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Opposition party members protest against Sri Lanka’s Muslim ministers before the mass resignation. Photo: EPA

Anxiety, fear, guilt: a bleak Eid as every Muslim minister in Sri Lanka resigns

  • Muslim ministers have resigned so government can probe whether any of them were involved in Easter Sunday bombs that killed more than 200
  • Buddhist monks had rallied the faithful against one minister whom they claimed had links to Muslim extremists
Sri Lanka
Rarely have Sri Lankan Muslims faced the level of persecution they are facing now. They have been besieged and cowed from the moment suicide bombers, apparently doing the work of Islamic State, blew themselves up in three churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo, claiming over 200 lives on Easter Sunday.

On Monday, all Muslim ministers and Muslim Ministers of State – along with two Muslim Provincial Governors – resigned from their posts, saying the government could now investigate whether any of them were involved in the plot, without “hindrance”.

The site of the Easter Sunday bomb at the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo: Reuters

This was in response to a campaign by Buddhist monks who rallied Sinhala Buddhists against a minister in the cabinet, Rishard Bathiudeen, who they claimed had links to Muslim extremists.

Athuraliye Ratana staged a fast unto death opposite Sri Lanka’s most sacred Buddhist site, the Dalada Maligawa (temple of the tooth), demanding the prime minister remove Bathiudeen from the cabinet and banish him from government.

‘A river of blood’: Sri Lankan suicide bombers kill at least 290, injure 500 in Easter Sunday blasts

In the face of such protests from the majority community, besieged Muslim ministers seem to have had no alternative but to resign on masse.

This in turn has put the pressure on the United National Party government, which depends on the minority parties for survival.

“It’s most unfortunate that Muslim ministers succumbed to pressure from racists. Yesterday us, today you, tomorrow a new ‘other’. We continue to stand in solidarity with Muslim people and call on all right-thinking Sri Lankans to do the same,” said M A Sumanthiran, a spokesman for the Tamil National Alliance, one of the minority parties that backs the UNP.

Muslim men stand in front of the Abbraar Masjid mosque after a mob attack in Kiniyama, Sri Lanka. Photo: Reuters

The resignations do not directly threaten the UNP’s governance – at least, not yet. With the resignations of the four Muslim cabinet members the cabinet shrinks to 26, though replacements are expected soon. The other five Muslim ministers who resigned are state ministers of non-cabinet rank.

The strange lives of Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday suicide bombers

Still, the impact of the resignations should not be underestimated. Some of the (now ex) ministers such as Kabir Hashim are extremely powerful politically. Not only did Hashim have a key portfolio – as Minister of Highways and Road Development and Petroleum Resources Development – he also enjoys tremendous clout as the General Secretary of the ruling UNP.

Another powerful man to resign was Rauff Hakeem, the (now ex) Minister of City Planning, Water Supply and Higher Education – another key ministry, on any reckoning.

Then there is the consideration that matters such as these have a tendency to snowball. Speaking on behalf of the cabinet ministers who resigned, Mujiber Rahman, an MP for the UNP, said the ministers had “given the government one month”.

If the government does not bring the situation under control by then, the Muslim backing it enjoys will be in jeopardy.

Analyst Nalaka Godahewa pointed out the resignations had thrown up another problem by distracting from a bigger issue: the government’s failure to act on intelligence reports that had warned the Easter Sunday attacks were brewing.


None of this is of any comfort to the ordinary Muslim on the street. With much of the rest of the world gearing up to celebrate the end of Ramadan on Wednesday, many Sri Lankan Muslims would be “resigned to going to the mosques and staying home”, according to Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, a Muslim former Muslim MP from the UNP.

The mood ahead of celebrations for Eid al Fitr is thoroughly bleak. There is anxiety and fear, and a good measure of guilt as well. Most Muslims have curtailed all celebratory activities and will not visit relatives or take part in the normal observances. Some are not even planning on visiting their mosque.

“You know how much we Muslims like to practise our religion, I don’t have to tell you that,” said Ifham Nizam, a professional living in Colombo. “But the mood of anxiety and fear and all that is so severe this year, that I really don’t have words to describe our despondency.”

He added that “we also feel really bad after the attacks, because Christians are our brothers and we feel guilty about what happened when these churches were bombed”.

His words betrayed a sense of guilt that is felt by many Muslims in Sri Lanka, despite the fact they had nothing to do with the bombings.

But who could fault the Muslim community if pessimism has set in? In the months since the attacks, Muslims have faced arbitrary arrest and for the most frivolous of reasons. One woman was arrested for having worn a dress said to have the Buddhist insignia of the dharma chakra on it. It turned out the symbol was in fact the steering wheel of a ship. Meanwhile, a Muslim man was arrested after his pre-school aged son drew circles over a map of Sri Lanka. The police alleged that the man was planning to attack the circled locations.

Sri Lankan security personnel guard Catholic school students returning to class after the Easter Sunday bombs. Photo: AFP

MP Rahman believes the opposition parties are rabble rousing to catapult themselves into power. But this seems unnecessary; there is a presidential election in a few months, and the opposition is well placed to win without any recourse to race baiting. The main opposition party made a clean sweep of the local government elections in 2018.

The Muslim MPs who resigned seem to have done so because they were genuinely uneasy about the persecution of Muslims, but they have already been accused by opposition Sinhala Buddhist politicians such as Wimal Weerawansa of “standing with terrorist supporters” by resigning.

On the other hand, opposition Muslim politicians such as Faizer Musthapa, from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, have said they back the resignations.

Sri Lanka says Easter bombings leader Mohamed Zahran died in hotel attack

“We Muslims have to think as a community,” he said. “We have to take the right decision, leaving aside political considerations.”

In doing so he echoed the sentiment of MP Rahman, who said the resignations held a duel purpose: to let the government investigate without hindrance, while simultaneously protesting against its inability to rein in the racist rabble rousers and the arbitrary arrest allegedly of around 2,000 Muslims after the attacks.

Most Muslims fear the situation will escalate if the polarising rhetoric does not stop.

Imtiaz blamed the mainstream media for inflaming anti-Muslim rhetoric. Ironically, Imtiaz and Kabir Hashim, another of the ministers to have resigned, were among those who barely two weeks ago had gone out on a limb to support curtailing the activities of madrasas and Muslim only schools. That desperate action had been meant to appease the Sinhala majority and clearly it did not work.

For the Muslim ministers, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: MUSLIM MINISTERS quit amid anger over backlash