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. TIME

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.”

TIME Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Detains British Tourist for Having a Buddha Tattoo

A Buddha statue at Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on May 26, 2013 Dinuka Liyanawatte—Reuters

Arrest is the latest in a series of cases against foreign nationals based on perceived threats to Buddhism

A female British tourist in Sri Lanka has been detained and faces deportation for having a Buddha tattoo on her arm.

The woman was arrested at Colombo’s international airport on Monday upon arrival from India, Agence France-Presse reports.

“She was taken before the Negombo magistrate who ordered her to be detained prior to deportation,” read a police statement.

The charges against the woman were not specified, but in a series of previous cases, Sri Lanka has shown a high sensitivity to perceived threats to Buddhism, the nation’s majority religion.

In March, a British tourist was barred from entering the country for showing “disrespect” by having a Buddha tattooed on his arm; in August 2013, three French tourists received a suspended prison sentence for kissing a Buddha statue; and in 2010, American rap star Akon was prevented from visiting Sri Lanka after featuring skimpily clad women in front of a Buddha statue in one of his music videos.

[AFP]

TIME Sri Lanka

The U.N. Will Launch an International Investigation of Alleged War Crimes in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Human Rights
Sri Lankan government supporters demonstrate prior to the vote by the U.N. Human Rights Council AP

The probe comes after years of mounting pressure and several U.S.-led resolutions

The U.N. Human Rights Council voted Thursday to open an international investigation into the alleged war crimes committed by government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebel group during the long and bloody civil war that ended in 2009, the New York Times reports.

The approval comes after years of mounting pressure and several U.S.-led resolutions criticizing the Sri Lankan government for the lack of progress in the investigations of such crimes, which include the shelling of civilians, summary executions, blocking food and aid to civilians and recruiting child soldiers.

The government in Colombo has vehemently refused all calls for an external investigation.

The probe will have an open-ended mandate and will focus on the bloody end-game of the decades-long war from 2002 to 2009.

[New York Times]

TIME Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s Tamils Are Still Facing Torture and Sexual Attacks

Tamil demonstrators protest outside Downing Street in  London
Tamil demonstratorsprotest Sri Lanka's human rights record outside Downing Street in London in November 2013. © Luke MacGregor / Reuters—REUTERS

Years after the civil war's end, Tamil survivors say they are subject to systematic violence from security forces

A damning new report alleges that Sri Lanka’s security forces continue to persecute the country’s Tamils minority five years after the ending of the country’s bloody civil war. It claims that the policy is “approved by the highest levels of government.”

The report, produced by South African human rights lawyer and U.N. adviser Yasmin Sooka, the Bar Human Rights Committee, England and Wales, and the International Truth & Justice Project, Sri Lanka, is based on the testimony of 40 survivors who fled to the U.K. seeking refuge. Nearly half tried to commit suicide.

The authors compiled harrowing tales of severe torture and sexual abuse in custody, almost all of which took took place after the war ended, some as recently as Feb. 2014.

“The cases of torture, rape and sexual violence described in this report are just a small sample of those crimes likely to have been committed against Tamils,” said Sooka in a statement. “The international community must act now otherwise such atrocities will continue to define post-conflict Sri Lanka.”

The United Nation’s Human Rights Council will vote today on whether to launch an international probe into Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes during the three-decades-long ethnic conflict that ended in 2009.

 

TIME Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Infuriated By U.S. Suggestions That It’s Tardy On Postwar Reconciliation

Police officers and doctors dig up skeletons at a construction site in the former war zone in Mannar
Police officers and doctors dig up skeletons at a newly discovered mass grave in a former war zone in Sri Lanka. The U.S. criticizes the government for moving too slow on probing alleged war crimes. © Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters

Washington says Colombo is moving too slowly in probing alleged war crimes. Colombo reacts predictably

Colombo has accused Washington of “polarizing” the country after a U.S. State Department official said the world was losing patience with Sri Lanka’s failure to achieve adequate reconciliation and accountability since the ending a civil war more than four years ago.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Nisha Biswal, said Saturday that the U.S. will sponsor a third resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Council demanding that Sri Lanka address the issue.

Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Ministry immediately condemned what it said were “reckless and irresponsible statements without evidence,” AP reports.

The ministry said the criticisms raised by the U.S. only served “to polarize the communities” that had been affected by the 25 year-long war between the government and Tamil insurgents. The war ended in 2009.

In two previous resolutions at the U.N. human rights body, the U.S. called on Colombo to probe alleged war crimes on both sides. Sri Lankan troops have been accused of targeting civilians and hospitals during the conflict, while the rebels face allegations that they used civilians as human shields, recruited child soldiers and killed civilians trying to flee.

U.N. rights chief Navi Pillay has said that the Human Rights Council should launch its own investigation if the Sri Lankan government does not show sufficient progress on post-war reconciliation before the bi-annual session of the council in March.

[AP]

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