New fears in Sri Lanka amid anti-Muslim campaign

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka: A red-robbed Buddhist monk calmly picked up stones and hurled them at a security camera. Then, as police looked on, his followers smashed up a popular, Muslim-owned clothing store.

Last month’s attack on the Fashion Bug chain near the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, filmed by a local television station whose cameraman was attacked by the mob, was the most public outburst in a growing anti-Muslim campaign by Buddhist nationalist groups in the island nation.

The escalation in attacks and anti-Muslim rhetoric has caused fears of a new wave of ethnic violence in a country still recovering from a quarter-century civil war between the government, controlled by ethnicSinhalese Buddhists, and a mainly Hindu ethnic Tamil rebel group.

“They just finished hunting the Tamils, without solving any of the issues, and now they are starting on the Muslim hunt. Virtually all minority communities are being threatened,” said Muslim political leader Azad Salley.

The anti-Muslim campaign has been led by Buddhist monks and is fast gaining ground among youth through raging speeches and ludicrous conspiracy theories spread on social media.

The leaders of the campaign complain that Sri Lanka’s ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists, who make up almost 75 percent of the country’s 20 million people and control the government and the military, are under threat from the 9 percent of the country that is Muslim. They say Muslims dominate the nation’s businesses, are fomenting religious fundamentalism and are conspiring to demographically take over the country by increasing their birthrate while secretly sterilizing the Sinhalese.

A Muslim volunteer group, which does not wish to be identified for fear of reprisals, has documented 33 anti-Muslim incidents since September 2011. They include at least five attacks on Muslim places of worship, attacks on businesses and an episode where Muslim students at a government agriculture school were served pork, which their religion forbids them from eating.

Buddhist nationalists demanded Muslim religious leaders stop issuing “Halal” certificates, which certify that local products comply with Islamic tenets, charging that the fees paid for certification were passed onto unwitting — often non-Muslim— consumers and used to construct mosques. Certification was made free of cost last month.

They have also campaigned for laws aimed at the Muslim community. One would stop women from wearing a veil.

“I have a fundamental right when I go in the street to see the face of a person,” said Dilantha Withanage, an official of the prominent Buddhist nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena, or Buddhist Force.

Another proposed law would stop Muslim men from being able to marry up to four women.

“What we are fighting for is a single legal system in this country. If a Muslim has the right to marry four wives let the Buddhists also have that,” he said.

Sri Lanka allows citizens to marry according to the customs of the four main religions — Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.