Sri Lankan politics are increasingly volatile. The government is reluctant to address the legacy of civil war and authoritarian rule. Inter-ethnic relations remain fragile, with Sinhala majoritarianism resisting any accommodation of Tamil political claims and militant Buddhist groups’ campaign of violence and hate speech against Muslims posing a considerable threat to the country’s stability. Building on Crisis Group’s work to address the humanitarian and human rights crises of the civil war’s last phase, we aim to strengthen communal relations among Tamils, Muslims and Buddhists, while advocating for governance reforms that are essential to lasting peace.
Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa government has initiated fundamental changes to policies on ethnic relations and the rule of law. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to continue its pressure on Colombo to strengthen rights-respecting governance while making it clear that it will not support programs which encourage political repression or discrimination.
Amid COVID-19 fears, govt measures sparked concerns over intensification of crackdown on dissent, growing anti-Muslim hate speech left unchecked, and looming constitutional crisis should parliament not reconvene before 2 June deadline. Facing pressure from govt for elections, Election Commission 20 April announced 20 June as new date of postponed parliamentary elections, despite constitution requiring parliament to sit by 2 June. President Rajapaksa refused calls to reconvene old parliament even after 27 April collective opposition promise to support govt policies to contain COVID-19 and despite 30 April expiration of govt borrowing authority. Muslims widely accused of spreading COVID-19 on social and traditional media; govt yet to challenge false accusations and hate-speech, accused of assisting biased reporting by pro-govt TV. Govt 11 April made cremation – in contravention of Islamic burial practices – compulsory for all COVID-19-related deaths despite objections from Muslim leaders and 8 April letter from four UN Special Rapporteurs calling on President Rajapaksa to follow World Health Organization guidelines. Amid fears of intensification of crackdown on dissent, Inspector General of Police (IGP) 1 April warned media institutions of legal action against those spreading “false” or “malicious” COVID-19-related messages, including criticism of govt officials; Human Rights Commission 25 April in letter to IGP criticised lack of legal grounds and discriminatory impact of arrests under new policies. Arrests of govt critics and opposition supporters continued: police 9 April arrested Muslim writer and govt critic Ramzy Razeek apparently following complaints about a 2 April Facebook post that called for “intellectual jihad” against anti-Muslim policies and hate campaigning; 13 April arrested opposition United National Party politician Ranjan Ramanayake for obstructing police duties while distributing COVID-19 relief supplies, Ramanayake 20 April released on bail; 14-15 April arrested brother of opposition All Ceylon Makkal Congress party leader, Rishad Bathiudeen, and prominent Muslim lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, for alleged involvement in 2019 Easter bombings.
The devastating ISIS-inspired attacks last Easter targeting Sri Lanka’s Christians have triggered a dangerous backlash against the country’s Muslims. Colombo urgently needs to correct the intelligence failures that led to the Easter attacks and curb discriminatory practices and policies that further harm innocent Muslim communities.
The return to power of controversial former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Sri Lanka's prime minister is unconstitutional and destabilising. International actors should make future security and economic cooperation contingent on parliament reconvening immediately to select a prime minister through legal channels.
Tamil-speaking women in Sri Lanka’s north and east pushed for accountability and truth during the country’s civil war but have been marginalised during the transitional justice process. The government and international actors must include their voices and address their injustices and difficult economic situation to ensure lasting peace.
Fragile hopes for lasting peace and cooperation across party and ethnic lines are imperilled. To avoid leaders of the corrupt and violent former regime taking back control of the country, President Sirisena’s two-year-old “unity government” should put aside short-term calculations and return to reform.
Seven years after its civil war ended, Sri Lanka’s democratic space has reopened but strains are building from a powerful opposition, institutional overlaps and a weakened economy. To make reforms a real success, the prime minister and president should cooperate with openness and redouble efforts to tackle legacies of war like impunity, Tamil detainees and military-occupied land.
Sri Lanka’s 17 August parliamentary elections will test the country’s fragile democratic opening. With the hardline Sinhala nationalism of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa challenging the “good governance” agenda of the United National Party and President Sirisena, the outcome will affect chances for reconciliation and lasting resolution of the country’s long-running conflicts.
The president has tried to weaken [Sri Lanka's Prime Minister] in many ways, including taking the police under his control. So it's entirely possible that the police wouldn't share information with ministers not aligned with the president.
It is particularly damaging that the reasons the U.S. Government gave for leaving the Human Rights Council – for being hypocritical and biased, echo so closely criticisms that the previous Sri Lankan Government and many Lankan politicians in opposition and in the current Government have made about the Council’s engagement with and resolutions on Sri Lanka. The U.S. withdrawal will have lasting damage and will strengthen governments and politicians across the globe who prefer to be left to their own devices, even when this involves violating the fundamental rights of their own citizens.
There is good reason to believe [the Sinhala Buddhists attacks in Sri Lanka] are partly designed to provoke a Muslim response, which would then justify more violence against Muslims.
Many Sinhalese and Buddhists have [the sense] that Sri Lanka [is a] Sinhala and Buddhist island, and [that] other communities are here on the sufferance of the majority.
The [Sri Lankan] government will need to figure out how to come together. They need to go back to the drawing board and return to their fundamental principles and start to deliver.
[Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa] has a strong core constituency and a good set of issues, whereas the government has to pull together a range of minority constituents.
The lethal Easter bombings in Sri Lanka have stunned a country still recovering from decades of internal war. Political and religious leaders alike should reject the rhetoric of collective blame and reaffirm the island’s strained but living tradition of intercommunal amity.
Crisis Group’s first update to our Watch List 2018 includes entries on Burundi’s dangerous referendum, militant Buddhists and anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka, the impact of the Venezuelan crisis on the region, and the situation in Yemen. This annual early-warning report identifies conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.
An upsurge of attacks against Muslims by Sinhala Buddhist militants in Sri Lanka has raised fears of a new round of communal violence. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Senior Analyst Alan Keenan says the government needs to act urgently to prevent the violence from spinning out of control, by enforcing laws against hate speech and arresting and prosecuting those involved in organising the violence.