Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
Sri Lanka’s North II: Rebuilding under the Military
Sri Lanka’s North II: Rebuilding under the Military
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Buddhist Militancy Rises Again in Sri Lanka
Buddhist Militancy Rises Again in Sri Lanka
Report 220 / Asia

Sri Lanka’s North II: Rebuilding under the Military

The Sri Lankan military’s control over the political and economic life of the Northern Province is deepening the alienation and anger of northern Tamils and threatening sustainable peace.

Executive Summary

Sri Lanka’s military is dominating the reconstruction of the Northern Province, weakening international humanitarian efforts and worsening tensions with the ethnic Tamil majority. Since the war ended in 2009, hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into the province, but the local populations, mostly left destitute by the conflict, have seen only slight improvements in their lives. Instead of giving way to a process of inclusive, accountable development, the military is increasing its economic role, controlling land and seemingly establishing itself as a permanent, occupying presence. Combined with what many Tamils see as an effort to impose Sinhala and Buddhist culture across the whole of Sri Lanka and a failure to address many social aspects of rebuilding a society after conflict, these policies risk reviving the violence of past decades. Donors should put government accountability, the needs of returnees and the expansion of a democratic political role for the Tamil minority at the heart of their aid policies or risk contributing to a revival of ethnic extremism.

The heavy militarisation of the province, ostensibly designed to protect against the renewal of violent militancy, is in fact deepening the alienation and anger of northern Tamils and threatening sustainable peace. Major new military bases require the seizure of large amounts of public and private land and the continued displacement of tens of thousands. The growing involvement of the military in agricultural and commercial activities has placed further obstacles on the difficult road to economic recovery for northern farmers and businesses. When challenged by public protest, the military has shown itself willing to physically attack demonstrators and is credibly accused of involvement in enforced disappearances and other extrajudicial punishments.

The government points to the many new roads, rapid economic growth and numerous new infrastructure projects as signs of a post-war “northern spring”. For most of the more than 430,000 people who have returned to their lands and villages over the past two years, however, there has been little benefit. Residents of the Vanni region – the mainland of the Northern Province – returned to a land devastated by the final years of war: almost all homes and buildings were destroyed; most personal property was lost, damaged or looted. Most returnees remain in makeshift and inadequate shelters and many struggle to afford food, with few jobs or economic opportunities and little or no savings. Few schools and medical centres have been rebuilt. Women in the north face particularly difficult situations: female-headed households, many without permanent shelter or regular income, in the context of domination by a male, Sinhalese military are extremely vulnerable.

Gender-based violence and the Sinhalisation of the Northern Province through cultural and demographic changes have been addressed in Crisis Group’s two most recent papers on Sri Lanka, the latter a companion report to this one. This report examines the dominance of the military in the reconstruction of a region that was almost completely destroyed during decades of war. It also looks at the ways in which military priorities have shaped the government’s and the international community’s response to the deprivations of the local population. A focus on physical infrastructure over the rebuilding of a confident, open society benefits the military and the political elite – financially and otherwise – at the expense of the majority of the province’s population.

Government restrictions on aid and early recovery activities, often enforced by local military commanders, have prevented the effective delivery of many social services, including systematic and effective trauma counselling and other psycho-social support to families struggling to cope with the deaths and disappearance of tens of thousands of relatives. The military’s influential role over northern development policy – through the Presidential Task Force on Resettlement, Reconstruction and Security in the Northern Province (PTF) and at the district level – has marginalised the largely Tamil civil administration and led to ineffective and ethnically biased rebuilding. More generally, the government’s emphasis on large-scale development projects has diverted resources and energies away from the more immediate needs of returnees. Donors and development and aid agencies have done too little to speak out about or effectively challenge these policies, even as they undermine the prospects for sustainable return and recovery.

International engagement with Sri Lanka should prioritise the reestablishment of civilian and democratic governance in the north, and the end of the military control over development activities. Donors, particularly the multilateral agencies, China, India and Japan, should insist that their programs address the pressing needs of the more than 430,000 returnees in a manner that is transparent and accountable to the local population. They should press the government to lift onerous restrictions on the delivery and monitoring of assistance. UN agencies and non-gov­ern­men­tal organisations (NGOs), with the support of their donors, should more actively resist the government’s tight controls over their operations, better defend humanitarian principles, and push for the restoration of civilian authority throughout the north. Monitoring of projects must go beyond platitudes to ensure that reconstruction money does not fuel the culture of corruption and the erosion of democracy that have worsened despite the end of the war.

Colombo/Brussels, 16 March 2012

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.