As people around the world prepare for the holy month of Ramadan, the Muslim communities in Sri Lanka, which account for nine per cent of the country’s 20 million population, are being subjected to horrific and merciless attacks by unruly mobs of Buddhist extremists.
This week it was reported that at least three Muslims were killed and more than 70 people were seriously injured by anti-Muslim militias in southern Sri Lankan coastal towns.
In an attempt to stem the violence, curfews have now been imposed by the local authorities in this area.
These clashes, which began on Sunday in two Muslim-dominated cities – Aluthgama and Beruwela – followed a protest march by anti-Muslim militias known as Bodu Bala Sena (which can be translated as Buddhist Power Force).
The aim of the group is to “protect” Buddhist culture in the country, which they believe to be under threat from the Muslim population.
Muslim houses and shops in the area were burnt and smashed in violence that continued throughout the night. Mobs shouting anti-Muslim slogans and hurling stones and gas bombs directed their ire at a Muslim quarter of the village of Welipitiya. Three mosques and a number of prayer houses were set ablaze.
This is the latest incident in a concerted campaign of violence involving Buddhist mobs. For Muslims in Sri Lanka, hatred, tortures and killings have become a horrific reality of their everyday lives.
In fact, the suppression of the Sri Lankan Muslims dates back to the decades-long civil conflict between the central government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), when a large number of Muslims were brutally killed at the hands of the Tigers, although the group frequently denied any involvement.
These religious and ethnic divisions as well as systematic human rights violations that are being inflamed by anti-Muslim hate campaigns led by Buddhist extremists have continued in subsequent years.
Unfortunately, a lot of the mainstream media has been mainly silent and the international community know very little, if anything, about the situation.
According to some reports, it is common for Buddhist mobs to roam the streets, administering beatings, and destroying places where Muslims worship and work. It is also reported that raw pork is frequently being thrown into mosques. Last year, nearly 20 mosques were attacked by Buddhist mobs, and there was a call for the demolition of a 10th century mosque in Kuragala.
Such intimidatory and inflammatory tactics have been backed by the jailing of a number of Muslim leaders.
The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that the government in Colombo has done nothing. This newspaper reported that many Muslims had repeatedly asked the authorities to provide them with security, but these requests have been denied. In doing so, the authorities have failed to put an end to the continuing atrocities and have, instead, unwittingly contributed to them.
It is important to point out that even though the situation of Sri Lankan Muslims appears to be similar to that of their counterparts in Myanmar, the Muslims in Sri Lanka are no Rohingya.
In Sri Lanka, Muslims have long been integrated into the wider social and political community, making significant contributions to the country’s development.
Moreover, the latest incidents were not a campaign of violence nor an exodus comparable to that of Myanmar’s Muslim minority. However, the government in Colombo needs to be aware that if it does not act promptly and firmly to end the actions against Muslim communities, they will have a much tougher job to recover the country’s human rights record.
It is very clear now that Muslims in Sri Lanka need real, serious, and genuine efforts by both the Sri Lankan government and the international community to end this continuing misery.
Investigations need to be quickly conducted and those who are responsible have to be brought to justice.
At the same time, the UN and other humanitarian organisations should expedite the delivery of aid and assistance to Muslim community under siege throughout the country.
If all of us remain silent, we will eventually need to pay a heavy price.
Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a freelance writer based in Qatar