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
Unfinished Business in Sri Lanka
Unfinished Business in Sri Lanka
Buddhist Militancy Rises Again in Sri Lanka
Buddhist Militancy Rises Again in Sri Lanka
Op-Ed / Asia

Unfinished Business in Sri Lanka

Originally published in Inside Story

When UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon touched down in Sri Lanka yesterday, he arrived in a very different country from the one he last saw, immediately following the end of the civil war. Back then, in May 2009, he was shocked by the physical devastation and human toll of the final months of war, when as many as 40,000 civilians are believed to have been killed in the north and east. The internal review he ordered faulted the United Nations for its “systemic failure” to protect human rights and civilian lives at the war’s end.

Today, much of the physical damage has been repaired. Since 2015, a new government led by president Maithripala Sirisena has championed a reform agenda that includes important commitments to end impunity, promote the rule of law, and encourage reconciliation. Yet political, social and psychological wounds run deep throughout the country, threatening the fragile progress made so far.

The UN has a mixed history in Sri Lanka. On Ban’s last visit, the country was ruled by president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his powerful family, riding high on the wave of triumphalism and Sinhala nationalism that followed the military’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers. A panel of experts Ban appointed in 2010 found credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both sides. Although it was denounced by the government and its nationalist supporters, the panel’s report contributed to the series of increasingly strong resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council calling for accountability and reconciliation.

The defeat of Rajapaksa and election of Sirisena as president in January 2015 opened unexpected space in Sri Lanka for the Human Rights Council’s resolutions to be acted on. It also marked a growing acceptance that reconciliation required accountability for war crimes and for corruption and the abuse of power.

Sirisena’s new government co-sponsored a landmark resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council in October 2015, which committed his administration to establishing offices on missing persons and reparations, a truth commission, and a special court to hear cases of alleged crimes during the war – including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and sexual violence. The government also promised to investigate other human rights cases, restore the independence of the judiciary and police, reduce the role of the military and agree on constitutional reforms to address the political marginalisation of Sri Lankan Tamils, which gave birth to the years of war and terror.

UN agencies are actively supporting the Sirisena government’s reform agenda, but government efforts have been under-resourcedand weakened by mixed messages and confused lines of authority. Clear direction from the president and from prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been lacking. While there is much greater space for dissent, some improvement in rights protections, and progress towards a new constitution, there has been no decisive break with the culture of impunity. Meanwhile, key sectors within the government are actively undermining reforms.

Take, for example, the government’s pledge to the Human Rights Council that it would replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act with new laws consistent with human rights standards. Despite that undertaking, police continue to make arrests under this repressive legislation, and some 200 Tamils are still detained under its provisions, many held for years without charge.

Security officials have reportedly interfered with police investigations that implicate military intelligence units in murders and abductions during the Rajapaksa years. Defence budgets have grown and the military remains a powerful presence in Tamil majority regions, running hotels and other businesses and occupying large amounts of private land. Tamils are increasingly angry at the government’s failure to live up to its promises on all these issues.

Ban should urge that the military cooperate with the police and judiciary. He should also offer UN assistance for the Sri Lankan military’s transition to peacetime duties in two ways: by helping to assess its landholdings and assisting families returning to previously occupied land, and by assisting with job training for retiring soldiers and psycho-social support to veterans and families.

While parliament’s approval earlier this month of a bill to establish the Office on Missing Persons is a welcome first step, Ban must press the president and prime minister to implement all of its promises to the Human Rights Council. A key element of these commitments is a special court for war-related crimes, with the “participation… of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators.” With nationalists arguing this is an infringement on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, the president and prime minister have reversed position and rejected foreign judges.

Although the Sirisena government co-sponsored the Human Rights Council resolution last year, it now seems to be dragging its feet. It appears increasingly that the government does not intend to pass the legislation needed to establish the special court before the Council meets in March 2017, a move that could help to evade further international scrutiny.

Ban must make clear his support for continued oversight by the UN Human Rights Council until the government has passed the legislation needed to establish a strong court with the legal basis and the expertise – including international participation – to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Even if the government succeeds in winning approval for a constitution that reflects Sri Lanka’s ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity, that will not be enough to ensure reconciliation in the absence of accountability.

Ban should encourage Sirisena and Wickremesinghe to make a much stronger public case – especially to Sinhalese communities – in support of their transitional justice and constitutional initiatives. While resistance from Sinhala nationalists and the Rajapaksa-led opposition is real, strong public outreach and the government’s two-thirds parliamentary majority provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address both the causes and consequences of Sri Lanka’s thirty years of war. As part of this, Ban should also urge that the design of the court and the truth commission take into account the recommendations of public consultations now under way across the island.

Finally, Ban should acknowledge the UN’s failure to protect Sri Lankans during the final months of the war and its immediate aftermath, and commit the UN to an active role defending rights through its ongoing work in Sri Lanka. This should include an expanded presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and improved vetting of the human rights record of military personnel who serve in UN missions – particularly with respect to allegations of sexual abuse.

Above all, UN member states must back up Ban’s words with the right combination of encouragement and pressure needed to deepen and sustain the potentially historic transformation now under way in Sri Lanka. With the UN’s help, Sri Lanka could yet build a state that respects the rule of law and protects the rights of all its citizens.

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.