Throughout Sri Lanka’s short history, Governments of all persuasions have fermented religious and ethnic nationalism to gain popular support. This has left Sri Lanka with a legacy of Buddhist extremism which frequently manifests in the form of attacks on members of religious minorities.
While Muslims have been the primary target in recent years, Sri Lanka’s Christian population suffered too. It was widely hoped that last year’s change in Sri Lanka’s government would bring about an end to these attacks. Yet today low level attacks on Christians, who make up around seven percent of the population, persist throughout Sri Lanka.
Christian Today recently reported a concerning increase in such attacks. A source, a religious liberties lawyer, was quoted as saying that since Maithripala Sirisena became President in January 2015, as many as 120 attacks against Christians had been reported, a doubling on figures from previous years. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka’s Religious Liberty Commission recorded 15 incidents of violence and intimidation against Christians in January 2016 alone. The attacks are often led by Buddhist “village monks” (local thugs who dress as monks but may or may not be actual members of the Buddhist clergy), with local authorities frequently turning a blind eye to these incidents in a continuation of war-era ethnic chauvinism.
Recently, some churches and prayer groups have been forced to close. Christian burials have been prevented and prohibited, with Christians forced to bury their loved ones far away from their village. A number of attacks have also been carried out against members of the clergy, many of which have been violent in nature. There have even been reports of calls to eradicate Christian sects from certain communities.
Furthermore, no prosecutions have yet been brought against Buddhist extremists implicated in previous attacks on Christians or Muslims. In particular the inability and unwillingness of the authorities to take action in investigating the murder of Muslims in the course of the 2014 riots continues to feed concerns that the Government is not taking the issue of Buddhist extremism seriously enough.
Disturbingly, the 2015 Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that Sri Lankan “police harassed religious minorities at their houses of worship, did not stop religiously-motivated attacks and sometimes participated in them”
Whilst the Sri Lankan government has changed, Sri Lanka’s legacy of hard line Buddhist nationalism is hard to shake. It remains crucial for this government to consistently condemn religious and ethnic supremism in all its forms, and to thoroughly investigate attacks by extremist groups.