TIME Australia

Australia Court Rules the Month-Long Detention of Migrants at Sea Was Legal

Protesters hold placards at the 'Stand up for Refugees' rally held in central Sydney
Protesters hold placards at the 'Stand up for Refugees' rally held in central Sydney Oct. 11, 2014 David Gray—Reuters

The case brought attention to Australia's controversial immigration policy

Australia’s High Court ruled Wednesday that the nearly month-long detention of 157 ethnic Tamils from Sri Lanka aboard a sea vessel last year was legal under the government’s Marine Powers Act.

The narrow 4-3 decision means that the detainees, of whom 50 were children, will not receive damages for their alleged false imprisonment, according to the judgment summaries.

Hugh de Kretser, executive director of Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre, which formed part of the Sri Lankans’ legal team, expressed his disappointment with the decision.

“Incommunicado detention on the high seas is a clear breach of Australia’s international human rights obligations,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, today’s decision confirms that our domestic law allows the Government to breach those obligations.”

Liberal Party MP Scott Morrison, who held the post of immigration minister when the Sri Lankans were detained, tweeted his approval of the decision.

The Sri Lankans had boarded a boat in India last June but were intercepted 16 days later in the Indian Ocean by an Australian customs ship.

After weeks of being held on the ship, the group was transferred to the Curin detention center in Western Australia because the Indian government said they would consider taking them back, according to Reuters.

When the group refused to meet with Indian officials, they were moved to another immigration center, this time on the tiny South Pacific island nation of Nauru, where they will remain until their status as refugees is decided.

The ethnic Tamils were heading to Australia to claim refugee status, claiming they had a well-founded fear of persecution in Sinhala-majority Sri Lanka following the end of the island-nation’s bloody civil war in 2009.

The case highlights Australia’s controversial immigration policy in which immigrants are often processed at offshore camps in Papua New Guinea, Christmas Island and Nauru.

Canberra says the restrictions are in place for the safety of immigrants risking their lives to reach its shores by sea.

TIME Philippines

Pope Leaves Manila After Drawing Record Crowd of 6 Million

Francis dedicated the final homily of his Asia trip to children, given that the Mass fell on an important feast day honoring the infant Jesus

(MANILA, PHILIPPINES) — Pope Francis flew out of this Catholic bastion in Asia on Monday after a weeklong trip that included a visit to Sri Lanka and drew what Filipino officials says was a record crowd of 6 million faithful in a Manila park where he celebrated Mass.

President Benigno Aquino III, church leaders and 400 street children yelling “Pope Francis we love you,” saw him off at a Manila air base, where the pontiff, carrying a black travel bag, boarded a Philippine Airlines plane for a flight to Rome. Standing at the top of the stairs, the pope waved to the crowd, slightly bowed his head, then walked into the plane.

Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos lined Manila’s streets, with police keeping a close watch, to have their final glimpse of Francis, who smiled and waved aboard an open-sided, white popemobile.

“He’s my No. 1 world leader,” said Rita Fernandez, a 63-year-old mother of four, who stood on a street near the Apostolic Nunciature in Manila where Francis stayed during his four-day visit.

“He rides on a bus. He flew to Tacloban to visit the typhoon survivors despite the storm and he stops to talk to the poor. He’s a living saint,” said Fernandez, who held a cellphone with a camera and wore a yellow shirt showing a smiling Francis.

A crowd estimated at a record 6 million people by officials poured into Manila’s rain-soaked streets and its biggest park Sunday as Pope Francis ended his Asian pilgrimage with an appeal for Filipinos to protect their young from sin and vice so they can become missionaries of the faith.

The crowd estimate, which could not be independently verified, included people who attended the pope’s final Mass in Rizal Park and surrounding areas, and lined his motorcade route, said the chairman of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, Francis Tolentino.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the Vatican had received the figure officially from local authorities and that it was a record, surpassing the 5 million who turned out for St. John Paul II’s final Mass in the same park in 1995.

Francis dedicated the final homily of his Asia trip to children, given that the Mass fell on an important feast day honoring the infant Jesus. His focus was a reflection of the importance that the Vatican places on Asia as the future of the church since it’s one of the few places where Catholic numbers are growing — and on the Philippines as the largest Catholic nation in the region.

“We need to see each child as a gift to be welcomed, cherished and protected,” Francis said. “And we need to care for our young people, not allowing them to be robbed of hope and condemned to a life on the streets.”

Francis made a triumphant entry into Rizal Park, riding on a popemobile based on the design of a jeepney, the modified U.S. Army World War II jeep that is a common means of public transport here. He wore the same cheap, plastic yellow rain poncho handed out to the masses during his visit to the typhoon-hit eastern city of Tacloban a day earlier.

The crowd — a sea of humanity in colorful rain ponchos spread out across the 60 hectares (148 acres) of parkland and boulevards surrounding it — erupted in shrieks of joy when he drove by, a reflection of the incredible resonance Francis’ message about caring for society’s most marginal has had in a country where about a quarter of its 100 million people lives in poverty.

Francis dedicated his four-day trip to the Philippines to the poor and marginal. He denounced the corruption that has robbed them of a dignified life, visited with street children and traveled to Tacloban to offer prayers for survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, the deadly 2013 storm that devastated one of the Philippines’ poorest regions.

Earlier Sunday, Francis drew a huge crowd to Manila’s Catholic university, where he came close to tears himself hearing two rescued street children speak of their lives growing up poor and abandoned.

The pope ditched his prepared remarks and spoke off the cuff in his native Spanish to respond to 12-year-old Glyzelle Palomar, who wept as she asked Francis why children suffer so much. Palomar, a former street child rescued by a church-run foundation, told him of children who are abandoned or neglected by their parents and end up on the streets using drugs or in prostitution.

“Why is God allowing something like this to happen, even to innocent children?” Palomar asked through tears. “And why are there so few who are helping us?”

A visibly moved Francis said he had no answer. “Only when we are able to cry are we able to come close to responding to your question,” he said.

“Those on the margins cry. Those who have fallen by the wayside cry. Those who are discarded cry,” the pope said. “But those who are living a life that is more or less without need, we don’t know how to cry.”

And he added: “There are some realities that you can only see through eyes that have been cleansed by tears.”

___

Associated Press writers Oliver Teves, Jim Gomez and Ken Moritsugu contributed to this report.

TIME Philippines

Pope Heading to the Philippines, Where Adoring Crowds Await

Pope Francis
Pope Francis waves as he boards a flight for Manila, following a two-day visit to Sri Lanka in Colombo on Jan. 15, 2015 Saurabh Das—AP

Officials say 6 million people could turn out for an outdoor mass in Manila

(COLOMBO, SRI LANKA) — Pope Francis departed Sri Lanka Thursday for the Philippines, Asia’s most populous Catholic nation, where ecstatic crowds await the first papal visit in 20 years.

The government has declared national holidays during the pope’s visit, which runs through Monday. He will be in the bustling capital of Manila and fly over the weekend to eastern Leyte province, where he plans to meet survivors of Typhoon Haiyan that devastated entire villages in 2013.

For Precy Asistio, a 60-year-old who waited near the Apostolic Nunciature, the Holy See’s diplomatic mission in Manila where Francis will stay, just a wave from the pontiff will make her day.

“We’re waiting for Pope Francis so we can be blessed,” Asistio said. “Once we see him, we’ll go home already, as long as he waves at us.”

At Manila’s Villamor Air Base, Alaiza Barrientos, one of 164 young girls in white dresses who were to welcome Francis with a dance, said she wished her encounter with the pontiff would help realize her prayers for the recovery of her grandmother, who has a tumor in her spinal cord.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila, said he hoped the widely-awaited visit by Francis, the first Latin American head of the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Christian community, would be festive and spiritually uplifting and nurture compassion at a time when the country is still recovering from recent deadly disasters, including Haiyan.

“It’s like a big, big, big, big national fiesta,” a beaming Tagle told The Associated Press in an interview on the eve of the pope’s arrival. The visit, he said, “comes at that point when people would really be helped by a moral and spiritual boost coming from someone who really cares.”

Francis will also meet President Benigno Aquino III, who has waged a campaign against poverty, an issue close to the pope’s heart, but has clashed with Catholic leaders over a reproductive health bill that promoted use of artificial birth control. Congress, which is dominated by Aquino’s allies, passed the bill in 2012.

Meetings with Filipino families, Catholic church leaders and the youth were also slated.

During his time in Sri Lanka, the pope traveled to the jungles of the war-torn north for a show of solidarity with the victims of the country’s 25-year civil war, urging people to forgive one another “for all the evil which this land has known.”

“It is very important to keep our country peaceful and our religious strength become more and more after this visit,” said Sumith Periera, an engineer who came to see the pope off.

The pope’s trip has given Philippine authorities daunting security challenges, including an outdoor Mass in a historic Manila park on Sunday that officials say could draw a record 6 million people.

About 50,000 policemen and troops have been deployed to secure the pope in a country, where relatively small numbers of al-Qaida-inspired militants remain a threat in the southern Philippines despite more than a decade of U.S.-backed military offensives.

TIME Sri Lanka

Pope Francis Seeks ‘Reconciliation’ in Sri Lanka

Pope Francis holds his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on Oct. 15, 2014 in Vatican City.
Pope Francis holds his weekly audience in St. Peter's Square on Oct. 15, 2014 in Vatican City. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

The first papal visit to the country since the end of a bloody civil war

Pope Francis traveled to a former conflict zone in northwest Sri Lanka on Wednesday, calling for “reconciliation, justice and peace” during a prayer at a Catholic shrine damaged during the bloody civil war that convulsed the island nation for nearly three decades.

For years, the shrine of Our Lady of Madhu—located deep in the Tamil-dominated north that saw some of the fiercest fighting during the conflict between the country’s predominately Sinhalese government and Tamil separatists—was off limits for most believers. In April 2008, about a year before the end of the war, priests briefly removed the Madhu Matha—a 2-ft. icon of the Virgin Mary that forms the centerpiece of the shrine—for safekeeping as government forces pushed up north.

“There are families here today which suffered greatly in the long conflict which tore open the heart of Sri Lanka,” Pope Francis said, as a giant crowd reported to be half-a-million strong gathered to witness his arrival at the shrine. “Many people, from north and south alike, were killed in the terrible violence and bloodshed of those years.”

MORE 5 things to know about Pope Francis’ Sri Lanka visit

Among those listening him to were about 1,000 men and women disabled during the civil war, which claimed an estimated 70,000 lives. “This is a special occasion for them, they want to hear the Holy Father speak of the suffering here, so that the world’s eyes will open [to the] people still suffering here,” said Ramsiyah Pachchanlam, who works with a local organization that helps men and women wounded and disabled in the conflict.

The Pope’s arrival in Sri Lanka on Tuesday, days after the unexpected ouster of wartime leader Mahinda Rajapaksa in Presidential elections earlier this month, marked the first papal visit to the country since the end of the war. Rajapaksa’s successor, Maithripala Sirisena, has pledged to hold an independent domestic inquiry into wartime rights abuses, a contentious topic for many among the country’s majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil communities. Both government forces and Tamil separatists stand accused of serious human rights violations during the war.

“No Sri Lankan can forget the tragic events associated with this very place, or the sad day when the venerable statue of Mary, dating to the arrival of the earliest Christians in Sri Lanka, was taken away from her shrine,” the Pope said at the shrine.

“May all people find here inspiration and strength to build a future of reconciliation, justice and peace for all the children of this beloved land,” he added.

-Additional reporting by Amantha Perera / Madhu, Sri Lanka

TIME Sri Lanka

Pope Francis Urges Pursuit of Truth in Sri Lanka at Start of Second Asian Tour

Pope Francis stands on his vehicle as devotees gather on the road to see him after he arrived at the Colombo airport
Pope Francis stands on his vehicle as devotees gather on the road to see him after he arrived at the Colombo airport Jan. 13, 2015 Dinuka Liyanawatte—Reuters

The Pontiff will travel to the Philippines later this week

Pope Francis arrived in Sri Lanka on Tuesday, calling for the “pursuit of truth” as he began the first papal visit to the country since the end of a bitter and long-running civil conflict in 2009.

“The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity,” he said after landing in the capital Colombo, where he was greeted by the country’s newly installed President, Maithripala Sirisena, who displaced Mahinda Rajapaksa in national elections earlier this month.

A former Rajapaksa ally, Sirisena emerged as the unexpected winner of a ballot that, until two months ago, looked set to deliver a third term for the increasingly autocratic Rajapaksa. His defection from the former leader’s camp in November, and his promise to give more power to the legislature and weaken Rajapaksa’s executive presidency, swiftly changed the dynamics of the race, as the opposition came together behind his candidacy.

During the election, Sirisena promised an independent domestic probe into allegations of rights abuses during the civil war that saw years of bloody fighting between the country’s Sinhalese majority and separatists from Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority.

Speaking in Colombo on Tuesday, the Pontiff, who will also travel to the Philippines later this week, stressed the need for inclusive society as the country recovers from the conflict, which lasted nearly three decades.

“The great work of rebuilding must embrace improving infrastructures and meeting material needs, but also, and even more importantly, promoting human dignity, respect for human rights, and the full inclusion of each member of society,” he said.

TIME Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Looks to Chart a New Course After Ousting Mahinda Rajapaksa

Sri Lanka Awaits Results Of 2015  Presidential Election
Sri Lanka's President-elect Maithripala Sirisena waves as he leaves the Department of Election office after the election commissioner officially declared him as the new President on Jan. 9, 2015, in Colombo, Sri Lanka Buddhika Weerasinghe—Getty Images

President-elect Maithripala Sirisena has promised to dismantle the outgoing leader's executive presidency

Before calling presidential elections two years ahead of schedule, Mahinda Rajapaksa consulted his astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, who foresaw not just a third but also a fourth term in office for the Sri Lankan strongman.

“The President has great inborn power,” Abeygunawardena said recently, anticipating an “easy victory” for his 69-year-old client. “According to his luck, this is easier than the first and second presidential elections.”

Sri Lankan voters, who turned out in high numbers to participate in the ballot on Thursday, had other ideas.

Early returns on Friday spectacularly showed up that “inborn power,” spelling triumph for Maithripala Sirisena, a 63-year-old former Rajapaksa ally and Health Minister who announced a surprise run for the presidency a day after his ex-boss called the snap election in November. Shortly before declaring his hand, Sirisena had dined with the former President, who, after bringing a long-running civil war with Tamil separatists to an end in 2009, had secured a second term in office with a landslide victory in 2010. (Both sides are accused of human-rights abuses in the conflict, which lasted 26 years.)

At the time, Rajapaksa — who followed up his re-election with measures to remove presidential-term limits and concentrate executive authority in his office — seemed assured of another victory, with his grip over the machinery of government tighter than ever. His brother Gotabaya looked after the defense department; another sibling Basil was responsible for economic development; and a third, Chamal, oversaw the Sri Lankan legislature as Speaker.

The opposition accused the President and his clan of abuses of power and plundering the nation’s wealth. But Rajapaksa confidently shrugged off such allegations, safe in the knowledge that, whatever opposition parties might say, they did not have a viable alternative candidate for the January race.

That changed with the arrival of Sirisena, who, like Rajapaksa, belongs to the country’s Sinhalese majority. His emergence from within the President’s fold turned what looked set to be a coronation for Rajapaksa into a gripping contest, as opposition groups, including the country’s main Tamil party, backed Sirisena’s candidacy. (Rajapaksa’s isolation came into sharp focus earlier this month when he sought the support of the Tamil minority by asking them to vote for the “devil you know” over an “unknown angel.”)

From the start, Sirisena took aim at Rajapaksa’s accumulation of power. “One family has taken control of the economy, power and the party,” he said when he defected. “The country is moving toward a dictatorship.”

Voters responded to his promise to reverse this trend and dismantle Rajapaksa’s executive presidency.

“This [result] shows that autocracy is not something that Sri Lankans will accept,” Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think thank, tells TIME after Rajapaksa conceded defeat in an early morning meeting with opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe.

Congratulating the new Sri Lankan leader, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he looked forward to working with Sirisena as his government “works to implement its campaign platform of a Sri Lanka that is peaceful, inclusive, democratic, and prosperous.”

Kerry went on to commend Rajapaksa for conceding defeat following a largely peaceful ballot.

Ahead of the vote, there were fears of violence as the country geared up for what looked like a close contest between the President and Sirisena. But with the opposition candidate clearly in the lead, the violence did not materialize.

“At the end of the day what clinched it was the writing on the wall that there was a generalized desire for change and that any attempt to cling on to power wouldn’t have support from within government itself,” says Saravanamuttu.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was also quick to congratulate Sirisena.

Under Rajapaksa, New Delhi had been left on the sidelines as Sri Lanka built stronger ties with China. Beijing stepped up its economic involvement in the country, becoming a major investor investor and trading partner. The two countries also strengthened their military ties and, last year, India expressed concern at the docking of Chinese submarines in Colombo.

With Sirisena’s election, New Delhi will be watching closely to see if he keeps his campaign promise to build bridges with not just China but also India and other Asian powers. His election manifesto assured voters that “cordial relations will be strengthened with India, China, Pakistan and Japan, the principal countries of Asia,” noting that Sri Lanka’s “image has been destroyed due to its incompetent and naive foreign policy and strategies.”

“They [Sirisena and his supporters] are concerned about balance in Sri Lanka’s international relations,” says Saravanamuttu, expecting the new government to look beyond Beijing.

TIME Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s President Concedes Defeat in a Major Poll Upset

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa listens to a speech during his final rally ahead of presidential election in Piliyandala
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa listens to a speech during his final rally ahead of the presidential election in Piliyandala, Sri Lanka, on Jan. 5, 2015 Dinuka Liyanawatte—Reuters

Mahinda Rajapaksa, dogged by allegations of corruption and authoritarianism, ends a decade in power

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa ended a decade in power on Friday, conceding defeat in a midterm election. He didn’t expect to lose, but found himself vacating his residence after polls showed his challenger Maithripala Sirisena with over 51% of the vote, Reuters reported.

Sirisena, a former minister in Rajapaksa’s government, defected to the opposition in November, and used his anticorruption stance as the cornerstone for his campaign.

He pledged that his first act in office would be to weaken the very presidency that had allowed Rajapaksa to consolidate a huge amount of power, and reportedly plans to hold fresh parliamentary elections within 100 days of being sworn in.

Rajapaksa was re-elected in 2010. He initially came to power in 2005, riding a wave of popularity after defeating the Tamil Tigers separatist group and ending the country’s violent civil war, but his administration was dogged by allegations of corruption and authoritarianism.

Rajapaksa abolished the two-term limit on the presidency to allow himself to run for a third time, and then called Thursday’s snap elections two years before his second term ended — a move that backfired badly.

The violence against opposition supporters that marred the lead-up to the polls was absent on Friday, as the outgoing President asked opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to ensure a smooth handover of power.

“People need a change and this is a democracy,” a government official and close Rajapaksa ally said.

[Reuters]

TIME Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s Strongman President Could Be Facing a Poll Upset

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa gestures to the media after casting his vote for the presidential election, in Medamulana
Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa gestures to the media after casting his vote for the presidential election, in Medamulana, January 8, 2015. Dinuka Liyanawatte—REUTERS

Two months ago it looked like it would be landslide victory for Mahinda Rajapaksa, but now things are far from certain

Sri Lanka went to the polls on Thursday, kicking off an election that could result in the biggest shake-up of its government in over a decade.

Thousands lined up to vote at more than 12,000 polling stations across the country after the polls opened at 7 a.m. local time, with local media reporting that most districts had showed a turnout of 30 to 40% within the first three hours.

The snap election was called by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in November, about two years before the conclusion of his second term, with a view to consolidating the power and control he has been steadily centralizing since he first took the helm in 2005. Rajapaksa’s decisive re-election in 2010, following the 2009 defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers that ended a 26-year civil war, has been bolstered by steady economic growth and stability in the past four years.

But the straightforward victory he anticipated while calling the election is far from certain, and the president has been reduced to urging voters to elect him, “the devil they know,” over an “unknown angel,” as Reuters reports.

The unknown angel he refers to is Mithripala Sirisena, a former minister and key Rajapaksa lieutenant whose sudden defection in November blindsided the president and was followed by an exodus of dozens of others. The hitherto fractured opposition has since rallied behind Sirisena, who promises to crack down on the corruption and nepotism that many say has set in under Rajapaksa’s rule. His son and two brothers rule alongside him, and several relatives occupy key posts in what academic Razeen Sally called the country’s “one-family show” in a Wall Street Journal column last month.

Should it come to power, the Sirisena-led opposition reportedly plans to do away with the presidency altogether and revert to a British-style parliamentary democracy, according to the Financial Times, undoing the constitutional reforms that allowed Rajapaksa to run for an unprecedented third term.

While Rajapaksa is relying on an uptick in Sri Lanka’s economic growth and the support of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, Sirisena enjoys an almost unequivocal backing from the island nation’s minority groups including Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The former government minister’s anti-corruption stance has reportedly also appealed to a section of the Sinhalese population, and might just be enough to ensure an upset win.

Thursday’s voting has been dogged by reports of violence against opposition supporters, with organizations like Amnesty International and even the U.S. government expressing concerns. But Election Commissioner, Mahinda Deshapriya, remained confident that there would be no foul play. “Don’t worry about this election, this election will be free and fair,” he told reporters.

Rajapaksa told media he was confident of a win, after casting his vote on Thursday morning. “We will have a resounding victory. That is very clear,” he said.

The truth is anything but.

TIME Sri Lanka

How an Extremist Buddhist Network Is Sowing Hatred Across Asia

Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen
Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen, 68, at her ransacked home in Dharga Town, Sri Lanka. Charlie Campbell

Saffron-clad monks have been instrumental in anti-Muslim riots in Burma and Sri Lanka, and have their eyes on sowing discord farther afield

During her long career as a teacher, Nafeesathiek Thahira Sahabdeen prided herself on treating children of all backgrounds the same. That didn’t help her on June 15, though, when a radical Buddhist mob ransacked her home in Dharga Town, a thriving trading hub in southwest Sri Lanka. The 68-year-old Muslim was left “penniless, homeless and heartbroken,” she says. “I thought I would die. I was so afraid.”

The anti-Muslim violence that ravaged Dharga Town, along with the nearby tourist enclave of Aluthgama, peppered with five-star resorts, has been attributed to a burgeoning Buddhist supremacy movement that has embarked on an organized campaign of religious hate.

Sahabdeen speaks to TIME in the ransacked living room of her gutted home. The ceiling fan lies in splinters, the sink ripped from the wall, a portrait of her long-deceased father torn in two. She was alone at prayer when around 200 young men “armed with knives, iron bars, chains” arrived at her home just after dusk. “I could hear them smashing, smashing, smashing,” she says, eyes welling up and fingers clasped together in supplication. “All around were flames.”

Touring her scorched neighborhood, the bevy of gutted buildings and roofless homes indicates Sahabdeen actually fared better than many. Three people died in the violence, all Muslims shot by police shepherding a 7,000-strong mob, claim locals, while another two people had legs amputated after receiving gunshot wounds. At least 80 more were injured.

What sparked this bloodletting between two communities with virtually no historical grievances? Throughout the ashes of Dharga Town, scrawled graffiti reading “BBS Did This” leaves little doubt where the victims lay blame.

BBS, or Bodu Bala Sena, otherwise known as Buddhist Power Force, is a Buddhist supremacist group accused of stirring sectarian hatred in Sri Lanka. Led by a monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, BBS accuses Sri Lanka’s Muslims of threatening the nation’s Buddhist identity, and enjoys support at high levels. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother who also serves as Secretary of Defense, has been an outspoken supporter of BBS in the past.

“BBS echoes the sympathies and the prejudices of the majority Buddhist population,” says Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council NGO. “So the views have a certain resonance, and the media gives voice to that, and the counter view is toned down or even censored.”

The June 15 violence was sparked by an innocuous traffic dispute between a Muslim man and a Buddhist monk. Immediately afterward, Buddhist extremists descended on the monk and urged him to report the matter to the authorities. When the police declined to take action, a rally was organized. Gnanasara was there, addressing the mob. “If a Muslim or any other foreigner puts so much as a hand on a Sinhala person — let alone a monk — it will be the end of all of them!” he bellowed to raucous cheers. When the mob approached Muslim-majority Dharga Town, some people started throwing stones. This was all the provocation needed for a night of bedlam. In the aftermath of the riots, 135 people were arrested, say officials. To date, no one has been charged.

Gnanasara denies that BBS organized the march and blames the “uncontrolled behavior of some of the extreme Muslim communities in the area” for the ensuing bloodshed during a phone interview with TIME. But even before his firebrand oration, portents of trouble were clear; on the Facebook post to announce the gathering, one of the first comments asked, “Shall I bring a can of gasoline?”

So why is Sri Lanka, a nation of 20 million that for three decades was decimated by a vicious civil war between the Buddhist state and largely Hindu Tamil minority, suddenly gripped by anti-Muslim hatred? Historically, the island’s Muslim community had always been a staunch supporter of the Sinhala-Buddhist political establishment, as it similarly suffered at the hands of the LTTE rebel group, more commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, who expelled all Muslims from northern provinces.

“Prejudices are growing because there is a small but influential group of extremist Buddhists who are having a relatively free run and are able to articulate very national sentiments and highlight the insecurity of the Sinhalese,” says Perera, himself a Sinhalese Christian.

The Sri Lankan experience is far from unique. In Burma, officially known as Myanmar, just 1,000 miles (1,600 km) across the Bay of Bengal, an extremist Buddhist movement called 969 is waging a parallel war, using identical tactics as BBS. (Both groups rose to prominence around 2012. Its leader is also a monk, Wirathu. When anti-Muslim riots erupted in the central Burmese town of Meiktila in April last year, clashes that killed dozens and displaced thousands, he arrived in the middle of the carnage, although later claimed to have tried to halt the bloodshed. Then, during last month’s communal riots in Mandalay, where Wirathu’s monastery is based, he fanned the flames through an incendiary Facebook post warning of Muslims “armed to teeth with swords and spears” preparing a jihad against local Buddhists.

Both he and Gnanasara make virtually identical xenophobic claims about Muslims converting Buddhist women and luring them into unholy polygamous unions, and using their corrupt business acumen to swindle hard-working Buddhists. “[Muslims] are breeding so fast, and they are stealing our women, raping them,” Wirathu told TIME’s Hannah Beech last year. “They would like to occupy our country, but I won’t let them. We must keep Myanmar Buddhist.” (In fact, neither Burma nor Sri Lanka has seen a Muslim population explosion).

BBS speeches are very similar. Halal certification is apparently funding al-Qaeda and Hamas; Islamic blood sacrifices are summoning forth “ghosts and demons”; Muslim perverts are using burqas as disguises to carry out licentious deeds; and, most bizarrely, the Quran requires Muslims to spit three times into any food or beverage served to a person of another faith.

“I think they are learning from each other,” says Hilmy Ahmed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka. “It started in Myanmar, but Gnanasara has perfected it.”

Certainly, the similarities between these nations are striking. Both Sri Lanka and Burma have large, state-backed Theravada Buddhist majorities making up about 70% to 80% of the population. Both nations have Muslim communities, of about 10% of the population, that historically backed the establishment. Both are going through the aftermath of decades-long civil conflicts against other ethnic minorities — the Hindu Tamils in Sri Lanka; a smattering of mainly Christian rebel groups in Burma. Now both boast extremist Buddhist movements led by rabble-rousing saffron-clad clerics.

Gnanasara is quick to laud his Burmese counterpart and admits the pair met over the summer to “establish an international network of activists stationed in Buddhist countries.”

“We are all in the same boat in terms of attacks on Buddhist communities,” he says. “What is happening in Burma and Thailand, especially the southern part of Thailand, [resembles] what happened recently in Bangladesh.”

BBS and 969 are embarking on a partnership with similar organizations and activists across the region to face off “international threats,” reveals Gnanasara. “It would be better to have some sort of cohesion between us so we can respond collectively.”

Gnanasara maintains he did not “discuss any tactics” during his meeting with Wirathu, yet a shared modus operandi is obvious. The Burmese incidents, just like the Aluthgama clashes and hundreds of others, were sparked by a personal grievance between a Muslim and Buddhist — an argument between shopkeeper and customer over gold rings in Meiktila; an allegation of rape in Mandalay that the accuser eventually admitted was a total fabrication — that quickly spiraled out of control. After the initial complaint, an extremist clique descends on the town to aid the “wronged” Buddhist party. Before long there are lootings, beatings and torched houses.

Now that existentialist threats to Sri Lanka and Burma have disappeared with the end of their respective civil conflicts, the specter of Muslim extremism is convenient means of justifying political control.

“It’s in this government’s narrow political interests of winning elections to foster the divide, to foster Sinhala nationalism,” says Perera. Hilmy agrees: “We feel that it’s likely to be government-orchestrated as the government has lost the confidence of the minorities. The Tamils and Christians are completely alienated.”

Sahabdeen, for one, needs no convincing. When hundreds of young men ripped her home apart, the security services stood idly by, just a block away. Eventually, two rioters escorted her toward these officers before returning, unhindered, to resume their plunder. “They took me out the gate as if I was being walked to the gallows,” she says. “The police just stood there.”

Ironically, while the reality of creeping Islamization is almost certainly bogus, the perceived threat may be instrumental in fomenting its creation. “Muslims don’t have any option but to live here and die here, and so I’m very worried if Muslims are pushed beyond a certain point forces from outside could exploit that,” says Hilmy.

If that happens, Sri Lanka and Burma could head straight back toward a fresh round of civil conflict.

TIME Sri Lanka

Hundreds of Tamils Have Simply Vanished on the Perilous Sea Voyage to Australia

Australian Navy boat comes alongside a boat carrying 50 asylum seekers after it arrived at Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island
An Australian navy boat, front left, comes alongside a boat carrying 50 asylum seekers after it arrived at Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island, about 2,600 km (1,600 miles) northwest of Perth, on Aug. 7, 2011. © Stringer Australia / Reuters—REUTERS

According to one eerie estimate, 800 asylum seekers — men, women and children — have set off for Australia in the past three years and have simply never been heard from again

Antonyamma, a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka living in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, last heard from her daughter Mary more than a year ago when the younger woman had boarded a boat heading for Australia, along with seven other members of her family, including four children aged under 9.

In total, 63 people from their community were on the same boat, which left the Indian port of Kochi on May 1, 2013. None have been heard from since.

“They didn’t tell me they were going until they were on the boat, because they knew I’d stop them,” said Antonyamma, in between sobs, on the phone from her home in the city of Madurai.

One rights group — the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), which works extensively with Sri Lankan Tamils in India — estimates that 800 asylum seekers have disappeared over a three-year period, while trying to travel from South India to Australia by sea. It’s an appalling and largely unpublicized figure, if true.

Most of those who make the perilous journey have lived in India for years, having fled the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war, which ended in 2009, or the persecution of Tamils that persists in the war’s aftermath. However, while they are free from violence in India, they mostly live below the poverty line and are denied citizenship rights. The desperate hope of a new life is what drives them to pay exorbitant fees — around $2,500 — to smugglers who promise them safe passage to Australia and who vow that, after a year or two in a detention camp, they will be free to gain Australian citizenship.

However, successive Australian governments have taken a hard-line approach to asylum seekers. While arrival numbers are relatively small by international standards, it’s a stance that wins favor from voters.

Last week, the conservative Australian government returned, for the first time, a boatload of Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka, even though the vessel had sailed from India, and even though the asylum seekers could face imprisonment or even torture upon arrival.

A second boatload, said to be carrying 153 people, is now in limbo on the high seas because Australia’s High Court has imposed an interim injunction against the repatriation of any more asylum seekers until the matter can be heard fully by the court. Lawyers acting on behalf of the 153 argue that the Australian government will be in breach of international law if it returns refugees to Sri Lanka.

“There’s no authentic data, but we’re told that people [who return to Sri Lanka] are put in prison,” says Valan Satchithananada, the Chennai-based project director of ADRA.

Based on sources inside India’s refugee camps, ADRA claims up to 1,000 Tamils have set sail to Australia from India since 2009. Of those, only 120 have been heard from.

“Everyone desperately wants to know what’s happened to all those hundreds of people who have left India and disappeared,” says Satchithananada.

The UNHCR’s Indian office provides a much lower figure, saying that deaths by drowning are hard to verify. “We have received around 40 representations on missing Sri Lankan refugees, and these have been forwarded to the International Committee of the Red Cross,” its spokesperson stated.

The Indian Red Cross says that according to its records, 110 people are missing. However, it admits that its figures are based on inquiries in just 35 of Tamil Nadu’s 112 refugee camps.

There are suspicions that some of the missing might be in the hands of Somali pirates, as family members have received calls from Somali phone numbers. “We’re taking the claims seriously and investigating with support from the Red Cross in Somalia and Kenya,” says Red Cross tracing officer Nagarajan Krishnamoorthy.

Many family members, however, will never hear anything. Senthura Selvan hasn’t seen her elder sister Mayura since the 26-year-old classical-dance teacher boarded a boat in Chennai bound for Australia in September 2012. Their brother sailed on a separate boat and is now in Australian detention. But nothing has been heard from Mayura, Senthura says.

“We could have eaten just kanji [rice gruel] but stayed happy in India, all together,” said her mother, who declined to give her name. “Bring my kids back. Please, bring my kids back.”

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