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.
Country rocked by worst outbreak of anti-Muslim violence since 2014 in several small towns in central Kandy district 4-8 March, which began when Sinhala crowds attacked Muslim shops and houses following death of Sinhala man beaten by four Muslim men ten days earlier. Scores of Muslim businesses and houses burned or badly damaged, over two dozen mosques attacked. Large crowds of militant Buddhist activists, including prominent militant leaders and many from outside district, gathered 5 March to demand release of those arrested for previous day’s violence. Widespread attacks on Muslim shops, houses and places of worship followed 5-6 March, prompting President Sirisena to declare state of emergency until 17 March. Despite curfews and deployment of thousands of military personnel, violence continued until 8 March; police eventually arrested more than 200 suspected of planning and participating in violence, including apparent Mahasohon Balakaya leader. Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, EU, U.S. and UN issued statements condemning violence and urging govt to hold perpetrators accountable. Govt imposed unprecedented restrictions on social media 7 March in response to its use in organising violence, blocking Facebook and WhatsApp; ban widely criticised for harming small businesses while failing to stop hate speech. Govt criticised for response to violence, particularly PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, temporarily serving as law and order minister; and Sirisena, who visited Kandy to meet religious leaders but not victims. No-confidence vote in parliament against PM originally scheduled for first week of March, postponed to early April. Cabinet 13 March approved PM’s proposal to establish office of reparations to compensate those affected by war-related crimes and damages, meaning bill will now be drafted. PM agreed 27 March to withdraw draft amendments to Voluntary Social Service Organisations Act that would have severely restricted independence of NGOs and civil society organisations.
Tamil-speaking women in Sri Lanka’s north and east pushed for accountability and truth during the country’s civil war but have been marginalised during the transitional justice process. The government and international actors must include their voices and address their injustices and difficult economic situation to ensure lasting peace.
Fragile hopes for lasting peace and cooperation across party and ethnic lines are imperilled. To avoid leaders of the corrupt and violent former regime taking back control of the country, President Sirisena’s two-year-old “unity government” should put aside short-term calculations and return to reform.
Seven years after its civil war ended, Sri Lanka’s democratic space has reopened but strains are building from a powerful opposition, institutional overlaps and a weakened economy. To make reforms a real success, the prime minister and president should cooperate with openness and redouble efforts to tackle legacies of war like impunity, Tamil detainees and military-occupied land.
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.
Sri Lanka’s upcoming presidential election promises more competition than was initially anticipated. But with that comes a great risk of violence. Long-term stability and post-war reconciliation can only be achieved through a peaceful election resulting in a government committed to serving the interests of all Sri Lankans.
Despite recent moves meant to show progress towards post-war reconciliation and respect for human rights, Sri Lanka’s government has not altered the authoritarian direction of its policies, and the rights and security of all communities remain under threat.
There is good reason to believe [the Sinhala Buddhists attacks in Sri Lanka] are partly designed to provoke a Muslim response, which would then justify more violence against Muslims.
Many Sinhalese and Buddhists have [the sense] that Sri Lanka [is a] Sinhala and Buddhist island, and [that] other communities are here on the sufferance of the majority.
The [Sri Lankan] government will need to figure out how to come together. They need to go back to the drawing board and return to their fundamental principles and start to deliver.
[Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa] has a strong core constituency and a good set of issues, whereas the government has to pull together a range of minority constituents.
2017 has seen a worrisome return of violence and hate speech in Sri Lanka.
There are lots of little initiatives under way [in Sri Lanka.] But they don't add up to a coherent or effective response to the desperate situation so many women are facing in the north and east.
The bloom is off two years of hope that the rule of law can be restored for all and that a 60-year failure to grant Tamils a fair share of power, in the Sinhala majority island, can be rectified.
Originally published in The Diplomat Magazine
Originally published in Inside Story