Muslims in Sri Lanka say they fear new attacks after a top Buddhist monk called for violence against members of the religious minority, claiming a Muslim doctor had sterilised thousands of Buddhist women.
Activists, politicians and members of the Muslim minority said Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thero’s speech last week was likely to fan communal tensions, weeks after Buddhist mobs attacked scores of Muslim homes and businesses.
The riots were an apparent response to deadly bombings on churches and hotels on Easter Sunday that killed more than 250 people and were claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) group. Sri Lankan authorities blamed the attacks on two small Muslim groups.
With the country still reeling from the bombings and subsequent riots, Gnanarathana repeated unsubstantiated accusations that a Muslim doctor in the central Kurunegala district had covertly sterilised 4,000 Buddhist women.
“Some female devotees said [people like the doctor] should be stoned to death. I do not say that. But that’s what should be done,” he said in a speech broadcast on national television.
The monk, who heads the Asgiriya Chapter, one the largest and oldest Buddhist chapters in Sri Lanka, went on to call for a boycott of Muslim-owned restaurants, reinforcing a long-standing and unsubstantiated rumour that Muslim restaurants served their Buddhist customers food spiked with sterilisation medication.
“Don’t eat from those [Muslim] shops. Those who ate from these shops will not have children in future,” he told worshippers at a temple in the central district of Kandy, where that same rumour had unleashed days of anti-Muslim riots last year.
On Saturday, Gnanarathana defended his comments, saying: “The remarks I made are only in line with what the majority are thinking.”
Buddhists make up more than 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million population, while Muslims account for 10 percent.
Activists described the comments as hate speech and called on President Maithripala Sirisena to take action, while members of the Muslim community said they feared the monk’s comments could lead to new violence against them.
“Somebody of this calibre talking about false accusations and spitting venom like this is highly problematic because at least the younger generation of Buddhist youth is going to take this seriously … he’s inciting violence,” said Shreen Abdul Saroor, a human rights activist.
“He’s declaring a systematic embargo on Muslim businesses. This is a systematic way of segregating and socially ostracizing the Muslim communities,” added the campaigner.
In Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, a Muslim journalist who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he was shocked by Gnanarathana’s speech.
“We can’t even imagine what could happen to us,” he said. “We’re afraid the speech will lead to more attacks on Muslims and their properties.”
In Kandy, a Muslim businessman said: “Our friends and families are going to work expecting something bad would happen to them.”
Referring to the mob attacks in Sri Lanka’s northwest in May, he added: “We witnessed how less-prominent monks led several mob attacks in recent years, the latest being last month. So we expect similar attacks could be carried out when a highly respected monk gives such a statement.”
Shammas Ghouse, a 29-year-old Muslim law student, echoed the same sentiment.
“If this was coming from the monks representing Sinhala Buddhist extremist organisations like Bodu Bala Sena, we … would’ve brushed it aside thinking it’s a minority of Sinhalese Buddhists who subscribe to such sentiments. But this is coming from a chief prelate of a major Buddhist faction,” Ghouse said.
He added that the entire Muslim community was being “continuously cornered for something done by a handful of extremists”.
Others lambasted Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for failing to take action.
Farzana Haniffa, a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge, said Gnanarathana’s speech is “just one event in a series of incidents” following the April 21 Easter Sunday attacks that “speak to the normalising of hate sentiment against Muslims”.
“Most troubling of all is the deafening silence of our president and prime minister in the face of such statements,” she added.
One possible avenue for action, activists said, was the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act, a domestic law based on a UN treaty, which prohibits incitement to “discrimination, hostility or violence”.
MA Sumanthiran, leader of the Tamil National Alliance, said the monk’s speech “could be an offence to incitement to violence” and that he was “watching to see how the government and the law enforcement authorities will act”.
“It is unfortunate that a time like this when people are being arrested under the ICCPR Act for saying things that’s that are not even one percent as hateful or harmful as this, [Gnanarathana Thero] is getting away with it because of this position he holds,” Sumanthiran said, referring to the recent arrest of a Muslim woman on charges of violating the law by wearing a dress authorities said resembled sacred Buddhist symbols.
The lack of action against Gnanrathana reflects “the Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic majoritarianism that prevails in the country,” he added.
Gnanrathana’s office and a spokesman for the president declined to comment.