Viewpoint by Dr Farah Mihlar*
LONDON (IDN) – After fiercely quelling a three-decade armed conflict fought mainly on ethnic grounds, majoritarian politics in Sri Lanka has found a new enemy – the country’s nine percent Muslim community.
In the worst outbreak of violence against Muslims in recent years, Sinhalese-Buddhist mobs were on the rampage earller in March attacking people and property in the central hill capital Kandy. One Muslim was killed in the violence and dozens of Muslim owned shops and properties set ablaze. The government imposed a curfew and sent in troops, but the situation remains volatile and tensed as police are at best ineffective and at worst complicit.
These events are not religious clashes or riots as they commonly tend to be described, they are well orchestrated violent attacks by identified extremist groups from the majority Sinhala, Buddhist community. Rather than strictly enforcing the law and arresting all those responsible for the crimes they have blocked social media to supposedly prevent the violence spreading, a measure perceived as dangerous because it also impedes the reporting of incidents and can enable more atrocities. The Sri Lankan government has failed, once again, to protect the country’s citizens.
Nearly nine years after the war in Sri Lanka ended – this is the peace that has been ushered in.
These latest incidents are part of a long-drawn out project of majoritarian political violence, structurally and directly perpetrated against minorities, which has historical antecedence and enjoys state patronage in Sri Lanka. It is a project that contributed to the creation of Tamil militancy, it supported 30 years of armed conflict and stood victorious at the end of the war in 2009 with the annihilation of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), one of the world’s most dangerous terror organisations that fought for a separate state for ethnic Tamils. It ensured that allegations of violations of international laws including war crimes, were never impartially investigated and denied continuing violations against ethnic Tamils.
Hundreds of thousands of Tamils who lost loved ones, were injured or otherwise affected by the violence, and witnessed the carnage were told they had been ‘liberated from the clutches of terrorism’ and asked to forget the past and build a new future in a united Sri Lanka. Their claims for basic housing, sanitation, mental and physical wellbeing were delayed and demands for truth and justice denied.
Thriving on triumphalism the project took a new face, in the absence of an ethnic conflict it churned out a religious one. Not long after the war ended Buddhist extremists started attacking Muslims and evangelical Christians who also became targets of widespread hate campaigns that quickly spread on social media. At the root of the campaigns against Muslims are claims that they are trying to take over the country through increasing their population and economic prowess.
These are enforced by ludicrous suggestions, such as, that Muslim businesses are planting substances in food and clothing to reduce fertility of Buddhist women. Muslim owned clothing chains and eateries have been violently attacked in a series of events since 2010. Evangelical Christians were accused of forcibly converting Buddhists. The then government, who were kingpins of majoritarianism, did little to condemn or stop the violence and senior politicians openly supported Buddhist extremist leaders.
Then in 2015, the unthinkable happened – majoritarian politics was defeated, largely on the vote of minorities; a new President and later a new government was elected on a platform for change. In its first year the new government promised a series of post-conflict reforms; truth seeking and justice measures to provide accountability and redress to war affected people, and a brand-new constitution aimed at dealing with ethnic grievances at the root of the conflict. Yet, it didn’t take long for the project of majoritarian political violence to surreptitiously wield its power again.
President Maithripala Sirisena and his government, paralysed by fear of a majoritarian backlash marginalised the minorities who voted them in, and failed to deliver on post-conflict reform. For their lack of political will, indecisiveness and alienation of the electorate (partly by not explaining the need for reforms, not cracking down on corruption and not meeting people’s basic economic needs) they paid a huge price losing significantly in the recently concluded local government elections.
The victors, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his party, have a reputation of minority oppression and supporting Sinhalese Buddhist violence. The current wave of attacks against Muslims, in this political reality, has serious implications because it is intricately connected with the post-election political dynamics; Rajapaksa champions Buddhist extremist violence and Sirisena bows to it for fear of further losing the majority electorate.
Majoritarian politics in Sri Lanka is based on the ideology that Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese Buddhist state and Sinhalese Buddhist being the majority ethnic and religious group have to dominate in all spheres of life. Minorities can live in the country, enjoy some rights (not to truth seeking and justice) and freedoms (not to build too many mosques and have halal products) but can never be considered equal.
Through the repetitive negotiating process between the representative of majoritarian politics and the more moderate Sinhalese, spaces have opened up enabling Tamils and Muslims to make their mark in political, economic and social spheres, but they are generally defenceless in the face of violent majoritarian politics. Even those at the most influential levels of politics and economics have not been able to stand against state led or supported attacks against minorities.
The military-monk-government nexus stands at the realm of this project. The country’s Buddhist religious leadership have openly sided with the military when the latter has faced allegations of committing serious crimes. The law enforcement agencies revere and protect the Buddhist clergy, refusing to arrest even those who resort to violence. The government comes under pressure by both groups to protect the other and fearing their influence, generally obliges. In cahoots with each other, violence triumphs.
But structures and processes are only part of the picture and leave unanswered questions. How can one of South Asia’s most educated populations believe that contraception can be planted in food and clothes to affect population growth? Why do monks who are part of a belief system that is fundamentally based on non-violence and peace stay silent as violence is perpetrated in the name of Buddhism? Why are there so few voices amongst moderate Sinhala Buddhist leaders condemning these incidents?
Majoritarianism and chauvinism has become entrenched amongst most Sri Lankans, if not hatred then suspicion of minorities is spreading and violence has become normalised. Whilst this is primarily seen as a project amongst Sinhalese Buddhist, it is also experienced amongst Tamils where they are the majority. Again, the enemy are the Muslims. I have found evidence of this and personally experienced it during my research in Sri Lanka in the last year and half.
I sat through interviews where Buddhist monks spat hate at Muslims and heard Tamil nationalist leaders accusing Muslims of being dishonest and untrustworthy. While it is laudable that some Tamil groups have issued statements in solidarity with Muslims, there is no larger effort from within their community to address the anger and hate directed at Muslims in the north of Sri Lanka. This is not to say Muslims are faultless or helpless victims under attack from both side.
They have their own politics; aggressive at times and their religious leaders, though successful in preventing retaliatory attacks, encourage strands of Islamic extremism and publicly advocate for the suppression of women. These factors do not help their reputation, though they are not comparable, as violent extremism did not help Tamils, but in the end none of these justify the project of majoritarian political violence.
I remember when I first came to the UK struggling to adjust to the lack of religious awareness in public spaces. In the protected, middle class context I grew up in as a Muslim I had a wonderful experience studying in an Anglican school and, much to my parent’s annoyance, learning Buddhist chanting from my friends.
I remember the great sense of nostalgia for the religious awareness and sensitivity we had in Sri Lanka, where pork was never offered to me and fasting during Ramadhan was respected. No doubt conflicts damage the various different layers of social fabric and Sri Lanka’s post-conflict context is marked by ethnic, religious, caste divides that is resulting in tension and violence.
This is why Sri Lanka needs a new vision for peace, one that challenges the structural causes of conflict such as majoritarianism and minority rights violations; one that ends impunity and strengthens the rule of law and one that is built on justice. This farcical effort at trying to achieve peace without opening up and dealing with the wounds of the war, without searching for truth and accountability, without prosecuting those responsible for crimes, be it military or religious leaders, is a sham that the people of Sri Lanka must stand against and the international community must stop blindly supporting.
The UN, EU and influential foreign governments have for too long tacitly supported this degenerating situation, they should now increase pressure on the government to deliver and rather than stamp their own agendas support the country to genuinely build peace.
The country needs a serious rethink of what type of peace it wants and to be able to do this all communities need to engage in a process of reconciliation where they challenge their narratives of identity, victimhood and their relationship to conflict and justice. For there to be positive peace, there has to be justice and equality for all, not just the majority community.
The country’s political leadership have to provide the inspiration and political will needed for this crucial transformation. They need to redefine majoritarian politics to reflect the true non-violent spirit of Buddhism and ensure equality and justice for all. As the events this week have shown, shying away from this and so letting the project of majoritarian political violence continue unabated will undoubtedly lead to more bloodshed, something Sri Lanka has already seen far too much off.
*Dr Farah Mihlar is a British/Sri Lankan academic and human rights activist. After having spent the last year and a half living and working in war affected northern Sri Lanka, in January 2018, she moved to Exeter where she teaches a course on post-conflict human rights and transitional justice at the University. Farah has over a decade experience researching and campaigning on human rights and has published reports based on field research in Pakistan, Kenya, Israel and Sri Lanka. She has worked for a number of acclaimed international organisations including; the International Crisis Group (ICG), Minority Rights Group International (MRG), UNDP and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Her PhD was on the politicisation of Islam in a minority context and was based on the case of Muslims in Sri Lanka. [IDN-InDepthNews – 10 March 2018]
Related IDN article: The Timing of ‘Communal’ Violence in Sri Lanka Raises Questions
Photo: In the worst outbreak of violence against Muslims in recent years, mobs were on the rampage earller in March attacking people and property in the central hill capital Kandy. Picture shows the Kandyan terrain as viewed in 2013. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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