Abandoning human rights for identity politics in Sri Lanka

During an address to senior Buddhists leaders at the Vibhajjavadi Dhamma Symposium and Maha Tripitaka Pooja on 4 January, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa stated that the defence of the Buddhist order is central to ensuring unity and the protection of religious freedom of Sri Lankans who profess other faiths. Just one day prior, his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged his commitment before parliament to protect and nurture the Buddha Sasana as part of his government’s policy. In the Sri Lankan context this is often understood as the ‘physical bounds of the land consecrated by the Buddha.’ 

Buddhism is enshrined in the Constitution of Sri Lanka. Article 9 states: “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana,” while assuring the freedom of thought, conscience and religion to everyone. Furthermore, with a 2003 Supreme Court ruling which affirms that only Buddhism should be protected by the state, Sri Lanka established in law that there is no constitutional guarantee that other religions will receive similar protection.

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The Rajapaksas’ return to power means an uncertain future for Sri Lankan minorities

On 18 November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former defence secretary and brother of two-term president Mahinda Rajapaksa, was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s eighth president. Representing the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) the Sinhalese-Buddhist Nationalist Party, Gotabaya received just over 52% of the vote.

Despite his apparent popularity, he is nevertheless a divisive figure in Sri Lankan politics. During his time as defence secretary from 2005 to 2015 he was accused of committing grave human rights violations and war crimes, including the establishment of military death squads, whilst simultaneously being praised by others for his part in overseeing the end of the long running civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government.

Support for Gotabaya came almost exclusively from Sinhalese-Buddhist areas in the south of Sri Lanka. He struggled to win votes in the north and east of the country where the majority of Sri Lanka’s Tamils and Muslims are based.

“It is all of our worst fears realised … Sri Lanka is totally polarised by this result”

Hilmy Ahmed, vice-president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council.

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A Fork in the Road: What lies ahead for religious minorities in Sri Lanka, India and South Asia?

Sri Lanka and India are facing pivotal moments, both for their future, and the future of South Asia as a whole. Both countries’ drives towards religious hegemony have left little place for Christians and Muslims, a factor which will certainly lead to more instability and intolerance in the region.

Sri Lanka: Buddhist nationalists vindicated

Sri Lanka was the site of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, in which over 250 people were killed when terrorists targeted a number of churches and hotels across the country. In the aftermath of the bombings, there were reports of violent attacks against Muslims and an increase in anti-Muslim prejudice. Some reprisals against the Muslim population have been carried out by Christians, in contrast to the previous relative harmony between the two communities as they both battled intolerance from sections of the Sinhalese Buddhist population.

Furthermore, Buddhist nationalist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), who have been portraying Islam as a threat to both Buddhism and Sri Lanka for years, consider their stance vindicated by the bombings.

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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.

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Interview with a Sri Lankan Human Rights Advocate – Part 2

Part 2: Circular 2008

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: Would you be able to share with us what groups like yours – and other civil society organisations based in Sri Lanka – are doing at the moment to address freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) violations?

A: There are various strategies. One of the core things that we do is to document incidents. We do a lot of advocacy at a local level by meeting government officials and ministers. We also lobby with some of our international partners as well. We file cases on behalf of victims who are religious minorities, and we take up different legal interventions. For example, when there is an attack, we will not file a case immediately but we try first to send out legal letters; working with the national police commission, working with the relevant ministries, and so on. If that does not work out, then of course we will file a case against the authorities in the Supreme Court.

In most instances, we support cases that have been filed against Christians. We also do a lot of other projects where we work on broader human rights issues and we form local networks with community leaders, with pastors. We have consultation processes with them, we train them, we have advocacy seminars – making them aware of their legal rights and teaching them good practices. We also work with the media and journalists, bringing together journalists and the media on good reporting for religious violence.

Q: What can international organisations do to echo the concerns you’ve identified?

Continue reading “Interview with a Sri Lankan Human Rights Advocate – Part 2”