Interview with a Sri Lankan Human Rights Advocate – Part 1

Patterns of discrimination against religious minorities

CSW spoke to a human rights advocate in Sri Lanka whose identity for security reasons has been withheld. This post has been edited for clarity.

Q: Could you comment on religious extremism in Sri Lanka?

A: A recent surge of religious extremism in Sri Lanka began sometime in 2012 during the tenure of the previous government, with the emergence of extremist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Force Army), or the Sinhala Ravaya, or Hela Bodu Pawura. These groups emerged after the ethnic war, which ended in May 2009. These extremist groups led violent attacks against religious minorities. Most violent attacks were led with impunity and tacit approval. The judiciary was also very much biased.

For example, there was one particular case that was filed against the General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena. There was video-document evidence submitted in the High Court of Colombo in that particular case. Even after video evidence was submitted, the General Secretary was released, and the case came to a settlement. The video evidence was not taken into consideration by the court – and this is the High Court of Colombo. That was [how] the situation used to be in Sri Lanka. These Buddhist extremist groups also led a lot of hate campaigns, against Muslim minorities as well. They also used the media as a tool to lead these hate campaigns. And even when they led violent attacks, they also used media to portrayed a biased attitude of the minority victim who actually got attacked rather than the perpetrators themselves.

Q: Was it the national media, or – ?

A: National media. They usually took state media groups with them, and those media groups videoed what was happening and telecasted it in the news. However, in a biased way – saying that Buddhist monks were in uproar against injustice or unauthorised right places of worship faced violent attacks, and so on (sic). This is how these extremist groups used to function.

However, I must comment, that with the present government [and] the political change in Sri Lanka in 2015, attacks led by these Buddhist extremist groups have reduced. They don’t receive tacit approval from the present government. But some of these extremist groups have also taken a more strategic approach. For example, the Bodu Bala Sena, the Buddhist Force Army, actually formed itself into a political party last year.

Q: Under the same name?

A: Under another name, called the Bodu Jana Peramuna. They formed themselves into a political party. So [those] are some of the strategic approaches that they have taken.

Q: What kind of discrimination do religious minorities in Sri Lanka face today?

A: Religious minorities in Sri Lanka face different levels of attacks. You may categorise them as discrimination, intimidation and violence.

Discrimination happens in daily life, such as restrictions on building permits, restrictions of housing plans, the denial of school admissions to Christian children even if they have fulfilled all the requirements to [attend] government schools.

Then there is intimidation. For instance, local government officials, or villages of Buddhist monks in rural areas, would come to threaten and intimidate church workers, pastors and Christians. Also, a lot of legal restrictions have been imposed against them such as the use of the 2008 Circular. This Circular has been used as a tool to claim against churches, prayer meetings or [to claim that] religious minority places of worship are not registered or illegal. In actual fact, there is no legal requirement for registration of places of worship in Sri Lanka.

Another concerning issue that has been growing in Sri Lanka is the denial of burial rights, in particular to Christians. From 2015 to 2016, we documented around seven incidents where, in public cemeteries in rural areas, Christians who have passed away have been denied public cemetery burial. Villagers or mobs surrounded them and threatened them, and made it very difficult for them. In these instances, government officials have also, [sometimes], supported them.

Q: This is going off script a little, but would you be able to share with us a real life story of somebody you have supported or you have met, who has undergone discrimination or violence against themselves or their church?

A: Something very recent was – there was a pastor who was conducting prayer meetings in [this particular village in] a rural area and some complaints were lodged against him concerning his religious worship activities. The police called him in for an inquiry, and the inquiry went on. Afterwards, the pastor was informed by one of the people that he knew – credible information – that this particular person who was at the magistrate courts on a particular day heard that a case was being heard against the pastor’s place of worship. So the pastor informed me.

The moment he did so, I thought he didn’t have his information correct because usually if the police were to file a case against you – and in this case the police didn’t tell the pastor they were going to file a case – they have to send summons or a notice to that person, that person must be called to court and a lawyer should appear on behalf of that person and speak on behalf of that person. When we investigated into this matter – which was very hard because the particular magistrate courts made it very difficult to release the proceedings for this case on that particular day – we later on found out that the police had filed a case against this place of worship on behalf of the complainers. A presidential counsel lawyer had appeared, who is a very senior lawyer. They had also nominated a lawyer to appear on behalf of the pastor, even though the pastor was never informed of the case or anything like that. They had obtained an interim order against the church for two weeks.

In that particular situation, what I found very concerning was the magistrate, two lawyers, and the police officers – all government officials involved in the incident – violated their duties and violated the rights of that particular pastor. So in such instances, we see [that] at a local government level, there are some very concerning incidents – sometimes it’s perpetuated by villagers or village Buddhist monks, and even in the north and east, by Hindu religious leaders. However, government officials, who are actually supposed to protect the rights of the victims, often don’t, and they support those who are actually perpetrators to the incident.