As 26th February, 2019 marks one year since the reprehensible anti-Muslim riot in the South-Eastern and Central provinces of the country, this would be an opportune time to take stock of where we stand as a country today, especially with regards to the Freedom of Religion or Belief (FORB).

On 26th February, 2018, a group of youth (self-proclaimed guardians of the Sinhala Buddhist identity) proceeded to wreak havoc in the Ampara region, as they stormed into restaurants owned by Muslims, falsely alleging that the food sold at these restaurants contained a sterilization pill aimed at Sinhala Buddhists customers. The youth threatened the owners, caused damage to the restaurants and left deep wounds in their wake.  [1] In addition to several shops, a mosque was also vandalised in the early hours of 27th February.  [2]

On 4th March, 2018, violence and hate of a greater magnitude were unleashed on Muslims in the Digana and Teldeniya areas, in the Central hills, with shops, businesses and vehicles belonging to Muslims being looted, vandalised, and set on fire. Some of the Mosques in the area fared no better, and the once graceful white mosques lay scarred and desecrated.  [3] The horrific incidents also claimed the life of one youth in the Digana region, a 26-year-old young man, with many youthful dreams and aspirations yet unfulfilled.  [4] Many saw their life savings, livelihoods and certificates which were evidence of long and hard hours of study and achievement, literally go up in flames under the hands of the ruthless mobs.

What was all the more disturbing, especially to the victims of these brutal attacks was the silence and inaction on the part of law enforcement, who are specifically mandated to act with impartiality and responsibility in such situations. Reports of Special Task Force (STF) personnel presumptuously joining the violent camp, instead of protecting the victims were a severe blow, outraging all those opposed to these attacks and rendering the victims all the more vulnerable.  [5]

In the midst of this darkness, the only redeeming light was heroic and touching stories of Buddhist clergy and individuals giving shelter to the Muslims who were under attack, standing guard during Friday prayers, speaking out against the atrocities and reaching out to help in kind.

Now one year on, where do we stand as Sri Lankans? Have we succeeded in eradicating hate, annihilating racism and building a nation where FORB can flourish? Or are we still struggling to achieve the aforesaid ideal, with the perpetrators of hate and violence striding confidently, while the victims continue to suffer and grieve?

Several arrests were made subsequent to the riots in February and March, 2018, and proceedings were instituted against some of the perpetrators in the Magistrate’s Court.  [6] However, to date, reports suggest that no progress has been made in holding the perpetrators to account, no indictments have been filed by the Attorney General’s Department and justice is still pending for those whose lives were brutally interrupted.  [7] Further exacerbating this lethargy, inaction and lack of will to bring the perpetrators to justice, was the bailing out of three persons involved in the anti-Muslim riots, including Amit Weeresesinghe, who is the leader of the Mahason Balakaya and one of the chief instigators of the riots.  [8] As much as this shocks the ears of those who hoped for justice, this is sadly not as surprising as it should be. Impunity for perpetrators of FORB violations has become more the norm than the exception.

The Freedom of Religion or Belief has been entrenched in the Sri Lankan Constitution as a Fundamental Right that is also absolute and justiciable. Article 10 of the Constitution states that “Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”  [9]

This right is buttressed by Article 14(1)(e) which states that “Every citizen is entitled to… the freedom, either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching”  [10] and Article 12(2) which provides that “No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any one of such grounds”.  [11]

However, FORB violations continue in the country, not only against the followers of Islam, but also against other religious groups, especially the minority religious groups.

For instance, in the year 2018 alone, 86 documented incidents of FORB violations were reported against Christians across the country.  [12] These incidents range from arson attacks against a home of a Christians and a church, threats and intimidation hurled against pastors and Christians by individuals, local authority officers, and police officers, and denial of burial to Christians in the public cemeteries.  [13]

In one particular incident in January 2018, in the Vaharai area in the Batticaloa District, around 500 individuals from the area surrounded a funeral house, where a Christian had died and prevented the deceased from being buried in the public cemetery in the area. The family of the deceased was ultimately forced to bury their loved one approximately 20 km away in another village, with police standing guard due to threats from local residents to exhume the body. Added to the grief of losing a family member, the family had to bear this additional trauma, for merely being Christians.  [14]

In September, 2018, in the Beliatta region in the Hambantota District, while the Sunday worship service was ongoing, a group of approximately 100 individuals from the adjacent villages surrounded the place of worship, damaged a window, two motorcycles parked outside, and removed religious symbols hanging on the front door. Some of them then proceeded to forcibly enter the premises and threaten the pastor and his family with death and demanded they stop gathering people for worship activities and leave the village. A Buddhist monk then arrived and reiterated the mob’s demands and further escalated the tension by claiming to have previously warned the pastor. When police officers attempted to escort the pastors out of the premises, the mob would not allow the pastor to leave. Finally, 10 more police officers had to come in order to escort the pastor to the Beliatta Police Station in order to lodge a complaint. The pastor continued to face threats as stones were pelted at the pastor’s residence in the night, with some of the stones landing on the bed where the pastor’s child was sleeping.  [15]


While in certain instances, the police and state authorities have been proactive or at least responded effectively to incidents of FORB violations, unfortunately this has not been uniform. Hence, the victims often state that they would rather not go to the police as they are of the opinion that they will not be served justice. While some continue their worship while continuing to face threats and harassment, in certain instances others have been left with no choice but to shutdown their churches due to threats to their life and safety.

 Over the past year, incidents of FORB violations have also been reported against Hindus. These incidents have constituted vandalizing of kovils and desecration of the statues in the kovils.[16] Whilst complaints have been filed with the police regarding these incidents and a few cases too have been filed, to date, there has been no marked progress in investigations or in bringing the perpetrators to justice. There have also been complaints that lands belonging to Hindu kovils are being taken over by the Archaeological Department, thus preventing worshippers from being able to access the kovils and carrying out worship activities. [17]

In December, 2018, several Buddhist statues were vandalized in the Mawanella area and the police have reported that they have made arrests in this regard.  [18]

Thus, FORB violations in Sri Lanka are a stark reality and all religious groups have been victims of these violations, though in varying degrees. However, there is often a tendency to deny the prevalence of FORB violations, and to take refuge behind the false belief that all is well in the paradise island and that apart from sporadic incidents of religious freedom violations by a very small minority of extremists, religious freedom flourishes in the country. This tendency to sweep things under the carpet and ignore early warnings, results in sudden fiery eruptions such as witnessed in Digana last year, that cause much hurt, and loss.

Whilst it may be true that the hate and violence are perpetuated and carried out by only a minority, the fact remains that communal sentiments, racism and hate still have a stronghold on the country and are far from eradicated. It is as though the 30-year brutal war which claimed the lives of many and severely stunted the country’s development has been completely forgotten, with no lessons being learnt of what hatred and divisions along ethnic and religious lines can do. Despite assurances of good governance and increased regard for human rights and reconciliation, what is seen instead is denial of religious freedom violations, long drawn out inquiries and court hearings, no concrete steps being taken to penalize the offenders, compensate the victims or ensure religious freedom overall.

Therefore, in order to ensure that these incidents do not continue; that they do not spiral into something worse, causing many more wasted decades of hatred and violence, hindering growth and development as a nation, it is imperative that both the government and the citizens work towards eradicating FORB violations. While strengthened law enforcement, a robust and independent judiciary, absence of impunity and a national policy and political will towards nurturing FORB in the country are all quintessential ways of ensuring FORB thrives and prospers, it is important to not forget the smaller, and seemingly insignificant steps that matter in the long run.

Teaching the next generation the importance of coexistence is one such important step. Often racism and hate towards the other is fed into young minds, sometimes intentionally and at other times unintentionally. In addition to passing down wealth and property, we also tend to pass down our own prejudices and stereotypes. Verifying facts, refusing to share videos or photographs that incite hatred and racism, not using racial slurs, and nurturing respect for each other, are some of the smaller things that each individual can do, to ensure that racism or hatred does not tear the country apart.

However, this does not absolve the state or the government from taking any steps to address these issues. Mere statement that ‘matters will be looked into’ and investigations that seem to go on for many years long after the perpetrators have gotten away, only contributes to deepen the divides, allowing the wounds to fester and resulting in the victims being re-victimised by the systems put in place to protect them. Therefore, the need for a proactive and efficient law enforcement and an independent judiciary cannot be emphasised enough.

It is hoped that at least as we conclude one year after Ampara, Digana and Teldenya, there will be renewed efforts to not only address the grief of the past, but also to prevent such incidents in future, for the old adage, though hackneyed, still rings true: prevention IS better than cure.


 [1] Sri Lanka Brief, Sri Lanka anti- Muslim riots, 6th March 2018,

 [2] Aljazeera, Mosque vandalized in Ampara, 27th February 2018,

 [4] Sri Lanka Brief, Sri Lanka anti- Muslim riots, 6th March 2018,

 [5] Ruki Fernando, STF brutality against Muslims in Digana: March 5, 13th March 2018,

 [6] Daily News, Tense situation in Digana: Army called in, 5th March 2018,; Adaderana, 24 arrested in Digana and Teldeniya remanded, 6th March 2018,; Sri Lanka Brief, Sri Lanka anti- Muslim riots, 6th March 2018,

 [7] Centre for Policy Alternatives, Confronting Accountability for Hate Speech in Sri Lanka: A Critique of the Legal Framework, September 2018, p.25

 [8] Daily Mirror, Mahasohon Balakaya Leader, 9 others granted bail, 29th October 2018,; Daily News, Amith Weerasinghe, two others released on bail, 1st November 2018,

 [9] Article 10, Constitution of the Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka

 [10] Article 14(1)(e), Constitution of the Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka

 [11] Article 12(2), Constitution of the Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka





 [16] Tamil Guardian, Hindu temple vandalized in Jaffna, 24th February 2018,; Tamil Guardian, 3 Hindu Shrines vandalized in Mannar, 13 February 2018,

 [17] Tamil Guardian, Sri Lanka’s archaeological department takes over Tamil temple lands in Vavuniya, 12th August 2018,; Tamil Guardian, Sri Lanka’s archaeological department occupies land in Trincomalee, 2nd December 2018,

 [18] Daily Mirror, Suspect arrested for damaging Buddha statue, 26th December 2018,; Sunday Times, More suspects to be arrested for vandalizing Buddha statues, 30th December 2018,

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