An upsurge of attacks against Muslims by Sinhala Buddhist militants in Sri Lanka has raised fears of a new round of communal violence. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Senior Analyst Alan Keenan says the government needs to act urgently to prevent the violence from spinning out of control, by enforcing laws against hate speech and arresting and prosecuting those involved in organising the violence.
Parliament 8 May reconvened after four-week prorogation by President Sirisena; govt remains deeply divided following failed April no-confidence vote against PM Wickremesinghe. Sirisena 9 May declared intention to seek re-election in next polls due late 2019, violating previous pledge not to, and putting him in competition with PM. Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) 25 May introduced private member’s bill for twentieth amendment to constitution to abolish executive presidency. Following move of sixteen govt MPs to opposition, cabinet reshuffle 1 May installed former Justice Minister and Sinhala Buddhist nationalist Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe as higher education and culture affairs minister, portfolio that includes politically sensitive archaeology department. Parliament 9 May passed Judicature (Amendment) Act establishing new court dedicated to corruption cases. As country commemorated ninth anniversary of end of civil war 18-19 May, Northern Provincial Council declared 18 May day of mourning and 14-20 May “genocide week”. Sirisena 19 May awarded medals to 50 military officers, some facing war crimes allegations; in speech said UN had made no formal charges of war crimes against govt. Office of Missing Persons (OMP) held first meetings with families of disappeared in Tamil-majority Mannar 12 May and Sinhala-majority Matara 19 May; pledged to establish eight offices in north and east, four elsewhere. Resettlement ministry 15 May announced 300 Tamil villagers allowed to stay on navy-occupied island Iranaitivu following long-standing protests. Three dozen people suspected of committing anti-Muslim violence in March in Kandy remain in custody, including leader of militant Buddhist group Mahasohon Balakaya. Police 15 May interrogated Kandy district parliamentarian from joint opposition led by former President Rajapaksa about violence; National Human Rights Commission held public hearings in Kandy as part of formal inquiry 9-12 May.
Tamil-speaking women in Sri Lanka’s north and east pushed for accountability and truth during the country’s civil war but have been marginalised during the transitional justice process. The government and international actors must include their voices and address their injustices and difficult economic situation to ensure lasting peace.
Fragile hopes for lasting peace and cooperation across party and ethnic lines are imperilled. To avoid leaders of the corrupt and violent former regime taking back control of the country, President Sirisena’s two-year-old “unity government” should put aside short-term calculations and return to reform.
Seven years after its civil war ended, Sri Lanka’s democratic space has reopened but strains are building from a powerful opposition, institutional overlaps and a weakened economy. To make reforms a real success, the prime minister and president should cooperate with openness and redouble efforts to tackle legacies of war like impunity, Tamil detainees and military-occupied land.
Sri Lanka’s 17 August parliamentary elections will test the country’s fragile democratic opening. With the hardline Sinhala nationalism of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa challenging the “good governance” agenda of the United National Party and President Sirisena, the outcome will affect chances for reconciliation and lasting resolution of the country’s long-running conflicts.
Sri Lanka’s upcoming presidential election promises more competition than was initially anticipated. But with that comes a great risk of violence. Long-term stability and post-war reconciliation can only be achieved through a peaceful election resulting in a government committed to serving the interests of all Sri Lankans.
Despite recent moves meant to show progress towards post-war reconciliation and respect for human rights, Sri Lanka’s government has not altered the authoritarian direction of its policies, and the rights and security of all communities remain under threat.
There is good reason to believe [the Sinhala Buddhists attacks in Sri Lanka] are partly designed to provoke a Muslim response, which would then justify more violence against Muslims.
Many Sinhalese and Buddhists have [the sense] that Sri Lanka [is a] Sinhala and Buddhist island, and [that] other communities are here on the sufferance of the majority.
The [Sri Lankan] government will need to figure out how to come together. They need to go back to the drawing board and return to their fundamental principles and start to deliver.
[Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa] has a strong core constituency and a good set of issues, whereas the government has to pull together a range of minority constituents.
2017 has seen a worrisome return of violence and hate speech in Sri Lanka.
There are lots of little initiatives under way [in Sri Lanka.] But they don't add up to a coherent or effective response to the desperate situation so many women are facing in the north and east.
Crisis Group’s first update to our Watch List 2018 includes entries on Burundi’s dangerous referendum, militant Buddhists and anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka, the impact of the Venezuelan crisis on the region, and the situation in Yemen. This annual early-warning report identifies conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.
The bloom is off two years of hope that the rule of law can be restored for all and that a 60-year failure to grant Tamils a fair share of power, in the Sinhala majority island, can be rectified.
Originally published in The Diplomat Magazine
Originally published in Inside Story