Fake News Sparks Buddhist And Muslim Extremists Clash In Sri Lanka—Is This Asia's Next Conflict?

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A Muslim woman in Asia holds up a sign against Buddhist extremists. Reuters

Sri Lankan police rounded up almost two dozen people suspected of causing violent clashes by spreading rumors that Muslims were going to attack a sacred Buddhist monument, officials said.

Muslim and Buddhist extremists fought in the streets of a southern coastal town in Sri Lanka after Buddhists posted the fake news on social media. According to the rumors, Muslims were planning to attack Buddhist archaeological relics. 

“We’ve decided to arrest those who have been spreading false messages and rumors on social media,” police told Reuters. “I urge the public not to be misled by their false propaganda.”

Tensions have increased between the country’s Muslims and hard-line Buddhists, who accuse Muslims of forcibly converting people and vandalizing Buddhist religious sites. 

About 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population is Buddhist, while only 9 percent of the population is Muslim. But tensions between the two groups have been exacerbated by the nearby conflict in Myanmar, in which military forces have driven out the Muslim Rohingya minority and sent around 600,000 Muslim refugees fleeing to Bangladesh. Sri Lanka also has a small Rohingya minority, and fear of a Muslim takeover spreads easily on social media, experts say. 

“Social media is a very powerful player, and you have certain images that project the idea that Muslims are terrorists,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, told Newsweek

"I think it’s the zeitgeist of our time. So many countries around the world are becoming insular and repulsed by the notion of difference and diversity,” he said.

As in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Buddhist extremists have terrorized Muslim minorities in other parts of Southeast Asia, such as Thailand, arguing that Muslims are a threat to the Buddhist way of life.

“The recent incident of violence illustrates how quickly tensions can turn to violence, especially when social media is whipped up to spread further unrest and misinformation, often by playing on existing prejudices,” Champa Patel, head of the Asia Program at Chatham House, told Newsweek.

“The climate for this type of attack is made possible by the pernicious influence of Sri Lankan hard-line Buddhist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena,” she added. “Holding such groups accountable for their incendiary rhetoric is critical to ensuring tensions don’t overspill into devastating consequences.”

The violence is particularly troubling to Sri Lankan officials, given that the country endured a brutal civil war that lasted from the 1980s until 2009. Experts say the government should do more to ensure that Buddhist extremists don’t provoke violence.

“You unfortunately have a climate in Sri Lanka where Buddhist extremism can flourish. I think the government needs to take these groups a lot more seriously,” Kugelman noted. “The government has been accused of dragging its feet before a clear and present danger of Buddhist extremism.”

Typical stereotypes portray Buddhists as peaceful monks who spend their days in meditation. But in reality, hard-line Buddhists are forming cross-border alliances against Muslims, experts note.

“A lot people around the world buy into this peaceful Buddhism stereotype without realizing that there are Buddhist extremists who continually spread hate speech and instigate violence against other religions, particularly Islam, in both Sri Lanka and Myanmar,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told Newsweek.

“The hard-liners in these two countries have forged a mutual admiration and support network for their intolerance that occasionally flares into this kind of unacceptable violence,” he said.