More than 5000 people worldwide have signed a student-led petition urging Sri Lanka’s president to act against racist groups allegedly harassing minority communities in Sri Lanka.
The petition, started by student Fathima Shifani on March 26, was delivered to the Sri Lankan Presidential Secretariat on May 15. It demands that the President take action to protect Muslim, Christian and other minorities from threats of violence from controversial Buddhist organisation Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).
Violent acts directed at minority groups in Sri Lanka garnered international media attention in March when a Buddhist monk was filmed throwing stones at a Muslim-owned store in the capital, Colombo.
Sri Lanka, where 75 per cent of the population is Sinhalese and mostly Buddhist, has also come under fire from the international community after a recent Amnesty International report raised questions of government-sanctioned human rights abuse.
Ms Shifani is part of a group of young activists who coordinated the petition on the website change.org. She said several volunteers have joined in to keep the campaign active on social media groups.
The campaigners are also engaging with supporters against hate groups among the majority Buddhist community, particularly among monks who oppose the “non-Buddhist” philosophy of the regime and have condemned the actions of the BBS.
“The petition is a reaction to hate speech and hate acts and it is an attempt to counter a blatantly racist regime that is threatening to grow in Sri Lanka,” said Ms Shifani.
“They [the BBS] are individuals attempting to propagate some kind of ‘religious ethnic cleansing’ in Sri Lanka.
“We are horrified by not just the uprising of extremist hate groups in Sri Lanka but also by the government’s seeming indifference.”
Ms Shifani said the country had been afflicted by racist agenda before, which caused the murder and displacement of countless Tamils during the civil war.
“We cannot afford to allow it to happen again.”
She added that those involved with the student petition hoped to raise national and international awareness of the issue and make the government feel the pressure of thousands of protesters calling for intervention.
An academic expert who is currently in Sri Lanka said she felt the Sri Lankan government was looking for “justification for its authoritarian concentration of power policies”.
“The official word is that the [victims of the violence] did not want to take action and indeed thanked the Secretary of Defence but one has to wonder about them cowering and hoping to avoid further attack.”
Commenting on the student petition, the expert, who wished to remain anonymous because of the controversy surrounding the issue, added: “I think it can only be counter-productive at this point. The government is totally paranoid and hates all foreign interference.”
Ms Shifani’s petition is one among several created in response to human rights violations in Sri Lanka. Another petition started by the Australian Tamil Congress calls on the Australian government to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to be held in Sri Lanka in November.
Several prominent politicians have expressed concern about the ongoing violence in the country and former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser is among those calling on Australia to boycott the meeting.
At the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) meeting on April 26 in London, the issue of human rights in Sri Lanka was brought up for discussion in the “Other Matters of Interest to Ministers” section. However, despite international pressure, especially from Canada, the group has chosen not to take action and the CHOGM will go ahead as scheduled.
Several international organisations have raised questions about the worsening human rights situation in the country, but the Sri Lankan government has denied the existence of any race-based unrest.
Referring to the alleged racist attacks, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Australia, Admiral Thisara Samarsinghe, said “there were no problems”.
“In Sri Lanka, we’ve had a brutal terrorist conflict for 30 years. Now the country is out of conflict but vested interest parties are trying to destabilise the peace in the country.”
He added that if petitions were valid, they would be taken into consideration by the authorities.
Representatives of the Bodu Bala Sena were unavailable for comment.
The petition is now closed but it can be viewed here.