Burning houses to burning bodies; Muslims in Sri Lanka are in grave danger

A Muslim boy peeps through a broken window of a vandalized mosque in Kandy, Sri Lanka, on March 9, 2018. 
(Tharaka Basnayaka / Associated Press)

Muslim minority in Sri Lanka has suffered consistent discrimination, harassment, and violence since 2013 amid surging Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, reveals Amnesty International’s new report.

This discrimination has evolved from a rising series of mob attacks committed with impunity, into government policies explicitly discriminating against Muslims, including the forced cremation of Muslim Covid-19 victims and current proposals to ban both the niqab (face veil) and madrasas (religious schools).

The new report From Burning Houses to Burning Bodies: Anti-Muslim Harassment, Discrimination and Violence in Sri Lanka, published on 17 October, documents incidents where Muslims have been targeted, attacked, and discriminated against, by various state and non-state actors.

“While anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka is nothing new, the situation has regressed sharply in recent years. Incidents of violence against Muslims, committed with the tacit approval of the authorities, have occurred with alarming frequency. This has been accompanied by the adoption by the current government of rhetoric and policies that have been openly hostile to Muslims,” said Kyle Ward, Amnesty International’s Deputy Secretary-General.

Since taking office, the current government has continued to target and scapegoat the Muslim population to distract from political and economic issues, alleges the report.

Chronology: Unending violence

The attacks on Muslims included campaigns against halal certification of food items, attacks on Muslim businesses, properties, and homes, and false narratives perpetrated to promote the boycott of Muslim businesses. As a result of the anti-halal campaign in 2013, Islamic clerics temporarily withdrew halal certification in Sri Lanka. In 2013, violent Sinhala Buddhist mobs attacked a Muslim-owned shop and business in the suburb of Pepiliyana and a mosque in Colombo, while extremist Buddhist groups such as Bodhu Bala Sena spewed hate-filled messages against Muslims at public meetings in town centers.

Despite international human rights law obligations and domestic laws to protect the freedom of religion, the government failed to protect the rights of Muslims and the attackers were allowed to act with impunity, the rights watchdog alleges.

The lack of accountability for these incidents further fuelled anti-Muslim harassment, discrimination, and violence. In 2014, a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist group rally triggered anti-Muslim riots in the southern coastal town of Aluthgama.

Despite a change of government in 2015, which promised more justice and accountability for ethnic and
religious minorities, attacks against the Muslim population continued. Between 2015 and 2016, civil society
groups recorded 64 anti-Muslim incidents, which included hate speech, threats and intimidation,
discrimination, destruction of property, economic embargoes, and physical violence.

A year later, in 2017, in the southern coastal town of Ginthota, at least two mosques, along with Muslim-owned homes, vehicles, and businesses were damaged in anti-Muslim mob violence.

In 2018, similar violence broke out in the Central Province town of Digana, resulting in one death. According to the only publicly available figures on the extent of the violence, compensation was claimed for damage to 355 houses, 233 shops, 83 vehicles, 20 mosques, and two temples.

In each of these incidents, the state failed in its duty to protect the Muslim minority community during attacks; hold perpetrators to account, and deliver justice and reparations to victims, claims the new report of Amnesty.

Following the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks, Muslim-owned houses and businesses were attacked in Negombo, south of Colombo city, and in surrounding towns and villages. Refugees and asylum-seekers from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran were attacked and posts advocating violence against Muslims were shared via social media.

On 13 May 2019, Muslims in several towns in the North-Western Province came under widespread attacks from violent mobs. At least one person was killed and hundreds of Muslim-owned homes, businesses, and properties were destroyed.

In 2020, the government adopted a mandatory cremation policy to dispose of the bodies of Covid-19 victims. This policy was implemented despite cremation being expressly forbidden in Islam and a lack of scientific evidence to substantiate the claims that burying Covid-19 victims would further the spread of the disease. The forced cremation policy was reversed in February 2021, 11 months later, after protests from the Muslim community, local and international civil society organisations, and international pressure ahead of a vote on Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council, but burials for Covid-19 victims are still only permitted in the town of Oddamavadi in the Eastern Province.

Furthermore, the state is looking to implement discriminatory legislation, such as a ban on the niqab and on madrasas (Islamic schools), claiming face veils are a sign of ‘religious extremism’ and that these measures would improve national security. If executed, these restrictions would violate people’s freedom from discrimination based on religion, guaranteed and safeguarded by Sri Lanka’s Constitution and international human rights law, by which Sri Lanka is bound, Amnesty raised its concern.

People interviewed by Amnesty International described how these attacks left the Muslim community feeling vulnerable and fearful of further violence, and distrustful of their non-Muslim neighbors and law enforcement.

Draconian laws

Sri Lankan authorities have used existing legislation to target Muslims, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which permits suspects to be detained without charge for up to 90 days, and without being produced before a court, the 80-pages report points out.

This is in addition to the misuse of the The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act, a law intended to prohibit the propagation of racial or religious hatred, amounting to incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

Amnesty’s report documents several cases in which these laws have been abused to target individuals, including Hejaaz Hizbullah, a lawyer and activist who has been detained for more than 15 months, and Ahnaf Jazeem, a poet and teacher, who was arrested on 16 May 2020 following unsubstantiated claims about his Tamil language poetry. Ramzy Razeek, a retired government official and commentator on social media, was also detained for five months for peacefully expressing his opinion.

Historical origins

The historical origins of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist movement – the group behind the majority of anti-Muslim violence – are relevant to the present-day anti-Muslim violence, finds the watchdog’s document. This movement, which aims to uphold the political, economic, and religious supremacy of Sinhalese Buddhists, believes that Muslims are ‘alien’ to the country and that their perceived disproportionate economic and demographic success poses a threat to the Sinhala Buddhist people.

There have been perpetrators from other ethnic groups in the country as well, all of whom have operated with equal impunity, the report has alleged.

During Sri Lanka’s civil war, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a Tamil-armed group, were responsible for war crimes committed against Muslims in the Northern and Eastern provinces. In the Eastern Province, the Kattankudy and Eravur massacres in 1990 saw Muslim civilians, both adults and children, targeted and killed. Later that year, in October, the LTTE forcibly evicted around 75,000 Muslims from the Northern Province.

End state approved violence

“The Sri Lankan authorities must break this alarming trend and uphold their duty to protect Muslims from further attacks, hold perpetrators accountable and end the use of government policies to target, harass and discriminate against the Muslim community,” Ward said.

“From anti-terrorism laws and forced cremations to niqabs and madrasas, the Sri Lankan government has pursued a blatantly discriminatory policy agenda against Muslims.”

The rights body urged Lankan authorities to reconsider the proposals currently under consideration, and for the international community to monitor and take measures to ensure the freedom and protection of minority communities in Sri Lanka.

“Ensure the police are sufficiently resourced and trained to be deployed in response to riots, with adequate equipment to respond to and protect people during instances of inter-communal violence against minorities. This must include regular training to ensure that the police do not use excessive force against perpetrators or victims and witnesses, and that their responses are necessary and proportionate,” urged Amnesty.

The group also demanded to hold a prompt, thorough, independent, and impartial investigation into all allegations of human rights violations and abuses during attacks and violence against Muslims, including by the police and armed forces, ensuring that all those reasonably suspected of criminal responsibility and hate crimes are brought to justice through a fair trial by a competent court, without recourse to the death penalty.

“Take measures to educate and create awareness among all Sri Lankans on the right to equality of all, across race, religion, and ethnicity, with the aim of promoting peace and communal harmony, to prevent further violence, and to maintain peace,” read on of the Amnesty’s recommendations to the Lankan government.

The other recommendations include 1) development of areas in the Northern Province and facilitate the return of forcibly evicted families, 2) amendment of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act in consultation with Muslim women’s groups and in compliance with international human rights standards, 3) rejection of the cabinet proposal to ban the burqa and niqab, and 4) repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.