The outcome of the presidential election of January 2015 created expectations of change, hope and reform among considerable sections of Sri Lankan society. For Muslim communities, who played a pivotal role in the election, the change in Government was willed into being in part due to the insecurity and violence suffered by Muslims particularly in the South of the country over the last two years. As indicated by the compilation of incidents carried out by the Secretariat for Muslims (SFM) from 2013 onwards, Muslims faced a hate campaign that has resulted in violence and tension, including damages to mosques and private properties, harassment and injuries to individuals and even deaths. This campaign that was carried out through a variety of methods, including direct violence, demonstrations, speeches, social media and the mainstream media had multiple impacts not just for Muslim communities but the country at large, raising serious concerns relating to the equality before the law, the lack of law enforcement, impunity and national identity. Above all it questioned the commitment of the then Government to both arrest the violence and perpetrators of the hate campaign such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), and deal with the underlying culture of hate. The hate campaign played a significant role in mobilizing the Muslim community, including many of the Muslim members in Parliament, to vote for Maithripala Sirisena, in the expectation that his Government would bring about positive change. The election of January 8th created a palpable sense of security for the Muslims, especially in flashpoint areas which had seen violence in past months and had become the focus of Sinhala Buddhist extremist groups.
Over the last four months the Government has made a number of symbolic gestures and statements as to how this new Government differentiates itself from its predecessor, not just with regards to the hate campaign but also the ethnic conflict. President Sirisena has made repeated pledges and requests for a shift in the politics of this country, including at the SLFP convention on March 17 where he stated that the SLFP was “not a Sinhala Buddhist party” and for its members not to engage in racist politics. While the Government has yet to announce frameworks for addressing critical post-war issues, it has acknowledged the need for reconciliation. At the Independence Day celebrations, the President pointed out that “the biggest challenge we face today, is that of bringing together the minds of the people of the North and South, and through a process of reconciliation bring about co-existence and national understanding.”
In addition to statements, the new Government has taken a number of measures to restore and strengthen democracy and the rule of law as promised in the ‘100-Day Plan.’ While some promises have been delayed and/or not fully implemented, of these reform processes lack transparency, have been rushed through with little or no public dialogue and participation, and represent significant compromises. Coupled with the delays and gaps between promises and implementation these developments have increased public cynicism as to whether this Government is fully committed to introducing good governance and improving the status quo.
In dealing with fundamental post-war issues of reconciliation and accountability, the new Government has signaled that it is approaching these issues through a fresh perspective, but there continues to be lack of clarity as to how these processes are moving forward, while on the ground the victims continue to find little recourse. The Government announced that some land held by the military would be released in Valikammam, Sampur and Panama, but each release has its own set of problems that have meant those attempting to return have been delayed or have not been provided the resources to rebuild their lives, homes and livelihood. As noted by SFM, there are a number of other locations of military occupation continues to hamper post-war recovery and amounts to a denial of rights.
An important development took place on May 26th when the General Secretary of the BBS, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera was arrested by the police on a court warrant. He was later released on bail but made clear that at the very least that this group would not enjoy the level of immunity that it enjoyed in the past. This has been a long standing demand of Muslim groups and civil society organizations that the State should use the systems of law and order to investigate and to prevent communal violence. Heavy police presence and action at key demonstrations at sites such as Kuragala/Jeylani in the last few months, also minimized or even thwarted violence, highlighting the importance that the restoration of the rule of law is to enjoying peace, security and stability, whereas during the past administration there were serious concerns about the inaction or even complicity of State actors in the lead up to and during violence. The Government reinstated the past practice of permitting the national anthem to be sung in either Sinhala or Tamil.
As this compilation of incidents of hate speech and actions against Muslims that have been documented in the mainstream and social media, make clear this period from January to April 2015 has seen a continuation of incidents. This reinforces concerns that even though there has been a change in Government the actors involved in these acts of hate are still at large and the culture of hate and violence that was unleashed has not completely receded. In total there have been 37 incidents in the first four months of 2015. This is a decline in the total number of incidents as compared to the last four months of 2014 (48). Jeylani/Kuragala Mosque has become a critical site of dispute in the last few months, with some of the key Sinhala Buddhist extremist groups such as BBS and Sihala Ravaya organizing protests and making ultimatums regarding the site. The latter group also threatened to commit mass suicide if Muslims are not evacuated from Kuragala. This location is currently a protected archeological site and is shared by Muslims and Buddhists. That the BBS is incriminated in approximately one third of the incidents between January and April (13) makes clear the threat the group continues to pose.
The political context remains highly charged and dynamic, with the stability of this current government also being uncertain. The use of a flag depicting the lion from the national flag without the stripes for the minorities at a rally outside the Bribery Commission by key members of UPFA and the SLFP on April 23 represented flagrant disrespect of the Constitution but also demonstrated the willingness of those supporting the Rajapaksas to use divisive communal politics to mobilize support.
Figures in the Government and in civil society condemned this act, and an apology was later extended by some of the high profile protestors for using the flag but it once more highlights questions of the very identity of post-war Sri Lanka and the place of minorities. These mainstream politicians appear to be echoing sentiments expressed by groups such as the BBS and Sihala Ravaya who have highlighted the exclusive claim of Sinhala Buddhist to the island. In February one group, Sinhala Jathika Peramuna publicly claimed that Sri Lanka “does not belong to Sri Lankans, but to the Sinhalese.”
At the Independence Day celebrations this year the new Government presented a Pledge for Peace that highlighted key goals: With the coming general election, there are concerns that both during the election and possibly its outcome could create a context for a re-launching of a hate campaign and even violence against minorities. The campaign to seek new positions of power for the defeated and previous President Rajapaksa has seen increasingly racist undertones, particularly focusing on the Tamil community.
“On this solemn occasion we pledge to adopt consensual approaches through democratic means, to advance national interest, national reconciliation, justice and equality for all citizens. We shall do this in a spirit of tolerance, accommodation and compromise and uphold the unity and territorial integrity of the nation for the progress and development of our pluralistic society.”
From May to July the country recorded a number of anniversaries of mass violence, not all of which are officially commemorated. The sixth anniversary of the end of the war, the thirty second year since Black July along with the century commemoration of the 1915 Riots in May and the one year anniversary of the Aluthgama Violence should serve as reminder of the urgent need for introspection as to how to move forward by tackling fear, distrust, and hate, in order to create, as highlighted in the pledge, an acceptance of values of democracy, justice, peace and pluralism.
Full report with references-Incidents_Jan-April_2015