Muslims in Sri Lankan highlands to down shutters as hardline Buddhists meet

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Shops owned by Muslim traders in the Sri Lankan central highlands district of Kandy will remain closed on Sunday as thousands of hardline Buddhist monks gather to decide who to back in the country’s upcoming presidential elections.

FILE PHOTO - Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, head of the hardline Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or "Buddhist Power Force", speaks during a news conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The gathering, called by Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the influential head of Buddhist nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), is worrying Muslim traders and residents in Kandy, an ancient capital that was rocked by violence last year as mobs ran amok for three days vandalizing mosques, homes and businesses.

There have also been a spate of anti-Muslim riots in the country in recent weeks, blamed in part on Buddhist groups, in apparent reprisal for April bombings claimed by Islamic State that killed more than 250 people.

“All Muslim-owned shops are likely to be closed on Sunday to avoid any possible confrontation, as thousands of monks are expected in the town for the conference,” Niyaz Muheeth, president of the Kandy Muslim Traders Association, told Reuters.

Sri Lanka’s apex body of Islamic scholars, All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU), urged Muslims to avoid visits to the central district that contains Kandy on Sunday.

In response, BBS said in a statement thousands of monks are expected to gather in Kandy to take a crucial decision on behalf of the country.

In a letter to police seen by Reuters, Dilantha Withanage, CEO of BBS, accused Muslim groups including ACJU of trying to sabbotage the Sunday event, by misleading the police with fabricated information and complaints.

Sri Lanka has had a history of ethnic and religious violence and was torn for decades by a civil war between separatists from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority and the Sinhala Buddhist-dominated government. The war ended in 2009.

In recent years, Buddhist hardliners, led by BBS, have stoked hostility against Muslims, saying influences from the Middle East have made Sri Lanka’s Muslims more conservative and isolated.

Buddhists make up about 70% of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people while Muslims account for 10%.

The Buddhist gathering on Sunday comes ahead of presidential polls scheduled to be held either in November or December in which President Maithripala Sirisena, former defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could be possible candidates.

Gnanasara, a hardline monk who is accused of inciting violence against Muslims and has been leading the campaign against Islamic extremism, has called for as many as 10,000 Buddhist clergy to attend the meet, in an effort to unite Sinhala Buddhists.

The monk, who was released from prison last month after a pardon by Sirisena over contempt of court charges, has also hinted BBS may back a surprise candidate, whose views are more aligned with the group’s ideology, to contest the elections.

“We will either mould our political leaders, or we will send them home,” he said at a press conference on June 21.

Writing by Aditi Shah, editing by Alasdair Pal