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Many Sri Lankansdo not recognise the extremist Bodu Bala Sena as embodying Buddhist values atall, but they are increasingly unwilling to speak out about their opposition toitSri Lanka has just experienced the Many Sri Lankansdo not recognise the extremist Bodu Bala Sena as embodying Buddhist values atall, but they are increasingly unwilling to speak out about their opposition toitSri Lanka has just experienced the worstcommunal violence in decades but you wouldn’t always know it from thebehaviour of its politicians. Six members of the main Opposition party went ona fact-finding mission to look into the well-being of the animals in DehiwalaZoo, in particular the deaths of lions and hippopotamuses. No matter that fourhumans had just died, 80 injured and hundreds of properties including at least17 mosques attacked, leaving thousands homeless. A few days earlier, Muslimsliving near the zoo had been planning to evacuate after wild rumours spreadthat their houses could also be attacked by the extreme Sinhala chauvinistgroup, the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Brigade).

Denial has reached surreal proportions in the paradiseisland. After the media announced a curfew for the troubled areas on Sundayevening there was complete silence on radio, TV, mainstream news websites andeven the hyperactive SMS news subscription sites, known for sending out textsevery time the Sri Lankan cricket team scores a six. The websites and socialmedia channels of all government institutions just went strangely silent,including those of the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Defence and theSri Lankan Army site.

“It was literally nothing. It was bizarre. It wasunprecedented as a response. It was no response,” says Sanjana Hattotuwa whoruns the citizen journalism site, ‘Groundviews,’ in Colombo, who was literallybegging the government to react to events. There were a couple of tweets fromthe President and that was all for three days as the anti-Muslim violenceinflamed by the Buddhist monks of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) continued to simmer.The Rajapaksa brothers said nothing publicly and when the President returnedhome from Bolivia on the fourth day, he just made a few statements about theneed for reconstruction after visiting the area. He also presided over theinauguration of a Buddhist Advisory Council and spoke of the need “to protectBuddhism” from threats and then told a visiting delegation of Buddhists that itwas only those who couldn’t bear to see the island at peace who spread falseinformation abroad.

The government says it will investigate but resists callsto ban or prosecute the BBS for inciting racial and religious hatred. There arereports that Muslims who went to police stations to report incidents havethemselves been arrested on suspicion of being involved in the violence. Theonly punitive action seems to have come from Facebook, which took the BBS pageoffline after a flood of complaints.

Sri Lankans have been asking why there has been nothingfrom their own government addressing the grief of thousands of Muslim survivorsnow sheltering in schools and mosques while there were swift messages ofcondolence and concern from the U.S. Embassy, the Organisation of IslamicCooperation (OIC), the U.N., Canada, the European Union and religious anddiaspora groups.

“This is a community that’s devastated,” says Mr.Hattotuwa, “not just in terms of bricks and mortar but utterly traumatised andnow they’re being asked to return to homes that don’t exist. The fear is of adegree I have not encountered before. People talk to you in hushed tones andit’s palpable.”

Many Sri Lankans do not recognise the extremist BBS asembodying Buddhist values at all, but they are increasingly unwilling to speakout about their opposition to it. Recent reports of an attack on a monk who hadbeen critical of the BBS sent shock waves through Sinhala communities; localmedia initially quoted the police as saying the cleric had been kidnapped andleft bound and naked by a river after an attempt to circumcise him with aknife. In a country that holds the Buddhist clergy in the highest respect itwas extraordinary that obscene comments appeared on Facebook attacking the monkfor being too soft on Muslims, saying he deserved the brutal treatment.Subsequently the police said the monk had confessed that he had staged theattack and self-inflicted his wounds. The monk is to be charged with filing afalse complaint to the police.

Few want to challenge the BBS because they know it hasbeen nurtured and protected by those in power and therefore had impunity forits actions. The Rajapaksa brothers have openly attended their functions,allowed them to have airtime on television and constantly echo the BBS rhetoricabout the need to protect Buddhism under threat. Indeed a cabinet minister,Champika Ranawaka, was filmed warning that the Muslim population was expandingso rapidly that they would soon take over the country repeating the refrain ofthe BBS. This paranoia about Muslim population growth is also shared byMyanmar’s 969 Movement whose leader dubs himself the Buddhist bin Laden and recentlybefriended the leader of the BBS in Sri Lanka.

On social media, Sri Lankans have repeatedly noted thesimilarity of recent events to 1983, when the President of the day alsoremained silent during the pogrom against Tamils the turning point in the civilwar which sparked an exodus of Tamils abroad. The scale might be different thistime but there were other parallels. Muslims complained that the mob had localknowledge and generally targeted only Muslim-owned properties and that thepolice and the paramilitary Special Task Force on several occasions stood byand allowed the attacks to happen. Instead local people credited the Army withfinally bringing the situation under control. A few politicians have beenasking why the Sri Lankan government allowed the BBS to hold a rally inAluthgama in the first place and then move through the Muslim quarters when itwas so clearly provocative given recent tensions there. Some Muslim groups hadactually written to the authorities warning that there could be riots andbegging them not to allow the gathering. When so many students, trade unionactivists and families of the disappeared are denied the right to hold peacefulprotests it does seem extraordinary that the BBS was allowed to bus in hundredsof supporters.

Some commentators have suggested that this is all aboutwhipping up nationalist sentiment before the next elections; others that it isabout deflecting attention from the U.N. inquiry into Sri Lankan war crimes.One theory is that the plan is to instigate a violent Muslim reaction thatcould be portrayed as an Islamic terror threat and used to woo back westernsupport, while at the same time not alienating the Buddhist hardline at home.Already there has been talk by government ministers of al-Qaeda infiltrationinto Sri Lanka and attempts to blame Muslims for attacking Sinhalese.Extraordinarily, an official government communiqué to the U.N. Human RightsCouncil on the issue failed to mention the BBS at all, and took for granted asfact that there had been a Muslim attack on a Buddhist monk, when that has yetto be established.

A handful of brave professional and citizen journalistswere responsible for the bulk of the news coming out and they now feel veryexposed. They are being attacked in the state media as “vultures” and “trainedagents” of subversion, while some reporters received death threats or werephysically attacked when trying to do their job. The site ‘Groundviews’ andothers did their best to sift, filter and corroborate news, erring on the sideof caution for example if the meta data of a photograph caused concern. Theyconstantly had to deny rumours and misinformation, calming panic and callingfor calm. “Social media was the only coverage,” says Mr. Hattotuwa, “It wasself-correcting if there were flaws, but it was mostly in English.”

What has shocked many is how easy it had been to provokethe fears of the Sinhala majority and how deep the racism against Muslims nowruns, especially among the young. Sinhala language comment pages online areawash with vitriol. ‘Groundviews’ has been monitoring 35 Facebook fan pages andfound the hate speech against Muslims has increased exponentially.

Of course it’s not clear if the venom spewed out oncyberspace actually translates into violent acts in the real world. The bulk ofthe users are very young Sinhalese, many attending the leading schools ofColombo. Much of what is online in Sinhala chat pages is offensive.

“It'sthe stuff of nightmares, the glimpse into hate, the sheer bile ismind-boggling,” says Mr. Hattotuwa, adding, “we need to coin a word to describehow bad it is.”
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