By: Husanjot Chahal, Columnist
Photo Credit: Retuers
On September 26, 2017, radical Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka stormed a United Nations (UN) safe house hosting 31 Rohingya refugees, throwing stones while chanting, “Rohingyas are terrorists,” and accusing them of having killed Buddhists in Myanmar.[i] The attack forced the group of refugees—majority women and children—to flee, while also hospitalizing two police officers post the attack. The incident marks the first episode of violence against the Rohingyas in the island country that has a history of deep ethnic and religious tensions between the Sinhala Buddhists and the minority Tamils and Muslims. This article analyses how the trigger for this incident is rooted in Sri Lanka’s communal divide, while having shades of Myanmar’s influence. Briefly looking at the linkages between Buddhist nationalist organizations in both countries, it highlights why this influence can be expected to sustain.
The September attack has been understood by many in context of the atmosphere of increasing tensions between Muslims and Buddhists in Sri Lanka. In recent months, a series of attacks have been launched on Muslim-owned shops as well as mosques across the country. A span of five weeks in mid-2017, for instance, saw more than 20 such attacks, with masked men torching commercial establishments owned by Muslims or hitting them with gasoline bombs.[ii]
In light of this, Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka have been holding demonstrations demanding an end to the atrocities and ethnic cleansing. One of these took place on September 5th in Manaar, a town in the north of Sri Lanka, where protestors rallied in solidarity with the Rohingya people of Myanmar.[iii] In response, Buddhist groups in Sri Lanka have been holding counter demonstrations, opposing the Muslim and Tamil standpoint on the Rohingya Muslim issue in Myanmar[iv].
Such a spiral of protests and counter-protests rooted in the sharp communal divide in the country serves as a significant motivation for the attack on the Rohingyas. However, shades of influence from Myanmar cannot be ignored. Roughly a month before the incident, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked police posts and an army base in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, sparking a security crackdown on the community.[v] It was this incident that the attacking mob in Sri Lanka was referring to in their UN safe house offensive. There is no doubt that the Rohingyas targeted in Sri Lanka hardly correspond to the image of radicalized militants that the mob sought to project. However, the development indicates that any Rohingya presence in Sri Lanka will likely face an opposition from the country’s radical Buddhists, while citing events in Myanmar.
Such a development does not come as a surprise. A large proportion of mainstream media coverage often groups Buddhist organizations in Sri Lanka, such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), and those in Myanmar, including the 969 Movement and the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion (MaBaTha in its Myanmarese acronym), together as a single phenomenon. This is due to the clear symmetries among their discourse, development and agendas. Apart from these similarities in circumstances, there also exist more direct points of contact between the groups. In October 2014, the BBS and 969 indicated their desire for a formal collaboration on Buddhist issues and even signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the same.[vi]
While earlier considered relatively unclear[vii], the scope of the MoU is now becoming increasingly evident and manifesting itself in incidents such as the one on September 26. What is interesting to note, however, is that the cross-regional spread of Myanmar’s influence in dealing with the Rohingyas is not just limited to a single organization in Sri Lanka such as the BBS, but the radical nationalist Buddhists in general. Among the seven arrested for storming the UN safe house was the monk, Akmeemana Dayarathana, reportedly from the Sinhale Jathika Balamuluwa or Sinhalese National Force[viii]. Social media websites linked to the arrested monk posted banners of Myanmar’s de-facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and expressed solidarity with Myanmar’s leadership ‘on behalf of the world’s Buddhists.’
This is indicative of a relative loss of political turf for the BBS to Dayarathana’s followers, possibly after the arrest of its leader Galagoda Atte Gnanasara for hate speech and police obstruction. Importantly, it highlights that the presence of multiple groups, even if on the fringe of the political landscape, ensures a degree of flexibility in leading the Buddhist nationalist voices in Sri Lanka, in the absence of one.
Issues concerning the Rohingya community have been festering in Myanmar for years. However, their targeting in Sri Lanka indicates the spread of flames cross-nationally and regionally. The attack on the Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka adds to the concerns of analysts given that the growing religious tensions in the country are neither random or isolated nor likely to dissipate.
[i] Reuters, “UNHCR alarmed at violence against Rohingyas in Sri Lanka,” September 27, 2017. Accessed November 1, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-myanmar-rohingya-sri-lanka/unhcr-alarmed-at-violence-against-rohingyas-in-sri-lanka-idUSKCN1C22A7
[ii] Munza Mushtaq, “Sri Lanka’s communal divide takes toll on Rohingya refugees”, Asia Times, September 26, 2017. Accessed November 1, 2017, http://www.atimes.com/sri-lankas-communal-divide-takes-toll-rohingya-refugees/
[iii] Chris Slee, “In Sri Lanka, Tamils and Muslims rally for Rohingya”, GreenLeft, September 6, 2017. Accessed November 1, 2017, https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/sri-lanka-tamils-and-muslims-rally-rohingya
[iv] PK Balachandran, “Sri Lankan Muslims and Buddhists hold counter demonstrations on Rohingya issue,” South Asian Monitor, September 17, 2017. Accessed November 1, 2017, https://southasianmonitor.com/2017/09/17/sri-lankan-muslims-buddhists-hold-counter-demonstrations-rohingya-issue/
[v] Lasanda Kurukulasuriya, “Bigoted monks and attacks on Rohingya: Shades of Myanmar in Sri Lanka?,” Investig’action, October 23, 2017. Accessed November 1, 2017, https://www.investigaction.net/en/bigoted-monks-and-attacks-on-rohingya-shades-of-myanmar-in-sri-lanka/
[vi] Benjamin Schonthal & Matthew J. Walton, “The (New) Buddhist Nationalisms? Symmetries and Specificities in Sri Lanka and Myanmar,” Contemporary Buddhism, April 4, 2016. Accessed November 1, 2017
[vii] Iselin Frydenlund, “The rise of Buddhist-Muslim conflict in Asia and possibilities for transformation,” Norewegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, December 2015. Accessed November 1, 2017, https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/195450/888bfa90bfb97db91ff78ad9a774b37e.pdf
[viii] National Post, “Sri Lankan monk among 7 jailed for attack on Rohingya,” October 2, 2017. Accessed November 1, 2017, http://nationalpost.com/news/canada/sri-lankan-monk-remanded-for-attack-on-rohingya-muslims