighbours gone? Aluthgama Riots and its aftermath, A Fact Finding Mission to Aluthgama, Dharga Town, Valipanna and Beruwela,http://lawandsocietytrust.org/content_images/publications/documents/


[xiv].  ICES (2015), op. cit.; Law & Society Trust (2015), op. cit.

[xv] . Zuhair, Ayesha (2016) Dynamics of Sinhalese Buddhist Ethno-Nationalism in Post-War Sri Lanka, www.cpalanka.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Dynamics-of-Sinhala-Buddhist-Ethno-Nationalism-in-Post-War-Sri-Lanka.pdf

[xvi] . Ali, Ameer (2015) ‘Four Waves of Muslim-Phobia in Sri Lanka: c.1880–2009’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 35: 486-502

[xvii] . This is not intended to deny the well-known fact that Muslim presence in Sri Lanka date back at least into early medieval times, and that they did establish a string of port settlements in the Island during the heyday of Arab maritime trade in the Arabian Sea.

[xviii] . SLMC (2015): op. cit.

[xix] . ‘Mid-Country’ is a conventional designation for the hilly areas of moderate elevation along the   periphery of the Central highlands to the west and northwest.

[xx]. Gunasekera, Suranjith, Silva, Kalinga Tudor & Saifdeen, N. T. F. (undated) Interplay between competition for scarce resources and identity issues in the May 2001 Riots of Mawanella


[xxi]. Statistical data published by the Bureau of Foreign Employment indicate that the Administrative Division of Galboda Koralē has been a source of an unusually high rate of emigration for temporary employment in West Asia. (www.statistics.gov.lk/NCMS/RepNTab/Tables/SLBFE.pdf

[xxii]Electoral Malpractices in Sri Lanka: Interim Report of a study of the Presidential Elections of 1999, authored by G. H. Peiris based on a study conducted collectively by K. M. de Silva, S. W. R. de A. Samarasinghe and G. H. Peiris (2000). This report has been deposited in the ICES library in Kandy.


[xxiii]. Kappan, though selectively operated in a given venue, is a phenomenon of the “informal economy” in many towns of Sri Lanka.

[xxiv]. Sunil, W. A. (2001) ‘Sri Lankan Muslims protest violent attacks by racist thugs’


[xxv].  Silva, Kalinga Tudor, Niwas, Afrah & Wickramasinghe, W.M.K.B. (2016) Religious Interface and Contestations between Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka: A Study of Recent Developments in Selected Multi-Religious and Cross-Cultural Sites, ICES, Colombo

[xxvi].  Since the area of authority of the former Dambulla TC was enlarged with its elevation to the status of an Urban Council, the 1981 population estimate is not strictly comparable to that of 2012.  On census enumerations after 1981 no ethnic disaggregations on sub-district spatial frameworks have been made available in published form by our moronic Department of Census & Statistics. Moreover, even the 2012 population totals of towns such as Dambulla and Mahiyangana in 2012 cannot be ascertained from the post-1981 census records. Yet the ‘townscape’ of Dambulla conveys the impression of a massive population growth, rapid commercialisation and a disproportionately large increase in its Moslem population since the early 1980s.

One Response to “A study of Contemporary Buddhist-Muslim Relations in Sri Lanka Part 1”

  1. Ananda-USA Says:

    HERE IS HOW India, that IRREPRESSIBLE CRITIC of Human Rights in Sri Lanka, and staunch defender of Tamil Separatists, protects itself from potential SEPARATIST AGITATORS among Rohingya Muslim refugees entering India!



    India using chilli sprays, stun grenades to dissuade Rohingya influx
    Sun, Sep 24, 2017, 07:02 pm SL Time, ColomboPage News Desk, Sri Lanka.

    Sept 24 (BDN24) India has stepped up security along its largely porous eastern border with Bangladesh and is using “chilli and stun grenades” to block the entry of Rohingya Muslims fleeing from violence in their homeland of Myanmar, officials said on Friday.

    Read More:: Reuters (Source)

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