Sri Lanka: Anti-Muslim attacks on the rise after Buddhist leader stokes tension
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Sri Lanka: Anti-Muslim attacks on the rise after Buddhist leader stokes tension

A MANHUNT is underway in Sri Lanka as authorities search for a hardline Buddhist leader after a series of attacks on mosques and Muslim-owned businesses that he is accused of encouraging.

According to reports from Al Jazeera, Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, the General-Secretary of hardline Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), has encouraged his Buddhist supporters to lead a campaign against Muslims resulting in a spate of anti-Muslim hate crimes over the past two weeks.

“They have attacked holy places of worship such as our mosques and destroyed Muslim property and livelihoods… The problem was that the government had been lenient all this time towards the BBS crimes these last two weeks,” Hilmy Ahamed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, told Al Jazeera.

Last week, mosques in Panadura and Wennapuwa were attacked, and a Muslim shop in the town of Kahawatte was reportedly burned to the ground on Monday by unidentified attackers.

The rise in hostility is creating fears of a repeat of the violence unleashed at Aluthgama in June 2014, during which Muslim commercial establishments were targeted with impunity in an attempt to spread discord between the groups.

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Less than 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 20 million are Muslim. The majority are Sinhalese Buddhist, while most Tamils are Hindu.

President Maithripala Siresena had vowed to investigate anti-Muslim hate crimes after assuming power in 2015, however, he has not been able to stop the mounting violence in recent weeks.

Ahamad claims that despite the government’s claims to take action, nothing is being done.

“We have met the president twice on the attacks on the mosques. He promised to take action but did nothing. When we met the prime minister he said that the government does not want to be seen by the public to be acting against Buddhist monks at the behest of Muslims,” he said, as reported by BD News 24.

Sinhalese-Buddhist militancy, which was active in Sri Lanka in the last phase of the 2005 – 2014 Mahinda Rajapaksa Presidency, diminished after Rajapaksa’s defeat in the January 2015 presidential election. When Siresena came to power, it was presumed that Sri Lanka had turned a corner and communalism would no longer be the dominant feature of politics.

However, recent events show that such conclusions were unwarranted. Both Sinhalese-Buddhist and Tamil extremism are on the rise in a country experiencing increasing political instability brought about by the brittle alliance between two traditionally antagonistic parties –  the Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by President Sirisena, and the United National Party headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

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Last week, a number of Sri Lankan Muslim ministers urged Siresena to take action against Gnanasara, resulting in a Sri Lankan court issuing a warrant for his arrest on a number of charges including inciting religious disharmony. But the spiritual leader has not been seen since.

According to the Colombo Telegraph, reports claim that Gnanasara has gone into hiding and is currently housed in a safe house belonging to a senior minister in the coalition government.

The move to arrest the hardline Buddhist has prompted protests from his supporters. Hundreds of Sinhala nationalist protesters moved through the streets of Colombo on Wednesday with banners and Sinhala nationalist flags, ending their protest in front of Sri Lanka’s Police Headquarters.

Many other Buddhists, however, have been quick to denounce the hardline group, claiming they do not represent the feelings of the Buddhist population.

“We want to live peacefully and we do not support the acts that are done on our fellow Muslim neighbours,” Amanthi Ratanakaye, a Sinhalese mother, told Al Jazeera.

“They do not represent us, but they are worryingly influencing our young, which is why action must be taken against them.”