Buddhist Anger Could Tear Sri Lanka Apart

Old hatreds are coming out in the aftermath of the Easter bombings.

People gather near a damaged shop after a mob attack in Minuwangoda on May 14, 2019, north of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo.
People gather near a damaged shop after a mob attack in Minuwangoda on May 14, 2019, north of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Image

The Easter bombings in Sri Lanka last month were a massive human tragedy for a country that has already experienced too much violence. Prior to the attacks on Christian churches and luxury hotels, Sri Lanka was already a deeply divided nation. The bombings and their aftermath have worsened long-standing problems and may lead to a bleak future of communal clashes, instability, greater fracturing of society, and even more loss of life.

The government’s civil war against the separatist Tamil Tigers ended on May 18, 2009. Ten years on, the Sri Lankan state, which is dominated by ethnic Sinhalese, is proving yet again that it cannot protect minority rights, and that the state is too often complicit with the Sinhalese Buddhist majority against minorities such as the mostly Hindu Tamils, who make up about 12 percent of the population, and Muslims. The root causes of the country’s long-standing ethnic conflict have been ignored for far too long. Now, with Islamic terrorism arriving on the scene with the Easter attacks, attacks against Muslims—already targeted by militant Buddhist groups in recent times—are likely to continue.

About a week ago, the country experienced its most violent 24-hour period since the Easter bombings. Mosques, Muslim-owned business, and the homes of Muslims were attacked in various areas, especially in the North Western province. One death was reported. Sri Lanka’s pogrom-filled history means that a very dark period could get even darker.

The attacks shouldn’t simply be viewed as direct retaliations for the bombings. The violence follows some previous patterns. Plenty of it is likely driven by opportunism, past prejudices among Sinhalese Buddhists that Muslims are economically better off, and the desire, as one Muslim human rights activist recently told me via email, “to teach Muslims a lesson.” This would also explain the pattern of state security personnel failing to act decisively on warnings of mob violence and not allocating adequate forces to control the mobs.

Like past riots and pogroms, credible reports of state complicity in the violence emerged on May 14, a day after the anti-Muslim attacks. Later reporting on the ground noted that “affected people alleged that the authorities were doing little to disperse crowds when the mobs continued with the attacks going from village to village.”

Speaking to me by phone on May 15, a Colombo-based human rights lawyer told me it’s commonly believed that security personnel have been involved. Even if the rioting wasn’t clearly organized by government actors, community members have been sent yet another message that the state is not willing to protect the rights of minorities.

The country’s political situation has been in flux in recent years. President Maithripala Sirisena’s unexpected electoral defeat of the increasingly authoritarian Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2015 ushered in a wave of optimism. Rajapaksa, who ruled from 2005 to 2015, oversaw the end of a three-decade civil war, but the fighting ended with massive Tamil civilian casualties. His administration also became increasingly corrupt and authoritarian. On the campaign trail, Sirisena offered a different and less authoritarian brand of governance.

Sirisena’s ascension was made possible by a diverse coalition. A formal coalition government in 2015 brought together the nation’s two biggest political parties, which have historically been rivals: the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party. Yet the administration performed horribly and—following a massive political crisis late last year—is no longer in existence. Even worse, the prospect of the former president’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa winning a presidential victory is looking increasingly likely: He declared his candidacy on April 26, five days after the bombings.

If he were to become president—a vote is expected later this year—that would augur the recommencement of the Rajapaksa agenda. Increased nepotism and heightened authoritarianism would almost certainly follow. Human rights activists, the media, and broader elements of civil society would face greater scrutiny. The situation for numerical minorities—especially Tamils and Muslims—would be dire.

Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has long been used as a source of political mobilization in Sri Lanka. This dogma espouses the notion that Sri Lanka is a country for Sinhalese Buddhists and that others are inferior, or worse. This toxic brand of nationalism has been used—including by Buddhist monks—to promote discrimination, hate, and violence. Tamils have suffered immensely, though Muslims have been hurt too.

There have been several anti-Muslim riots over the years, with the first dating as far back as 1915. But in the recent postwar era, violence against Muslims has become a growing problem, with riots in 2014 and 2018. Created in 2012, the Bodu Bala Sena promotes a fervent brand of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and a clear hatred toward Muslims. This dangerous and deeply intolerant group has used conspiracy theories and hate speech to denigrate the Muslim community (and others) and foment violence. Many people think of Buddhism as a peaceful and tolerant religion. Unfortunately, in places like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, the reality is far more complicated.

During Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure, it was widely believed that extremist groups like the Bodu Bala Sena had support at the highest levels of political power—particularly from Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who served as secretary to the Ministry of Defense in his brother’s administration. With Islamic terrorism now a national security issue, anti-Muslim bigotry—and violence—is likely to grow. Security concerns will be used as cover for prejudice and authoritarianism. Restrictions on mainstream media, social media platforms, and speech could become more common.

Ten years after the country’s military defeated the Tamil Tigers, the lack of accountability for wartime abuses—including alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity—remains a wound at the heart of Tamil society. Nor has the state shown any sign of properly addressing other core Tamil grievances, including the crafting of a reasonable power-sharing arrangement and other issues pertaining to land and language. Large parts of the country are still very militarized. In the historically Tamil Northern and Eastern provinces, the military remains involved in a range of civilian affairs such as agriculture, education, and tourism. The history of failing to hold perpetrators to account fuels ongoing human rights violations and perpetuates more impunity.

That is likely to continue. Arresting and prosecuting the perpetrators—all of them—associated with the recent anti-Muslim violence would be substantively and symbolically significant. Yet it’s very hard to see how there could be a proper accountability process for participants in these attacks.

The Easter bombings have further weakened the fabric of Sri Lankan society. Islamic terrorism has been added to a cauldron of ethnic and religious tension. A complex and diverse nation is creating new divisions and likely worsening long-standing ones. If the government doesn’t demonstrate that perpetrators of anti-minority violence will be held accountable, more violence—perhaps on an even greater scale—is inevitable.

Taylor Dibbert is an Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.

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