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.
Unexpectedly strong result for ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) in 10 Feb local elections threw ruling United National Party (UNP)-Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) coalition into turmoil, raising possibility of its collapse and badly damaging prospects for a new constitution and other reforms. SLPP won 44.6% of vote and large majority of local councils across country; PM Wickremesinghe’s UNP won 32.6%; and President Sirisena’s SLFP together with allies in United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won 13.4%. Elections in Tamil areas, where conflict-affected groups continue to demand post-war reforms, saw significant losses for moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Sirisena responded to SLPP demands to call new elections with attempt to install new SLFP-led govt or UNP govt without Wickremesinghe as PM. Govt 25 Feb announced first stage of cabinet reshuffle, including PM taking over law and order portfolio. Election reportedly one of most peaceful and least corrupt in recent history, but outcome provoked increasingly violent rhetoric among both Sinhala political partisans and Tamil nationalists, as well as post-election violence principally by SLPP supporters against UNP/SLFP rivals. 26-27 Feb attack on mosque and Muslim shops in south-eastern town Ampara raised tensions further. UN human rights chief report 23 Feb criticised govt’s failure to make significant progress in fulfilling transitional justice commitments in Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1. President 28 Feb formally appointed commissioners to Office of Missing Persons after eighteen-month delay.
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.
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