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Sri Lanka Between Elections
Sri Lanka Between Elections
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Buddhist Militancy Rises Again in Sri Lanka
Buddhist Militancy Rises Again in Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan opposition party workers erect a cutout of their presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena in the north central town of Polonnaruwa on 30 November 2014. AFP/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi
Report 272 / Asia

Sri Lanka Between Elections

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.

Executive Summary

A half year after Maithripala Sirisena’s stunning defeat of President Mahinda Raja­paksa raised hopes for democratic renaissance, the complexities of partisan politics, and Rajapaksa himself, have returned to centre stage. Sirisena’s initial months with a minority government led by the United National Party (UNP) have opened important political space: robust debate and criticism have replaced the fear under Rajapaksa, and important governance reforms have been made, but much remains undone. By initial steps on reconciliation, the government set a more accommodating tone on the legacy of the civil war and the ethnic conflict that drove it. But divisions within government and Sirisena’s failure to take control of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) prevented deeper reform and allowed Rajapaksa and his supporters to mount a comeback. With Sirisena opposing Rajapaksa’s return, the 17 August parliamentary elections will test the continued appeal of the ex-president’s hardline Sinhala nationalism and give a chance for the fresh start that lasting solutions to the country’s social divisions require.

Before running out of steam in June, Sirisena’s first six months saw notable achievements. Most important was parliament’s April passage of the nineteenth amendment to the constitution. Largely fulfilling the central pledge of the joint opposition campaign, it considerably reduced presidential powers and established independent oversight commissions. Though the original draft was watered down, the amendment is a welcome move away from authoritarianism and could assist in re-establishing the badly-damaged rule of law. As promised in their election manifesto, Sirisena and his UNP partners also launched scores of investigations into alleged major fraud and abuse of power by officials of the former government. While the unprecedented scale of the anti-corruption drive raised public expectations, the lack of indictments thus far has fed rumours of backroom deals and growing doubts that the institutional and political obstacles to effective prosecutions can ever be overcome.

The bright hopes of the government’s initial months were increasingly tarnished by unclear, ad hoc policies, frequently contradictory policy statements and missed deadlines for pledged reforms. As parliamentary elections, originally promised for June, were postponed, the coalition that elected Sirisena began to fragment. While the UNP and smaller parties urged him to dissolve parliament and hold elections after passage of the nineteenth amendment, he spent months trying and failing to win over the SLFP, whose nominal leadership he assumed after winning the presidency, following a decade of Rajapaksa at its helm.

The SLFP, which has a large majority in parliament, resented Sirisena’s unprecedented experiment with a “national government” dominated by its arch-rival UNP. Many SLFP parliamentarians remain loyal to Rajapaksa; others see the ex-president as the party’s best chance to retain its majority in the next parliament, given his popularity among Sinhala voters. After months of resisting Rajapaksa’s selection as the prime ministerial candidate of the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), lack of support in the party forced Sirisena to yield in early July.

Sirisena has since made it clear he opposes Rajapaksa’s candidacy and will not appoint him prime minister, even if the UPFA wins an unlikely majority. The ex-president’s opponents within the SLFP, along with smaller parties, have joined a new version of the UNP-led coalition that brought Sirisena victory in January, now re-energised by the threat of a Rajapaksa comeback. With the UPFA arguing the UNP threatens national security and supports Tamil separatism, the election will test the strength of Rajapaksa’s brand of Sinhala nationalism, as well as the depth of public concern over corruption and abuses of power. Even if he cannot become prime minister, Rajapaksa’s leadership of a large Sinhala nationalist bloc in parliament could make it harder for a UNP-led government’s to act as promised on reconciliation and accountability.

The Sirisena-UNP government set a new, less Sinhala triumphalist tone on ethnic issues and took some steps for reconciliation: releasing a number of Tamil political prisoners and limited amounts of military-occupied land in Tamil areas, while reducing the presence, though not size, of the military and its involvement in governing the north and east. Despite growing frustration among many Tamils, larger moves have been put off until after elections, as has action on alleged war crimes by both the military and the defeated Tamil Tigers. The government promises a credible domestic inquiry that meets international standards, but doubts about its willingness and ability to tackle institutionalised impunity and prosecute war crimes are widespread and well founded. Successful prosecutions require significant legal and institutional reforms and management of resistance from military leaders and nationalist parties.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) is due to deliver its long-awaited war crimes report to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) before it meets in September. At that session, the newly-elected government should commit to the legal reforms needed to effectively prosecute serious human rights violations suffered by all ethnic communities, including war crimes; to pursue prosecutions with adequate witness protection and international involvement; and to consult widely with victims, survivors and community groups on its longer-term program of transitional justice, including a possible truth commission. To be effective, these processes will require consistent international scrutiny and participation, including OHCHR assistance to investigations and continued monitoring and reporting to the HRC.

The parliamentary elections offer voters the chance to renew the mandate for change they gave Sirisena and the UNP in January. A strong showing by the Raja­paksa-led UPFA, however, would complicate the president’s plans to form a broad-based “national” government between the UNP, smaller parties and the reformist wing of the SLFP and place obstacles to further progress on much-needed governance reforms and reconciliation. Sri Lanka’s chance to finally start on the road to a sustainable resolution of the country’s decades-long ethnic strife, including a negotiated political settlement, depends on the outcome.

Colombo/Brussels, 12 August 2015

Sri Lanka's Buddhist monk Akmeemana Dayarathana, who led hardline nationalists in an unruly protest against 31 Rohingya Muslim asylum seekers, is escorted to prison bus by prison and police officers at a court in Mount Lavinia, Sri Lanka 2 October 2017. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Commentary / Asia

Buddhist Militancy Rises Again in Sri Lanka

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.

Sri Lanka has declared a state of emergency for ten days to rein in the spread of communal violence, a government spokesperson said on Tuesday, a day after Buddhists and Muslims clashed in the Indian Ocean islands central district of Kandy. What are the reasons behind this latest communal violence in the country?

There are many factors behind the recent upsurge of violence against Sri Lankan Muslims. The events of the last ten days have not been local “clashes” between Buddhists and Muslims, but organised and targeted attacks by national-level militant groups who are well known and have made their intentions clear through traditional and social media. The immediate cycle of violence began with the death on 3 March of a Sinhala Buddhist man in the central hill town of Teldeniya. He had been attacked ten days earlier by four local Muslim men, who were promptly arrested and detained. His death sparked anger and limited violence the next day by local Buddhists, 24 of whom were arrested and held by the police. Demanding the release of these men, leaders of radical Buddhist groups converged on the town with hundreds of their supporters from other districts, who later began attacking mosques and Muslim businesses and homes. Even after yesterday’s declaration of a state of emergency, violence continues against Muslims in the hills around the town of Kandy.

The ongoing violence [in Sri Lanka] marks the resurgence of militant Buddhist groups.

The violence this week came just days after a mosque and Muslim businesses were attacked in the south-eastern town of Ampara. There are indications the attack was planned and carried out mostly by Buddhist militants brought in from outside Ampara town, supported through rumours spread on social media. Government officials have acknowledged that the damage was aggravated by the slow response of the local police.

The ongoing violence marks the resurgence of militant Buddhist groups that first emerged in 2012-2014 with the support of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. Having ceased during the first two years of the current coalition government, attacks on Muslims began again over a six-week period in April and May 2017 and for two days in November 2017, with militants apparently emboldened by the government’s failure to prosecute those responsible for violence and hate speech under the Rajapaksa regime.

Sri Lanka has grabbed international headlines in the past due to tensions between the Sinhalese and Tamils. But how do you describe the relations between Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka?

Muslims, who make up almost ten per cent of Sri Lanka’s population, live across the island, among both Sinhalese (75 per cent of the population and overwhelmingly Buddhist) and Tamils (about fifteen per cent and mostly Hindu). Relations between Muslims and Sri Lanka’s other communities are mostly harmonious. At the same time, there are longstanding and deeply rooted fears among many Sinhalese that the Sinhala and Buddhist character of the island is under threat and must be protected, even to the extent of using violence. While the threat has previously been seen as coming from colonial rulers and then Tamils, Muslims are now the primary worry for many Sinhalese. Narratives of insecurity, fed by global Islamophobic tropes, present Muslims as violent extremists, as increasing their population so fast as to pose a threat to the Sinhala Buddhist majority status, as misusing their economic power to weaken Sinhalese, and as using underhand means to reduce Sinhala Buddhist numbers such as secretly planting contraceptives in food eaten and clothes worn by Sinhalese. These fears and myths are widely promoted – along with calls for violence – through social media.

The fears are encouraged by Sinhala business interests to weaken their Muslim competitors.

The fears are also regularly encouraged by some Sinhala business interests to weaken their Muslim competitors. These rivalries play out at the local level with regular appeals to Sinhala Buddhist consumers to boycott Muslim shops, and with rioting that regularly targets Muslim-owned businesses. They also have a national character, with certain Sinhala business leaders widely believed to be key funders of Bodu Bala Sena and other militant groups. Criticisms of Muslims as gaining greater economic power through unfair means have particular resonance with Sinhalese facing economic difficulties, as the government struggles to control the cost of living and provide sustainable livelihoods, especially in rural areas and small towns.

How vulnerable are Sri Lankan Muslims to being drawn to violence?

Sri Lankan Muslims have been admirably restrained, disciplined and non-violent in their response to what is now five years of severe, sustained and often violent pressure. One can only hope that this continues to be the case, though continued violent provocations – and the failure of the police to protect Muslims – appears to be testing the patience of some, with reports of the first retaliatory violence against Sinhala businesses. Many in Sri Lanka now fear the current wave of militant Buddhist attacks may be designed in part to provoke a violent response from Muslims, which would then be used to justify wider-scale attacks on the community.

How has the Sri Lankan government tried to quell the tensions between Buddhists and Muslims and promote communal harmony?

The government has done very little to address either the underlying mistrust and misunderstandings between the two communities, or to rein in the small number of Buddhists who promote or use violence. Despite coming to power in January 2015 promising to end impunity for attacks on Muslims, the government has launched no proper investigations of past violence, and prosecuted no leaders of groups known to be involved in attacks on Muslims. Despite recent statements from the president, prime minister and other officials that the law will be strictly enforced and those engaging in violence will be arrested, key organisers of the ongoing violence remain free. Some of these have posted on social media information to help target Muslims for attack. Police, in a number of locations, have been credibly accused of siding with the mobs.

While government leaders are not believed to be supporting the violence against Muslims, they appear to be afraid of taking action against the perpetrators.

While government leaders are not believed to be supporting the violence against Muslims, they appear to be afraid of taking action against the perpetrators, especially those Buddhist monks thought to be involved, for fear of alienating Sinhala Buddhist voters by appearing to favour Muslims. This fear has grown since the poor showing of government candidates in the 10 February local elections, in which former President Rajapaksa led a successful campaign rooted in a strongly Sinhala Buddhist nationalist platform. The increasingly deep divide between the president and the prime minister, who is battling to hold on to his job, appears to have further paralysed the government.

What steps could or should the government take to curb further communal violence?

The government needs to adopt a three-pronged strategy, beginning with enforcing the law, including against hate speech, and arresting and prosecuting offenders. While the state of emergency the government imposed on 6 March appeared at first to reduce the violence, attacks have resumed, with the police and army often failing to stop the rioters. Should the government act decisively with arrests of key figures behind the violence and hate speech and explain the necessity of its actions to the Buddhist religious leadership and the general public, it can likely win the necessary support for those policies. Over the mid- to long term, the government must also work actively to correct the lies and disinformation about Muslims that are spread by radical Buddhist groups, especially on social media, such as the allegation that Muslim restaurants regularly put contraceptives in their food to sterilise their Buddhist customers and reduce their population. The impact of such rumours and “fake news” could be significantly reduced if the government used its media and information channels to combat them. Finally, over the long term, but beginning now, the government needs to more actively promote a pluralist vision of Sri Lanka, in which the country belongs to all communities equally, while still protecting the country’s unique Sinhala and Buddhist culture.

The government needs to more actively promote a pluralist vision of Sri Lanka, in which the country belongs to all communities equally.

How do you see the security and communal situation evolving in the country in the coming weeks? Will the Sri Lankan government be able to bring the situation under control?

The continued failure to make arrests of well-known Buddhist agitators and the instigators of recent attacks is not encouraging, and despite the state of emergency, the government still appears uncertain about how to respond to the violence. The chaos and infighting that has characterised the coalition government’s response to their defeat in the local government elections has continued and contributed to a sense of weakness that has been seized on by militant Buddhist groups. Strong, decisive and coherent action is urgently needed if Sri Lanka is to avoid tipping into a new and potentially crippling round of communal conflict.

A version of this Q&A was also published by Deutsche Welle.

The Sinhala translation of the commentary is available in PDF format here.