SRI LANKA

Sri Lankan government accused of turning a blind eye to violence against Muslims

Attacks by Buddhist group have critics saying minority's concerns ignored due to politics

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 July, 2014, 5:40am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 July, 2014, 5:40am
AP

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The attackers stormed in close to midnight, tearing through town with petrol bombs and clubs before carting away piles of cash and jewellery they stole from Muslim families.

The onslaught incited by the Bodu Bala Sena, or Buddhist Power Force, a hardline group that has gained thousands of followers in recent years, killed at least two Muslims and injured dozens more last month in the worst religious violence Sri Lanka has seen in decades.

Now President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government is under fire, accused of failing to protect Sri Lanka's tiny Muslim minority and allowing radical Buddhists spewing illegal hate speech to operate with impunity for years.

Critics of Rajapaksa's government say it has turned a blind eye to the violence as a way to shore up its core constituency - the Sinhalese Buddhist population - which makes up about 75 per cent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people.

"At the root of the failure of the government to check the violence is electoral politics," said Jehan Perera, head of the National Peace Council, a local peace activist group in Sri Lanka. "If the Sinhalese voters feel insecure for any reason they will tend to vote for the present government, which is seen as strong and pro-Sinhalese."

But the most recent violence has drawn rare - and harsh - criticism from inside Sri Lanka, with the media, moderate Buddhists and even the justice minister slamming Rajapaksa's seeming unwillingness to safeguard Muslims. Foreign embassies and the UN also demanded action. The United States cancelled a five-year, multiple-entry visa held by the BBS' general secretary, according to the group's chief executive, Dilanta Vithanage.

Facing a growing backlash, the government has in recent days tried to deflate the crisis, although critics say the moves are too little, too late.

The defence ministry called an unusual press conference on Wednesday - nearly three weeks after the bloodshed - to distance itself from the Bodu Bala Sena and to address allegations that Sri Lanka's defence secretary and the president's brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, was quietly supporting the group's cause.

But the military spokesman, Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya, was careful not to criticise the group, either.

"I am not condemning the BBS," he said. "What I am saying is it is wrong to say that the secretary of defence is supporting the BBS."

The same day, police interrogated the group's general secretary, the Reverend Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, for five hours before releasing him without charge. It was the first time Gnanasara had ever been questioned by police for his hate speech.

Just hours before the latest violence, video clips showed him inciting crowds in Buddhist rallies that passed through Muslim areas. "Yes, we are racists." Gnanasara shouted. "Yes, we are religious extremists."

That evening, the mob attacked three towns with a large Muslim presence.

Gnanasara acknowledged his supporters were behind the violence, saying the attackers were angry over an assault on a Buddhist monk. Muslims deny attacking the monk.