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Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Senior leader Sampanthan reminds Sirisena theTamils “unstinted support” to him in 2015.
Reminding President Maithripala Sirisena of the “unstinted support” that Tamils extended to him in 2015, senior Tamil politician and Leader of Opposition R. Sampanthan on Monday urged him to “rise as a statesman” and resolve Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem.
“We want a statesman to rise in this country who can say, ‘I resolved the country’s national question and we think you can do it, we think you should do it and it is our expectation that it will be done,” he said, speaking at an event in Jaffna, where he shared the stage with Mr. Sirisena.
The veteran Tamil leader’s remarks come at a time when Mr. Sirisena’s national unity government is dealing with a major blow in the island-wide local government elections held in early February.
The Colombo government also faces severe criticism from the Tamils for its delayed efforts in fulfilling promises President Sirisena made in 2015, in regard to war-time accountability and reconciliation. Political observers have said the government, fragile and significantly weakened after the polls, is unlikely to address concerns of the Tamils.
Referring to the crucial minority vote in 2015, which propelled Mr. Sirisena’s alliance to victory, Mr. Sampanthan said the Tamil people supported him to achieve the objective of a political solution. “We know that you want to do it. I know that you want to do it. But your efforts are being stymied,” he said, adding that Mr. Sirisena must overcome the impediments and be recognised world over as a statesman who resolved the Tamil question.
President Sirisena in his address that followed said it was because he remembers and values the support extended by the Tamils that he felt indebted to the community. Pointing to political challenges that have emerged recently, he urged the people to be mindful of politicians serving their own interests and others committed to the people. “I have not betrayed the trust people have in me, I have not changed any of my principles, and I will not change them,” he said.
Time-Bound Action Plan on UN Human Rights Council Pledges Crucial
© 2013 Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters
In October 2015, the Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 30/1 by consensus in which Sri Lanka pledged to set up four transitional justice mechanisms to promote “justice, reconciliation and human rights” in the country. These included an accountability mechanism involving international judges, prosecutors, and investigators; a truth and reconciliation mechanism; an office of missing persons; and an office for reparations. Thus far only the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) has been set up – just ahead of the current session in Geneva. The high commissioner for human rights, in a report to the Council, expressed similar concerns. The Council will discuss the high commissioner’s report this week.
“The Human Rights Council needs to make it clear to the Sri Lankan government that it expects it to stop playing games and start delivering on its commitments,” said John Fisher, Geneva director. “The Sri Lankan government needs to move beyond pre-session PR and present a meaningful and concrete plan to deliver results for the victims who have been awaiting justice for far too long.”
Human Rights Watch welcomed the December action by the government to accede to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT).
Creating the Office of Missing Persons, while a positive step, is just the latest body set up in Sri Lanka to look into enforced disappearances. Reports of prior government-established commissions, some of which have been made public in recent years, have not led to accountability.
“The Office of Missing Persons now represents their last best hope to learn the fate of their loved ones,” said Fisher. “It must do its work quickly and properly. Families of the disappeared have appeared before commission after commission, and many have camped out in the open over the past year in protest of government inaction.”
The justice and accountability mechanism in the 2015 resolution is a key demand from victims and families affected by Sri Lanka’s 27-year civil war between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Both sides to the conflict, which ended in May 2009 with a decisive government victory, committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including extrajudicial killings, deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians, enforced disappearances, and torture. The government should publicly set out when this mechanism will be set up instead of hiding behind various politically expedient excuses, Human Rights Watch said.
The government has also failed to deliver on its other pledges under the 2015 resolution. A government-commissioned task force led by independent activists carried out a nationwide consultation down to the grass-roots level and delivered a detailed report on the expectations of victims and affected communities. However, the report and its recommendations have languished and it is unclear whether the government will take them into account in either the Office of Missing Persons or the other transitional justice mechanisms.
Another key outstanding pledge, namely security sector reform including the repeal of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), also remains unfulfilled. Sri Lanka has a long history of abuses by security forces, both during and after the civil war. The security forces have long used the PTA to detain suspects for years without charge, facilitating torture and other mistreatment. The government’s claims to be working on repealing and replacing the PTA with a rights-respecting law have yet to come to fruition.
Additionally, Sri Lanka’s state of emergency laws and regulations under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) create a legal framework for abuse by the security forces in the name of national security interests. The government recently resorted to emergency rule in response to anti-Muslim riots in the Kandy district. The government was largely successful in quelling the riots, arresting dozens of people suspected of instigating and participating in the violence, but the episode highlighted the lack of action in limiting the PSO’s broad powers. The government had pledged to review these regulations under Resolution 30/1 but they still permit the authorities to detain people for up to 14 days before being produced in court.
“A lack of justice and impunity for past abuses fuels current abuses in Sri Lanka,” Fisher said. “The government’s delay in undertaking promised reforms is a slap in the face to the victims and their families who have waited for years for answers. The government should stop hiding behind politically expedient excuses and act on its pledges.”
The United States welcomes the delegation from Sri Lanka.
We welcome the Government’s decision to accept our recommendations on full implementation of HRC resolution 30/1 and on accountability for the government’s, including the security forces, human rights violations and abuses, as well as accountability for those responsible for harassment and violence against members of religious minority communities.
Although we are pleased with the Government’s support for these recommendations, we are concerned by ongoing reports of human rights violations and abuses by members of the security services, and recent attacks targeting members of religious minority communities. We urge the government to hold accountable all those responsible for human rights abuses and violations and to protect religious minorities and their places of worship. We further urge the government to take additional steps to fully implement the commitments it made in HRC resolution 30/1 and reaffirmed in HRC resolution 34/1.
We look forward to seeing Sri Lanka’s progress on implementing the UPR recommendations accepted by the government over the next five years,
U.S. Statement as Prepared for Delivery,
Human Rights Council 37th Session.
Geneva, March 19, 2018,
On March 4th, Sinhala Buddhist mobs began sweeping through Sri Lanka’s Kandy district, hurling petrol bombs at Muslim-owned houses, shops and mosques. The attacks came as a shock, as Sri Lanka has not seen violence on this scale in nearly a decade. The government deployed thousands of security forces, armed with automatic weapons, tear gas and water cannons, but they failed to stop the violence until four days later. By then, mobs had wreaked havoc in a dozen towns and destroyed 465 properties. Yet the death toll was astonishingly low: The mobs ultimately killed just one person.
What accounts for the disparity? Dozens of ordinary civilians and local leaders used a variety of innovative strategies to protect one another and prevent violence from escalating.
Paradise in tears
During Sri Lanka’s 26-year-long civil war, which ended in 2009, it was often referred to as “paradise in tears.” With pristine beaches, ancient Buddhist temples and diverse wildlife all conveniently packed into an island the size of West Virginia, the country seems like an unlikely backdrop to three decades of ethnic conflict. Since the war ended, it has become one of Asia’s top tourist destinations, but the recent violence has led many to fear that Sri Lanka could be on the brink of another war.
The situation has some parallels to Myanmar’s current Rohingya crisis: Hardliners from the majority Sinhala Buddhist population, including several monks, have engaged in a sustained propaganda campaign, using social media to spread anti-Muslim sentiments, proliferate hate speech and organize attacks. In fact, Buddhist monks organized and carried out an attack on 200 Rohingya refugees in Sri Lanka last year. But unlike in Myanmar, anti-Muslim violence is a relatively new phenomenon in Sri Lanka.
Muslims did their best to stay out of Sri Lanka’ civil war, which was fought between the Sinhala-dominated government and a separatist group from Sri Lanka’s other minority population, the Tamils. After the war ended and Tamil separatism no longer posed a threat to nationalist ideals, militant Sinhala Buddhists began to target the Muslim population instead.
Over the last five years, Sinhala Buddhist nationalists have exploited global trends in Islamophobia to bolster myths that the nine percent Muslim minority is plotting to wrest control of the country away from the Sinhala majority and transform it into an Islamic nation. Rumors suggesting that Muslims are trying to stifle Sinhala population growth have become ubiquitous. Accusations that Muslim restaurants are lacing food with pills that cause permanent infertility have motivated attacks on Muslims. They became so prevalent that the government carried out tests on the food. As it turns out, the “pills” were actually just clumps of flour. Sinhala nationalists also frequently use Muslims as a scapegoat for their economic frustrations, as Muslims have traditionally been associated with Sri Lanka’s business sector.
Yet, despite the prevalence of such divisive propaganda, most Sri Lankans have refused to resort to violence. Meanwhile, Muslims have largely responded to attacks with nonviolence.
During the recent attacks, Muslims leaders used mosque loud speakers (which are normally used for the call to prayer) to urge Muslims to remain calm and refrain from retaliating. In many areas, Sinhalese and Tamils stepped in to protect Muslims, using a variety of strategies.
When a mob approached a neighborhood in the town of Pallekele, Sinhala Buddhist families called their Muslim neighbors to warn them.
“We were on the way back from a wedding when the attacks began, but we turned around when our neighbors called us and told us it wasn’t safe to come home,” Hassan, a Muslim father of three explained. With their home and all of their belongings destroyed by fire, the family has been subsisting almost solely on the kindness of their neighbors who bring them food and buckets of water and charge their phones for them every day.
In Kengalla, the town that sustained the most damage in the attacks, Nussair’s friend, who had personal connections to some of the organizers of the attacks, called to warn him the day before the attacks.
“We didn’t think it was really going to happen,” Nussair said. He and his son stayed in the house, but he sent his daughter and four-month-old granddaughter out of town, just in case. Nussair and his son were still in the house when the mob began attacking it, but managed to escape. “We were so scared, we ran out the back as fast as we could,” he said.
In at least one other town, ample warning allowed Muslims to evacuate before the mobs began to attack. In a WhatsApp group that was used to organize the attacks, a group member sent a message saying “when we went to attack, there was no one, they had left,” while another member said, “someone had given them the news.”
Providing safe shelter
The mobs systematically targeted Muslim homes, shops and mosques, but other buildings remained untouched. Dozens of Sinhalese and Tamils were therefore able to provide a safe haven for Muslims during the attacks. Some hotels and families even posted invitations on Twitter.
In one particularly organized effort, a Tamil priest went to each of his parishioners’ homes and asked them to provide shelter for Muslims. He then drove Muslim families to each parishioner’s home, where they remained for the next 48 hours. When they returned home, many found that their homes had been burned down, but the community’s actions allowed them to escape unscathed.
In Rajawella, a Muslim-majority village, men decided they would defend their homes and their families when they heard the mob was heading their way. Fifty men and boys gathered at the village entrance, armed only with sticks and kitchen knives, and prepared to take on the mob of 300 people. When a local monk heard about the developing situation, he feared that it would end in a bloodbath. He came to the town, and stood in front of the men and boys when the mob began to approach. The mob saw him, stopped and retreated.
“The monk protected us. He was the only reason that we weren’t attacked,” said Hassan, a business leader from the community. Dozens of displaced Muslim families are now living at the town mosque, as it is one of the few in the area that remained unharmed.
In the town of Balagolla, the Muslim community was afraid of being attacked during Friday prayers and reached out to Ven. Thalpotha Dhammajothi Thero, a local monk, for help. In response, the monk and his welfare committee stood outside the mosque throughout the prayers to deter any perpetrators.
“When I arrived, [the Muslim leaders] invited me inside, but I told them I am here to guard the mosque”, Dhammajothi Thero said. He insisted that he stay outside so that he was visible if any attackers arrived. As the mobs were carrying out the attacks in the name of Sinhala Buddhism, he knew that they would not attack if a monk was standing in their way.
Civilians protecting civilians
These interventions were remarkable, but not unprecedented. Civilians have intervened to protect each other in previous conflicts, as well. During the holocaust, Danish communities organized to warn Jews of an imminent Nazi plan to roundup and deport them to concentration camps, and then helped them escape. During the Rwandan genocide, many Hutus saved the lives of their Tutsi neighbors by providing them with safe shelter.
Additionally, civilian peacekeeping organizations such as Nonviolent Peaceforce, Peace Brigades and Cure Violence use similar strategies to systematically protect threatened civilians. For example, civilian peacekeepers deter attacks by providing visible protective presence to deter perpetrators, just as the monk in Balagolla protected the mosque during Friday prayers. Like the community members in Pallekelle, peacekeepers use early warning systems to help targeted communities flee before attackers arrive. And similar to the monk in Rajawella, they prevent clashes by interrupting imminent attacks.
In the wake of violence, the obvious response is to focus on what went wrong. But equally important is to figure out what went right. Violence is, quite literally, contagious, but so is altruism. When we see someone engage in heroic actions, we often feel inspired to take such actions. And when we help others, we feel good about ourselves and are motivated to repeat such actions in the future. By highlighting civilian peacekeeping efforts — both organic and organized — we encourage others to take similar actions in the future.
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Featured image courtesy Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatta
In the aftermath of further ethno-religious violence in Sri Lanka, stories are shared and explanations attempted, with each person trying to make sense of what is happening around them. People dwell on how ‘in the good old days’ everyone lived together peacefully. The meme ‘Keep Calm We are all Sri Lankan” is shared on social media in the hopes of reminding each other that we are united. That what has happened has been a sort of nightmare we can all wake up from. There is general discourse on how Sri Lanka is a multicultural nation, with many different people living together in peace, and how ultimately we are all one Sri Lankan family.
Infographic by Sakeena Razick
This idea of a united ‘Sri Lankan’ identity is presented as the central narrative of relations between different identity groups within the country, particularly, as is the focus of this article, between Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims. Yet, Sinhala-Muslim tensions outside of the North and East and particularly on recent incidents of anti-Muslim violence contribute to a counter-narrative that contradicts this.
These opposing narratives of Sinhala-Muslim relations are reflected in conversations in everyday life. On the one hand, it is said ‘I have many Muslim friends. At Avurudu I share food with them and then at Ramazan they share food with me. We always celebrate our different festivals’. On the other hand, it is also quite normal to hear ‘Sinhalese Buddhists have been pushed to the limit. Why are these Muslims being treated differently?’ or ‘Why should we have to pay extra to buy products that are Halal certified?’
The claim that all individuals in Sri Lanka live together in harmony, despite their differences, is shattered, when in reality, differences between Sinhala and Muslim identity groups have become a focal point. It is in this context that it becomes necessary to investigate how and when such differences between identity groups are viewed. This involves questioning the setting in which a dominant ‘norm’ identity is revered as opposed to an ‘other’ identity. The latter is perceived as inferior to the former, and one that must therefore be subject to control.
Perry, in her criminological theory looks at ‘doing difference’ appropriately and inappropriately and analyses how this is linked to the perpetration of hate crime. According to Perry, ‘doing difference’ appropriately occurs when an individual or group performs their identity in conformity with the dominant norm identity. This ensures that the differences of a particular group, the ‘other’ identity, does not infringe upon the dominant ‘norm’ identity and upholds the existing social hierarchy. Where an individual or group performs their identity by crossing the boundaries that exist to uphold the dominant norm identity there is then ‘doing difference’ inappropriately and existing power relations are threatened. In this situation the differences of the ‘other’ identity infringe upon the dominant ‘norm’ identity.
Where there is ‘doing difference’ inappropriately there is thus a threat to the norm and fear of loss of dominance by the dominant identity group. This threat to dominance may then lead to the necessity for action to reinforce previous power relations that existed. It is in this context that there is the perpetration of violence by the dominant identity group which targets the ‘other’ identity group as a response to fear of loss of supremacy.
It may be proposed that on the assumption that the dominant ‘norm’ identity in Sri Lanka is that of being Sinhalese Buddhist, it is apparent that numerically minority communities, such as the Muslims, are thus placed in the position of ‘the other’ and then expected to perform their identity in a manner that preserves existing relations of power which ensure that Sri Lanka continues as a Sinhala Buddhist nation. However, where the performance of Muslim identity threatens the norm of the ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ identity in instances of ‘doing difference’ inappropriately, it is then that the vulnerability of the Muslim community to violence and loss of life and damage to property is exacerbated. It is in those circumstances that there is perpetration of hate crime against Muslims with the aim of reminding such community of their ‘place’ within the nation.
On the one hand, conformity with the general law of the country and its general banking standards and general standards for certification of food by the Muslim community may be viewed by the Sinhalese Buddhists as ‘doing difference’ appropriately. On the other hand, one of the instances of ‘doing difference’ inappropriately may be interpreted by the Sinhalese Buddhists as Muslim insistence on Halal certification of products. While Halal certification is upheld as a necessity for the Muslim community; it has been argued that this imposes a heavier financial burden on the consumer and as the general consumer is a Sinhalese, for whom it is not a necessity to have a Halal certified product, the Halal certification should be banned completely. The continuation of the Halal certification process, is perceived as an impediment to the way things ought to be in a typically Sinhala Buddhist nation where no Halal certification would be necessary.
Where it is argued that the series of acts of ethno-religious violence against Muslims is the result of non-compliance by the Muslim community with the Sinhala Buddhist norm it may be suggested that these acts cannot be viewed as isolated, extremist acts that do not reflect the will of most of the Sinhala Buddhists. On the contrary it may be argued that the majority of the Sinhala Buddhist identity group may approve of these acts of violence and hate against Muslims who do not comply with the Sinhala Buddhist norm. It is this interpretation that may then explain the silence of the majority of Sinhala Buddhists over acts of violence and hate. This silence is often explained as apathy; the unfortunate result of decades of war and yet when it relates to issues of the economy or corruption, members of the general public may be quite vociferous. The silence of the majority of Sinhala Buddhists may thus be seen as implied approval of the reassertion of the dominance of the Sinhala Buddhists in a Sinhala Buddhist nation.
The inability and unwillingness by the Sinhalese Buddhist, as the dominant identity group, to tolerate differences that challenge the norm, will continue to cause tension and violence, unless differences are perceived not as a threat but as an opportunity to question and redefine the norm. Is Sri Lanka actually a multi-religious and multicultural nation or a Sinhala Buddhist nation? If it is a Sinhala Buddhist nation then what are the principles of such a nation with regard to the relationship between the Sinhala Buddhist identity group and other identity groups? Where other identity groups seek to challenge the Sinhala Buddhist norm what is the response of the Sinhala Buddhists? Is it one rooted in dialogue and collaboration or in violence?
Ultimately, Sri Lanka is faced with several choices. Do we continue to wear our ‘Sri Lanka tinted spectacles’ and live together with our brother as our enemy? Or do we recognise our brother’s role within our family, while questioning, what it really means to be a family?
 Roar life, ‘We are all Sri Lankan’ meme, 7th March 2018.
 Vijay Nagaraj and Farzana Haniffa, An ICES publication, Towards Recovering Histories of Anti-Muslim Violence in the Context of Sinhala Muslim Tensions in Sri Lanka, 2017, as accessible at: http://ices.lk/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/ICES-Toward-Recoverig-Histories-Book-WEB-2.pdf.
 Mark Walters, A General Theories of Hate Crime? Strain, Doing Difference and Self Control, 2010; as accessible at: www.academia.edu/4948229/A_general_theories_of_hate_crime_Strain_doing_difference_and_self_control
 Gulf News, Tariq A.Al Maeena, Neo-fascism on the rise in Sri Lanka, 23rd February 2013, as accessible at: http://gulfnews.com/opinion/thinkers/neo-fascism-on-the-rise-in-sri-lanka-1.1150052
 Sri Lanka Mirror, Bodu Bala Sena gives ultimatum to ban Halal certification, 18th February 2013, as accessible at: https://web.archive.org/web/20130222051222/http://www.mirror.lk/news/5366-bodu-bala-sena-gives-ultimatum-to-ban-halal-certification.
. Daily FT, Dharisha Bastians, Bodu Bala Sena anti-Halal agitation to begin in Maharagama tomorrow, 16th February 2013, as accessible at: http://www.ft.lk/article/136214/Bodu-Bala-Sena-anti-Halal-agitation-to-begin-in-Maharagama-tomorrow.
. Barbara Perry, Hate and Bias Crime: A Reader, 2003.