The logic of Sri Lanka’s anti-Muslim riot
Posted on April 15th, 2018

 Samal Vimukthi Hemachandra Courtesy

The Sri Lankan government turned a blind eye to the anti-Muslim riot, possibly believing this would solve the ruling party’s internal problems

 During the Black July” of 1983, thousands of Tamils were ruthlessly murdered by government-led mobs and Sinhala volunteers. Due to the backlash from the international community, the Sri Lankan government, since then, has tried to keep a check on large-scale ethnic clashes. As a result, relative peace has prevailed.

However, in 2014, the Aluthgama riot happened. A couple of Muslims were killed by Sinhala mobs. Since the Mahinda Rajapaksa family in power legitimized its rule by promoting Sinhala Buddhist supremacy, it was widely understood that the government was behind the riot. The Rajapaksa government was overthrown in 2015 and the United National Party (UNP)-led government came into power.

A file photo shows Sri Lanka special task force soldiers patrolling along a road after a clash between two communities in Digana on 8 March. Photo: Reuters
A file photo shows Sri Lanka special task force soldiers patrolling along a road after a clash between two communities in Digana on 8 March. Photo: Reuters

In the present context, the UNP is regarded as a party sympathetic to minorities among minorities and as an anti-Sinhala Buddhist party by Sinhala Buddhist extremists. Under such a ruling dispensation, an anti-Muslim clash occurred in November 2017. And then, in March 2018, an anti-Muslim riot happened in Digana, Kandy district. One person was killed and a number of Muslim houses, shops and churches were destroyed.

How come a minority-friendly UNP-led government allowed such a shameful act?

The UNP-led government’s initial response was to blame the Rajapaksa-led opposition. Due to his ultra-nationalistic politics, Rajapaksa is an easy target. But after favourable results in the most recent election, it is extremely unlikely that the Rajapaksa-led opposition would take the risk of losing the support of the minority. In the recent local body (pradeshiya sabha) election, the Rajapaksa-led opposition won a surprising victory, bagging 45% of the total votes cast. The UNP received only 33% of the votes and President Maithripala Sirisena’s party—the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)—13%. Since every contender is eying the presidential election in 2020, it is extremely important to maintain a vote base of 50%. The Rajapaksa-led opposition received support, even in this election, mainly from the Sinhala Buddhist constituency. He would like to rebuild his image among minorities to cross the hurdle of 50% in 2020.

The UNP-led government has pointed fingers towards two parliamentarians from the Rajapaksa-led opposition. However, those two are minor politicians; if the UNP-led government wanted to arrest these two politicians, it could have been done without any problem. The government enjoys the total power of the police and military forces and could have stopped the riot at its earliest stage. But it didn’t.

Then what would the UNP-led government have gained by turning a blind eye to this anti-Muslim riot? No UNP politician believed that they would lose the local government election. The other main party, the SLFP, was divided between Rajapaksa and Sirisena. Simple arithmetic would suggest that this political scenario was beneficial for the undivided UNP. With this defeat, the UNP leader and current prime minister, Ranil Wickramasinghe, came under heavy criticism, leading to rebellion within the party against his leadership.

This riot temporarily ended the internal fight against his leadership. Wickramasinghe kept the ministry of law and order with him in the cabinet reshuffle after the election, and, therefore, it was his duty to stop the escalation of violence. As is evident, he proved to be ineffective. The rebellion did indeed temporarily stop but Wickramasinghe’s ineffectiveness has definitely weakened his grip on power.

Moreover, the UNP-led government planned to blame Rajapaksa and gain some popularity. But as mentioned earlier, it was clear to people that Rajapaksa had nothing to do with this riot. Instead, the Rajapaksa-led opposition has strongly accused the UNP government of being the mastermind. For instance, it has claimed that an arrested rioter—the leader of Mahason Balakaya, a Sinhala Buddhist extremist group—worked with a government minister known for his Sinhala Buddhist supremacist ideology.

Finally, in the aftermath of the riot, the government banned Facebook and other social media platforms. Its argument was that Sinhala Buddhist extremists were using social media to spread their ideas. While this is true, it is not the only reason for the ban. Social media, especially Facebook, played a key role in this government’s victory over the Rajapaksa camp. However, of late, the government has lost its popularity on social media. Therefore, banning social media, even if for a week, was convenient for the UNP-led government. But thanks to resistance from the people and criticism from the international community, this move too backfired.

The clash started in February and involved five people, one of whom was killed. A week later, this incident led to the burning of Muslim houses and shops, and churches. With proper use of state power, this incident could have been stopped well in time. But the government turned a blind eye to the riot, possibly believing this would solve its and the UNP’s internal problems. If you want to blame someone for the riot, blame the government, blame the prime minister!

Samal Vimukthi Hemachandra is a programme officer at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS), Colombo. These are his personal views.

This is part of the Young Asian Writers series, a Mint initiative to bring young voices from different Asian countries to the fore.

3 Responses to “The logic of Sri Lanka’s anti-Muslim riot”

  1. Christie Says:

    ” During the Black July” of 1983, thousands of Tamils were ruthlessly murdered by government-led mobs and Sinhala volunteers. ”

    No mention of 13 unarmed off duty Sinhala officers butchered by Indian trained and armed Indianan Colonial Parasites.

  2. Christie Says:

    This mob is anothjer part of the Indian Empire.

  3. Ancient Sinhalaya Says:

    Anti Sinhalese, anti Buddhist, anti Sri Lanka traitor UNPatriotic_rats want to hang on to power and the low lives will
    try every trick to drag on for 10-20 years. Remember barrel man hitler mala paharan’s catholic tigers of tamil drealam?
    (Google ltte and church connections to see why the catholic-run UNPatriotic_rats didn’t fight the real terrorists. But
    Buddhist jvpers were burn alive, headless corps in rivers, eyes gorged out while alive etc. etc. by the UNPatriotic_rats).
    UNPatriotic_rats dragged on for nearly 30 years saying it was unwinnable war. Every time these traitor low lives get
    into power the UNPatriotic_rats hang on to power by murdering Sinhalese. Bheeshana Samaya 60,000+, catholic
    tigers of tamil drealam: 100,000+ mainly Sinhalese. Now the traitor chief die hard catholic token Buddhist Bay Gal
    Karaya mega thief mega thakkadiya walking Crime bomb with the timer set for 10-20 years Pol Pot Batalande
    Wadakaya r@nileech wickrama Sinhala killer wants to start another Sinhalese murdering campaign by starting mussie
    riots. Mussies have multiplied, multiplied and multiplied and soon take over Sri Lanka thanks to UNPatriotic_rats who
    divide the Sinhalese and make them king makers. Now the UNPatriotic_rats can use the musse themselves to start
    another Sinhalese cull!

    Every time UNPatriotic_rats gets into power, the low lives extend the term by murdering Sinhalese. No road buildings,
    no developments etc. etc. What for? We murder 100s, of 1000s of Sinhalese and keep busy. Elections? We get tamills,
    mussies votes 100% and with a few mega lies Sinhala modayas also vote for us. Development? Never heard the word!
    Only murder (Sinhalese only), thieving (mega only), lying (mega only). That’s us the UNPatriotic_rats you Sinhala
    modayas! Show one development job we’ve done in the last 70 years Sinhala modayas? That’s why we are called

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