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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Turkey under Erdogan: Caught between secular and Islamic identities

Although Turkey’s constitution defines the country as a secular state, it is caught between its secular and Islamic identities. The current government has publicly endorsed a move towards a Sunni Muslim identity for the country, conflating religious and national identities, by combining the religious nationalism propagated by the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, or AKP) with the secular Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi, or MHP)’s ideology of ‘ultra-nationalism,’ which is defined as “extreme nationalism that promotes the interests of one state or people above all others.”  

The promotion of religious ultra-nationalism in Turkey has contributed to a rise in discrimination, and in hate speech that incites violence against those who do not adhere to Sunni Islam.

Such incitement is visible in a variety of areas ranging from education and employment, to religious practices and day-to-day administrative procedures. There has also been a surge in the expression of anti-Semitism and anti-Christian sentiments in pro-government media.

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The promise of an inclusive India?

As Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) starts its second innings in government after one of the most bitter, vicious and polarising election campaigns India has witnessed, he has been speaking of an aspirational and inclusive India.

The BJP-led coalition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) secured 350 seats of the 542 seats in the Lok Shaba (parliamentary) elections, with their majority growing from 25% in 2009 to 45% in 2019. Given the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda, this success gives rise to concerns that BJP-controlled areas may be subject to increased FoRB violations.

With exceptions in the south, for example in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry, the BJP made fresh progress in West Bengal and Odhisa, and continued to tighten its grip on existing stronghold states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.  Despite the Southern states remaining largely free from the BJP, FoRB monitoring in the South will need to be stepped up, particularly with the party’s win in West Bengal and Odhisa, states that have recorded a rise in FoRB violations.  

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Burma’s identity crisis

The forced closure last week of three temporary Muslim prayer sites in Yangon is just the latest in a litany of abuses inflicted on Burma’s religious minorities by ultra-nationalist Buddhists. Add this to the decades-long persecution by the Burma Army of non-Burman ethnic minorities, many of whom are also non-Buddhists, and you get a nationwide cocktail of religious intolerance and conflict.

Muslims, Christians, and indeed Buddhists, who oppose the extremists are increasingly living in fear, in a country where ethno-religious nationalism has led to hate speech, intolerance, discrimination, persecution, crimes against humanity and, in one particularly egregious case, genocide.

That is the picture presented by CSW’s new report, Burma’s Identity Crisis: How ethno-religious nationalism has led to religious intolerance, crimes against humanity and genocide, published today. The report is the result of over three years’ work, involving first-hand front-line research, supplemented by information provided by CSW’s contacts in Burma and by other organisations working on these issues. It tells the human stories, it analyses the legislative framework, it assesses the international community’s response and it provides a call for action.

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