By Jehan Perera*
The quelling of anti-Muslim violence in parts of Sri Lanka is taking longer than expected. The curfew in Kandy district, which began on March 5, is still in force. A state of emergency, which gives the government special powers and enables the military to take on police functions, has been in effect since March 6. But the threat of violence persists as sporadic attacks take place against mosques and Muslim businesses.
In a manner reminiscent of the prelude to the civil war involving the Tamil rebel movement, the sentiment among sections of the Sinhalese ethnic majority is that Muslims have become a threat to their own security. That war, from 1983 to 2009, devastated the north and east of the country and set back the economy by decades, allowing countries that had once been far behind Sri Lanka to forge ahead in the race for economic development.
Social scientists have for long noted that the Sinhalese ethnic majority (75 percent) sees itself as an insecure and vulnerable minority in the larger South Asian region. They see the Tamils as extending to the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home to 80 million Tamils, and the Muslims as having access to the sympathies and support of the entire Islamic world. By contrast, the Sinhalese are only 15 million and confined to Sri Lanka.
A tragic feature of Sri Lankan history has been the exploitation of Sinhalese fears by politicians eager to win the votes of the ethnic majority as the certain way to political power. The arch proponent of Sinhalese nationalism and the fanning of Sinhalese fears is former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose newly formed Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP) trounced the government parties led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last month.
At the tail end of Rajapaksa’s period at the country’s helm, a serious anti-Muslim riot broke out in Aluthgama in 2014 that claimed four lives and destroyed many Muslim businesses and houses. This was accompanied by a vicious campaign on social media that portrayed Muslims as plotting to take control of the country with the help of global Islam.
The immediate cause of the latest violence was a rumor about birth control pills being served in a Muslim restaurant in the eastern town of Ampara to unsuspecting Sinhalese customers. This fed into Sinhalese fears of a conspiracy on the part of the Muslim community to reduce the Sinhalese population and to emerge as the largest one. This is an impossibility as the Sinhalese are 75 percent of the population while the Muslims are only 10 percent.
But social media makes the impossible seem real. In addition to declaring a state of emergency, the government has also clamped down on Facebook and other social media to stop the spread of disinformation.
The eruption of anti-Muslim violence in Ampara and its spread to Kandy, where a Sinhalese was killed by Muslims, has dealt a big blow to post-war reconciliation in a country that the international community has been supporting. The instigated violence threatens to pit community against community. This can only mean a downward spiral in which mob attacks by one community will see mob attacks by the other. It looks like Sri Lankans are being pushed into a new civil war.
In this context, the declaration of a state of emergency for a limited time can be taken as a positive signal that the government is serious about putting an end to mob action that is threatening the lives and property of a substantial section of the people. Unlike in the past, this declaration is widely seen as a necessity to ensure that innocent people are not attacked by rampaging mobs. There is no doubt that the vast majority of people do not want to see lawless mobs attack people and their properties. The most immediate need is to ensure that the rule of law prevails and that impunity for crimes will not be tolerated.
In the longer term, there is a need for trust building and community awareness programs. The government has a duty to reassure Muslim people that they are equally deserving of the protection of the state and will receive it. Government leaders must come out and talk to the people and reassure them. They must act and speak publicly and take the people with them. Over the past few years, there has been a deliberate and purposeful build-up of tension that is being done for political reasons. This has to be undone by enlightened leaders.
In addition, unregulated social media are spreading falsehoods that need to be professionally countered by those who value truth more than taking sides in an inter-community conflict. Civil society has its own role to play by educating people. Sri Lanka is still in a post-war phase in which the wounds and traumas of the past three decades of violence and war have still not been healed. Until the national political leadership takes firm and determined action, there is an increasing likelihood of Sri Lanka entering a new cycle of communal violence that will become uncontrollable.
It is to be hoped that this crisis will also convince government leaders that they need to work together rather than against each other. Recent months have seen the two main parties that form the government alliance at loggerheads. This was partly the reason why they fared so poorly at local government elections. But now they can see that everything they fought together to come to power in 2015 being threatened, and the peace of the country being threatened too. If they work together, they can create a new political culture in which all sections of the population feel a sense of belonging and security.
*Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. He is also a regular columnist for national newspapers. He has a doctor of law degree from Harvard University.