Home >Opinion >The logic of Sri Lanka’s anti-Muslim riot
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

The logic of Sri Lanka’s anti-Muslim riot

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.

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 riot happened in Digana, Kandy district in March 2018. One person was killed and a number of Muslim houses, shops and mosques 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 mosques. 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.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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