KATARAGAMA — A full moon is shining over the traditional Pooja celebrations here in southwest Sri Lanka. By the light of candles, people offer flowers, fruit and incense. Above waves the Sri Lankan flag, with a leaf in each of its corners to represent the four religions on the island nation: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.
But this idyllic setting in Kataragama is deceiving. The peaceful coexistence between religions in the country came crashing down last June 15 when hundreds of anti-Muslim Buddhists, led by a dozen monks from the extremist organization Bodu Bala Sena, stormed into Dharga Town, a Muslim suburb of the city of Aluthgama.
Buddhists burned cars, Muslims threw stones. The military opened fire. Fifty people were injured, and four Muslims died. Nine months later, the pain still lingers.
Back in Dharga Town, a young man on crutches enters a house across from the mosque. It's 20-year-old Mohammed Afkar, who lost a leg in last year's outbreak of violence. His mother Zeenathul says they don’t understand what happened. "What did he do to anyone?" she asks. "My strength comes from our local community and my belief in god. I have no faith in promises from any government."
While public officials offered no explanation for the violence, it did conduct an independent investigation. The report that came from it found that the government continues to marginalize Muslims, and hold on to an idea of Buddhist superiority, and the fact that Bodu Bala Sena had been able to broadcast hate speech against Islam.
It's difficult to say who cast the first stone. Private videos taken with smartphones show members of the Buddhist crowd with sacks containing rocks.
Mohammed Nijabdeens is Muslim and has been the village head of Dharga Town for 37 years. "When the Buddhists pushed into the village, we fled to the mosque," he recalls. "When we refused to leave there, the military opened fire. Two young boys were shot in the legs. We carried them to the hospital, but the Buddhists blocked the entrance so they couldn’t receive treatment. It took so long that the doctors had no choice but to amputate their legs."
Growth of Islam
He says tensions have grown along with the Muslim community. When he was appointed village chief in 1972, there were just 2,000 Muslims in Aluthgama. Now there are 25,000.
â€‹"We want to live in peace," Nijabdeen says as he cleans his thick eyeglasses. "Together. Like before. But I’m afraid the oppression against us Muslims will continue."
Muslims comprise 8% of Sri Lanka's population but pose stiff competition for the Sinhalese Buddhist-owned businesses in the area. The guerilla organization Tamil Tigers expelled more than 90,000 Muslims from the northern areas during the civil war (1983-2009) in their attempt to create an ethnic state. The Muslims, however, have remained neutral.
After the 30-year war with the Tamil Tigers, which cost 100,000 lives, there is also a new fear of Islamic fundamentalism among the Buddhist majority, though there is no proof that violent and extremist Islamists exist in Sri Lanka.
"The main problem is the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress," says journalist Keerthi
Warnakulunya, who works for the newspaper The Island. "They’ve asked for a separate zone in an eastern province. This is something very disturbing to Sri Lankan people because they fear these groups will one day create a huge problem here. Sri Lankans think there will be a clash."
Last year, Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, from the Burmese ultra-nationalist 969-Movement, came to Sri Lanka with the goal of building a partnership with the anti-Muslim group Lankas Bodu Bala Sena.
Rambukpitiya Rathana, who has been a chief Buddhist monk near Aluthgama for 45 years, is worried. "There are many people with racial agendas who use people who bear the robe," he says. "It’s clear the Bodu Bala Sena are not following Buddhist philosophy. Real Buddhists rejected the Bodu Bala Sena alliance with the government and voted against them."
The previous Rajapakse government formed an alliance with the Bodu Bala Sena. In the January presidential elections, minority groups, including Muslims, overwhelmingly voted against them.
Newly elected President Mathripala Sirisena has promised that the Bodu Bala Sena will get no support and has asked the media not to give the group a platform for hate speech. Meanwhile, Sirisena has urged extremist monks to reflect on their important role in sowing peace in society.
But these extremist Buddhist monks are still preaching within the confines of their temples. Looking up at the large Buddha statue in his temple, chief Monk Rathsana sighs: "We are ashamed that our philosophy is being dragged in the dirt by Bodu Bala Sena.”
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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