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Srilanka’s state of emergency: not a result of a day’s incident

Context:

  • Sri Lanka has declared a state of emergency for ten days to rein in the spread of communal violence between majority Sinhala and minority Muslims in Kandy district that left two persons dead and left a trail of destruction.

The state of emergency is not a result of a day’s incident, instead communal differences took its roots years before:  

Demography:

  • Sri Lanka has Buddhists in majority, numbering over 70 percent as per the 2011 census, while Muslims number about 10 percent.
  • Muslims are concentrated in about four districts, accounting for between 40-30 percent of the population in those districts.
  • Nowhere are they a majority, unlike the Tamils who dominate in the north and have a significant presence in the east.
  • The Tamils however, numbered only a little over 11 percent, and waged a war for over three decades.

Rise of communal difference:

  • Muslims and Buddhists have lived in harmony for decades but have begun clashing in periodic incidents over the last few years.
  • A religious divide has especially taken hold in recent years, with Sinhalese groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert and destroying sacred Buddhist sites.
  • It is further escalated by fear mongering and unchecked spread of rumours.
  • A report attributed clashes in Ampara town of central Sri Lanka to a rumour that Muslim-owned eateries were adding chemicals to food being eaten by Buddhist customers to make them impotent.
  • This rumour, when taken in the context of Muslims’ birth rate being greater than Buddhist birth rates, made many fear about Sri Lanka being on its way to becoming a Muslim-majority country.

Rohingya refugee:

  • Around mid-2017, Rohingya refugees began arriving in Sri Lanka, fleeing persecution in their native Myanmar.
  • As a result, Buddhist began a campaign against the arrival of Rohingya in Colombo.

Monk’s attack on a UN-maintained safehouse for Rohingya:

  • In September 2017, a monk led an attack on a UN-maintained safehouse for Rohingya in Colombo.
  • But Rohingya had been staying in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka with the Colombo government’s approval and UNHCR was providing assistance “until longer-term solutions can be found.”
  • The group that attacked the safehouse alleged that Rohingya were arriving in Sri Lanka having killed Buddhists in Myanmar.
  • Witnesses said the monks stormed into the safe house chanting, “Rohingyas are terrorists”, and accusing them of having killed Buddhist monks in Myanmar.
  • This led to clashes on the streets of Gintota in Galle.
  • The clashes prompted the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to call the situation “alarming”.

Present scenario:

  • The present violence seems to have started after a Sinhalese truck driver was beaten to death by a group of Muslims, probably in an incident of road rage at a suburb of Kandy.
  • The matter was reportedly settled cordially with the intervention of local leaders from both communities.
  • However, a mob from the majority community thereafter indulged in a violence, burning houses and shops of Muslims in Digana town.
  • The presence of two hard-line Buddhist leaders allegedly fanned the fires of hatred, so easily inflamed in a country that has seen a generation born in violence.

The high-voltage communal tension between majority Sinhala and minority Muslims in Srilanka is more about politics and less about religion:

There is serious trouble when politics meets competitive religious divides.

Vote bank politics:

  • Rajapaksa attributed his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramunna party (SLPP) win to his opposition’s sale of “national assets” to the Chinese, and among other things the rising cost of living.
  • But it is to be noted that his own government in past contributed much in Chinese imperialism.
  • Also, former President Rajpaksa wants to come to power into by reconciling majority which is proven by the results of the recent local poll winning 231 of 340 local councils.
  • Following the present violence, his popularity will only rise further.

Sinhala -Muslim clashes operating with impunity:

  • Media and analytical reports indicate rising Sinhala -Muslim clashes, with leaders of Sinhala mobs operating with impunity.
  • Persons like Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, general secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) allege that the Muslims, despite being in the minority, have powerful friends from outside the country, a thinly veiled reference to international terrorist groups.

Srilankan inhabitants joining the Islamic terror groups:

  • Mohamed Muhsin Sharfaz Nilam a resident of Kandy, was one of the first to die under the banner of the Islamic State.
  • Educated in Islamic doctrines in Pakistan, he left with his entire family including six children and his parents for Syria.
  • It later emerged that he was leading a fight with 16 Sri Lankans.
  • Thereafter, the government claimed that another 32 Sri Lankans from well established families had joined the Islamic State.
  • These incidents are resut of deliberate governmnet negligence. 
  • Such absconding from one’s country should not be kept only in records just for the sake of doing so instead strict restrictions should be formulated.

Way ahead: International response:

  • United States: The United States responded to a question on blocking of social media saying that freedom of expression and access to information as a key component of democratic governance should be valued.
  • The US Embassy in Colombo said it is important that the Government of Sri Lanka act quickly against perpetrators of sectarian violence, protect religious minorities and their places of worship, and conclude the state of Emergency swiftly, while protecting human rights and basic freedoms for all.
  • Canada: The Canadian government urged all sides to engage in inclusive dialogue and exercise restraint to ensure peace and stability.
  • China: China urged the Sri Lankan government to take measures to ensure the security of its nationals in view of the communal clashes between the Buddhists and Muslims.
  • India: Sri Lanka occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of Indians.
  • India’s emergency relief assistance is a manifestation of its abiding friendship.
  • India will continue to work closely with the Government of Sri Lanka to address longer term rehabilitation needs of the affected people as part of its development partnership with Sri Lanka.
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