The unrest being witnessed in Sri Lanka is not surprising and is nothing new
A countrywide state of emergency has been called in Sri Lanka to stop the attacks on Muslims. Buddhist mobs have started setting homes and businesses aflame, which recently culminated in a young Muslim being killed — the riots followed the death of a Sinhalese truck driver.
The current unrest is telling of the riots that took place four years ago — since then, there has been growing anxiety between the two communities.
To that end, it is natural to ask the following question: What does this state of emergency entail for human rights?
Sri Lanka has a troubled past with the concept of a state of emergency. It had a state of emergency declared for a very long time while a civil war raged on its land, and it stayed even after the war came to an end. Which is why it is often looked upon with suspicion, at least in Colombo.
Leaders and government officials have exploited the state of emergency in the past to violate human rights. We have news stating how social media platforms are being blocked in Sri Lanka — a clear indication of a government agenda to not only focus on the perpetrators on the streets but also to look at wider opposition.
This is the start of something dangerous.
Contextualizing communal violence
We have to try and understand why Sri Lanka is experiencing ethno-religious violence under the new government — a government which is perceived as being minority-friendly — which has been in power since 2015.
Unlike many other regions of the world where communal violence is a frequent eruption, Sri Lanka’s current unrest lies almost exclusively at the feet of the nation’s civil society
A simple answer to the latest bout of violence in Sri Lanka is impunity. There were 200 incidences of violence in 2013, and another 200 in 2014 — these incidents reduced in number in 2015 and 2016, but what the new government has failed to do was bring the perpetrators to book, and there was a culture of impunity that the government, hence, played a part in extending.
The consequences of that impunity is what Sri Lanka is witnessing today.
Law enforcement officials are trapped in a complicated situation that goes beyond the government itself. It is about what Sri Lankans, particularly Sinhala Buddhists, believe: The country belongs to them. It is something that transpires in their constitution as well, which guarantees the nation to Buddhism — an entitlement almost enshrined in law.
Sri Lanka has an entitlement complex and possesses the ability to exercise it through state structure. And their law enforcement, unfortunately, is part of that state structure.
Where are the voices of reason?
It is important to acknowledge that there’s been a strategic failure on the part of Sri Lanka’s civil society as well as its unwillingness to place any semblance of accountability on the part of their government post-war.
And it has cost the nation dearly.
Unlike many other regions of the world where communal violence is a frequent eruption, Sri Lanka’s current unrest lies almost exclusively at the feet of the nation’s civil society. In most other parts of the world, analysts can point fingers at inner factions of the government or the opposition, or communities that may have caused similar communal violence — but Sri Lanka is different.
The second concern is one of political solutions.
What the current conflict and mob attacks indicate is a threat to all minority groups within the region — it indicates that the Sinhala Buddhists (the majority) are singling their dominance in terms of the entitlement over the region.
Moreover, the dominance and power of the Buddhist clergy is not to be intervened or interfered with — and the moment a minority group demonstrates economic success like Sri Lanka’s Muslim community has, the ensuing struggle for autonomy opens a can of worms which leads to violence.
And in Sri Lanka, there is a tendency for that sort of violence to be used to reinforce the majority’s dominance.
Md Sharif Hasan is a commentator on international politics and is currently working as a field researcher on behalf of the Centre for Genocide Studies (CGS), University of Dhaka.