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Buddhist Militancy Rises Again in Sri Lanka
Buddhist Militancy Rises Again in Sri Lanka
Report 135 / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Crisis

The resumption of war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been accompanied by widespread human rights abuses by both sides.

Executive Summary

The resumption of war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been accompanied by widespread human rights abuses by both sides. While the LTTE has continued its deliberately provocative attacks on the military and Sinhalese civilians as well as its violent repression of Tamil dissenters and forced recruitment of both adults and children, the government is using extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances as part of a brutal counter-insurgency campaign. The likely results will be the further embitterment of the Tamil population and a further cycle of war, terrorism and repression. Without ignoring or minimising the serious violations of the LTTE, the international community needs to bring more pressure to bear on the government, through UN mechanisms, a reappraisal of aid policies and intensified political engagement. The alternative is a further decline into authoritarianism, violence, terrorism and repression.

Civilians are repeatedly caught up in the fighting. More than 1,500 have been killed and more than 250,000 displaced since early 2006. There have been hundreds of extrajudicial killings, and more than 1,000 people are still unaccounted for, presumed to be the victims of enforced disappearances. Hundreds more have been detained under newly strengthened Emergency Regulations that give the government broad powers of arrest and detention without charge. The security forces have also expelled hundreds of Tamils from Colombo. Forces commanded by the ex-LTTE commander Karuna, leader of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP) now aligned with the government, engage in child recruitment, extortion, abductions for ransom and political assassinations.

While many deaths result from military clashes, the army – assisted by pro-government Tamil paramilitaries – is also engaged in a deliberate policy of extrajudicial killings and abductions of Tamils considered part of LTTE’s civilian support network. Targeted assassinations have been particularly frequent in Jaffna and parts of the east, often victimising civilians with no connection to the LTTE. Political killings, abductions and disappearances have also spread to Colombo, where abductions for ransom have targeted both Tamils and Muslims.

Tamils are increasingly fearful and alienated from a government that claims to be liberating them from the LTTE but has failed to promote any viable political solution to the conflict. The violence and abuse suffered by many Tamils has ensured increased support and funding for the insurgents.

The counter-insurgency campaign is leading to more authoritarianism in the country as a whole. Officials now routinely brand their political critics and human rights advocates as LTTE sympathisers, while political opponents and journalists have been arrested under the Emergency Regulations. What began as an effort to target LTTE supporters shows disturbing signs of becoming generalised repression of dissent. While routinely attacking moderate, democratic forces, the government has given free rein to Sinhalese nationalist groups.

For the most part the government has responded to criticism with denial, obfuscation and virulent, verbal attacks on its critics. In an attempt to deflect international criticism, it has also established new institutions to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. A Presidential Commission of Inquiry (CoI), backed by a panel of international observers, is investigating a series of atrocities. However, the history of such institutions in Sri Lanka is grounds for scepticism: previous commissions have been ineffective in stopping abuses or prosecuting perpetrators.

In any case, the CoI is no substitute for proper action by the law enforcement agencies and judiciary to investigate and prosecute abuses. The national Human Rights Commission is deeply flawed and has lost all credibility after being stocked by political appointees. Other domestic institutions are increasingly politicised or dysfunctional, leading to calls for an international human rights monitoring mission, which may be the only way to end the present wave of abuses. The international community has responded to the renewed conflict and human rights abuses, however, in a disjointed and lacklustre way. While there has been some public criticism, there is little sign of a coordinated approach that would put real pressure on the government to change course.

If the government does not begin to reassert the rule of law, it may find itself unable to bring under control the violent forces that have been unleashed – including the TMVP, other Tamil paramilitaries and criminal elements. The nature of the campaign against the LTTE has spawned a rise in general lawlessness. Democratic state institutions are increasingly threatened by the development of a regime that is becoming more authoritarian.

Colombo/Brussels, 14 June 2007

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.