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Sri Lanka: A Bitter Peace
Sri Lanka: A Bitter Peace
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Buddhist Militancy Rises Again in Sri Lanka
Buddhist Militancy Rises Again in Sri Lanka
Briefing 99 / Asia

Sri Lanka: A Bitter Peace

No matter which of the two main Sinhalese candidates wins Sri Lanka’s 26 January presidential election, the international community must take steps to ensure he addresses the marginalisation of Tamils and other minorities in the interest of peace and stability.

Overview

Since the decisive military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka has made little progress in reconstructing its battered democratic institutions or establishing conditions for a stable peace. Eight months later, the post-war policies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa have deepened rather than resolved the grievances that generated and sustained LTTE militancy. While the LTTE’s defeat and the end of its control over Tamil political life are historic and welcome changes, the victory over Tamil militancy will remain fragile unless Sinhalese-dominated political parties make strong moves towards a more inclusive and democratic state. The emergence of retired General Sarath Fonseka to challenge Rajapaksa in the 26 January presidential election has opened new space to challenge repressive government policies. But neither has offered credible proposals for political reforms that would address the marginalisation of Tamils and other minorities. Whoever wins, donor governments and international institutions should use their development assistance to support reforms designed to protect the democratic rights of all of Sri Lanka’s citizens and ethnic communities.

The government’s internment of more than a quarter million Tamils displaced from the Northern Province – some for more than six months – was further humiliation for a population brutalised by months of ferocious fighting. The return by the end of 2009 of most of the displaced to their home districts, and the increased freedom of movement for the nearly 100,000 still in military-run camps, are important steps forward. However, the resettlement process has failed to meet international standards for safe and dignified returns. There has been little or no consultation with the displaced and no independent monitoring; many returns have been to areas not cleared of mines and unexploded ordnance; inadequate financial resources have been provided for those returning home; and the military continues to control people’s movements. These and other concerns also apply to the estimated 80,000 Muslims forcibly expelled from the north by the LTTE in 1990, some of whom have begun to return to their homes.

The UN and donor governments should insist more strongly that all resettlement is done according to established guiding principles. Donors should end assistance to any camps where full freedom of movement is not allowed and condition additional aid on an effective monitoring role for UN agencies and NGO partners. India, Japan, Western donors, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank should tie additional development assistance to an inclusive and consultative planning process for the reconstruction of the north. Access by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to the more than 12,000 Tamils held in irregular detention centres on suspicion of ties to the LTTE is also essential.

The government’s approach to the development and reconstruction of the north and east is contributing to minority fears and alienation. Government plans remain unclear, with local communities and political leaders not consulted and even donors not informed of overall reconstruction plans. Strong military influence over policies, tight military control over the population and restrictions on local and international NGOs increase the risk of land conflicts, with the strong possibility of demographic changes that would dilute the Tamil character of the north. No real space has been given to Tamil and Muslim political or community leaders in the north and very little in the east.

The Rajapaksa government has initiated no political reforms to address Tamil and other minorities’ concerns. The government-sponsored All Party Representative Committee (APRC) designed to craft constitutional reforms has in effect ended with no sign of an alternative process. Tamil and Muslim parties remain weak and divided, although recent encouraging initiatives to develop a common platform and build trust among Tamil-speaking parties deserve support. Inside and outside Sri Lanka, many Tamils remain angry at the lack of accounting or justice for the thousands of civilians killed in the final months of the war. Most of the million-strong diaspora is still committed to a separate state and many would be willing to support renewed violence.

The brutal nature of the conflict, especially in its closing months, has undermined Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions and governance. All ethnic communities are suffering from the collapse of the rule of law. Disappearances and political killings associated with the government’s counter-insurgency campaign have been greatly reduced since the end of the war. Impunity for abuses by state officials continues, however, and fear and self-censorship among civil society activists and political dissidents remain widespread. Rajapaksa’s government continues to maintain and use the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations to weaken its political opposition.

The campaign of retired General Sarath Fonseka has put the Rajapaksas on the defensive and united a long-dormant opposition. Alleging corruption and other abuses of power by the Rajapaksa family, Fonseka and the parties supporting him promise major reforms, including the end of emergency rule and the abolition of the Executive Presidency itself. However, Fonseka’s candidacy suffers from contradictions and poses grave risks. Promises made to Tamil parties to restore civilian control over land policies and the resettlement process in the north threaten to put Fonseka at odds with his allies in the military and run directly counter to Fonseka’s consistently Sinhala nationalist policies over the course of his career. The numerous allegations that General Fonseka was involved in attacks on journalists and other human rights violations undermine his calls for reforms and an end to impunity. It remains an open question whether the ideologically diverse set of parties that have endorsed Fonseka will be able to work together or influence his policies should he win.

International actors need to press for accountability for abuses by both sides during the war as well as challenge the government’s post-war policies. Numerous states with insurgencies have begun to look at Sri Lanka as a model. India and Western governments may yet come to regret giving Sri Lanka the green light – and even assisting it – to fight a “war on terror” prior to the government agreeing to political reforms or showing any commitment to the rule of law, constitutional norms or respect for human rights. The precedent can and should be challenged. Donors should condition further development assistance on governance reforms designed to curb impunity and make government accountable to citizens of all communities. This could eventually help open the space for Tamil and Muslim political leaders to organise effectively now that the LTTE is no longer there to control their agenda.

Colombo/Brussels, 11 January 2010

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.