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.
Homagama magistrate 14 June sentenced militant monk and head of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara to six months’ imprisonment, following his 24 May conviction for criminal intimidation for courtroom threats against Sinhalese woman searching for her missing journalist husband. Rare punishment of a Buddhist monk for actions involving hardline nationalist agenda provoked outrage and political mobilisation by Buddhist nationalists and senior monks; public protests held across country 18 June. None of those arrested for alleged involvement in early March anti-Muslim rioting yet to be indicted. With growing prospect of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential candidacy, outgoing U.S. Ambassador Athul Keshap reportedly told former President Mahinda Rajapaksa 10 June that U.S. and international community would disapprove of a Gotabaya presidency; also reportedly said that given ongoing legal cases against Gotabaya, U.S. could not approve any request to formally renounce his U.S. citizenship (19th constitutional amendment bars dual citizens from contesting elected office). Senior Buddhist monk was widely condemned for calling on Gotabaya Rajapaksa to “be a Hitler, go with the military and take the leadership of this country”, in sermon delivered at 20 June birthday celebration for Rajapaksa, who did not reject comparison despite widespread criticism of remarks. Mahinda Rajapaksa 22 June opined the Sinhala “race” was “nearing extinction”, echoing nationalists’ fears of declining Sinhala Buddhist population, despite official census data indicating otherwise. Rajapaksa-led joint opposition and other Sinhala nationalists welcomed U.S.’s 19 June withdrawal from UN Human Rights Council, noting that U.S. criticism of council for its “political bias” and “hypocrisy” matched their own longstanding claims. U.S. embassy 21 June announced U.S. “continues to extend its support to Sri Lanka to fulfil these important commitments and obligations as articulated and reaffirmed in these [UN refugee agency] resolutions”.
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.
It is particularly damaging that the reasons the U.S. Government gave for leaving the Human Rights Council – for being hypocritical and biased, echo so closely criticisms that the previous Sri Lankan Government and many Lankan politicians in opposition and in the current Government have made about the Council’s engagement with and resolutions on Sri Lanka. The U.S. withdrawal will have lasting damage and will strengthen governments and politicians across the globe who prefer to be left to their own devices, even when this involves violating the fundamental rights of their own citizens.
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.
Crisis Group’s first update to our Watch List 2018 includes entries on Burundi’s dangerous referendum, militant Buddhists and anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka, the impact of the Venezuelan crisis on the region, and the situation in Yemen. This annual early-warning report identifies conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.
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