(New York) – The Sri Lankan authorities should urgently investigate recent deadly violence against minority Muslim communities, Human Rights Watch said today. The violence, which began on June 15, 2014, after a rally led by the ultranationalist Buddhist Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) organization, left at least four Muslims dead, 80 injured, and numerous homes and businesses destroyed in the town of Aluthgama and surrounding areas.
Senior government officials, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa, have made public statements denouncing the violence and promising compensation to the victims. However, the government needs to seriously investigate who is responsible for attacks on the Muslim communities. The police have so far detained at least 40 people in the rioting; an additional 16 people were arrested and released on bail.
“Sri Lankan authorities need to do more than arrest those carrying out the anti-Muslim violence. They need to investigate and identify any instigators,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “That means taking a hard look at the role and relationship between extremist Buddhist groups like the BBS and the Sri Lankan security forces.”
Buddhists and Muslims have previously had conflicts in Aluthgama, about 60 kilometers south of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. The latest incident was sparked by a minor traffic incident on June 14 between Muslim youths and the driver of a van carrying a Buddhist monk. The BBS held a protest rally the next day purportedly to express concerns for the safety of Buddhists in the area. At the rally, BBS leader Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera, gave a speech claiming that the majority Sinhalese population was in need of protection and that the government security forces deployed at the meeting were against them. Soon after, mobs carrying poles and other weapons went on a rampage, attacking Muslims and Muslim homes and businesses in the town. Even after the government ordered a curfew, Muslim homes and properties were targeted in nearby Beruwala, Welipenna, and Dharga-Town.
In addition to providing prompt relief for those who suffered harm in the attacks, the authorities should create a secure environment for members of all communities. Those who were witnesses to the violence should be able to come forward. Although there have been calls for peace by various religious leaders, the government should also develop a plan with participation from all communities to address the longer-term tensions and create mechanisms for addressing them.
The authorities should also immediately investigate the June 19 attack on Watareka Vijitha Thero, a Buddhist monk, who has campaigned for inter-faith harmony. The police reported finding him with injuries and cuts, and his hands and feet tied. Sri Lankan human rights activists reported that earlier the monk had been publicly threatened by BBS leader Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera.
“The Rajapaksa government has long been ineffectual in holding those responsible for abuses to account,” Adams said. “To end these attacks, the government needs to finally show a willingness to tackle violence against minority populations head on, especially through justice and accountability for the victims.”