Sri Lanka’s Muslims Face Backlash

Two years after Easter attacks

Two years after the Easter Sunday attacks that left 269 dead and injured more than 500, Sri Lanka’s Christian community is still waiting for justice while its Muslim community is reeling from the backlash that followed the bombings. Recent government restrictions targeting Muslims have exacerbated religious tensions in the South Asian nation and risk alienating large portions of the community.

A mass funeral on Tuesday, April 23, 2019, at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)
A mass funeral on Tuesday, April 23, 2019, at St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, Sri Lanka. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)
In recent weeks, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government has announced two worrying Prevention of Terrorism Act regulations — No. 01 and No. 02 of 2021 — that human rights groups say will allow it to more easily target religious minorities. These regulations come alongside proposals to ban face coverings worn by some Muslim women; shut down thousands of Islamic schools, or madrassas; and prohibit burials of Muslims who have died from COVID-19.

All of these developments raise alarms that the Rajapaksa government is targeting the rights of the country’s minority Muslim population to practice their religion freely and peacefully, amplifying preexisting tensions even as the country’s post-civil war reconciliation plan remains in limbo.

Easter Sunday Attacks

In the years following the more-than-two-decade-long civil war, which ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels by the Sri Lankan military, discrimination and even periodic attacks against minority communities — including Tamil Christians, Tamil Hindus, and Moorish and Malay Muslims — have been perpetrated by Sinhalese Buddhists, the country’s religious and ethnic majority, sometimes under the guise of religious nationalism. Yet Sri Lanka had been buoyed by a fragile peace, including with an effort to implement a reconciliation plan — albeit a faltering one — and efforts to support local and inclusive commitments to peace.

On April 21, 2019, nine bombers, inspired by the Islamic State group’s ideology, targeted churches and luxury hotels in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, the eastern city of Batticaloa and the western city of Negombo. While the assailants belonged to the fringes of society, Sri Lanka’s peaceful Muslim population has faced a significant backlash following the attacks. Politicians and Sinhalese nationalists have used the Easter Sunday attacks to justify their actions against Muslims. Businesses owned by Muslims were reportedly targeted in the aftermath through disinformation campaigns.

Meanwhile, the Christian community is perturbed by the absence of justice. On the second anniversary of the attacks, Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the head of Sri Lanka’s Roman Catholic Church, criticized the government for its lack of progress in the investigation of the attacks.

The Easter Sunday attacks, followed by the Sri Lanka People’s Front’s presidential and parliamentary election victories in 2019 and 2020, respectively, highlighted fissures between majority and minority communities in the country. In 2019, Muslims feared Rajapaksa’s association with Sinhalese Buddhist hardliners — a fear further warranted by associations with the roles of Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda, during country’s civil war.  Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa served as president and defense secretary, respectively, during the civil war, and were responsible for crushing the Tamil Tigers and displacing the Muslim population. Ahead of the elections, Muslims were intimidated and attacked.

Muslims Face Backlash

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent local and national government responses have deepened fissures along religious and ethnic lines. Christians and Muslims have been blamed for spreading the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Early in the pandemic, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Health forbade the burial of COVID-19 victims and instead forced cremation, prohibiting traditional Muslim or Christian burial rights despite World Health Organization guidance and multi-faith advocacy to the contrary. The government justified the ban claiming the burial of bodies would contaminate the groundwater and lead to the spread of the coronavirus. The government has since eased the ban; it has, instead, picked a remote island for Muslims and Christians to bury their dead instead of in religious burial grounds.

The government has further targeted Muslims through two regulations announced in March and April that focus on the “rehabilitation” of those “holding violent extremist religious ideology” as vaguely defined including those who cause “religious, racial, or communal disharmony” and ban 11 “extremist organizations,” respectively.

Regulation 01, on “rehabilitation,” allows for the detention — without trial — of anyone who is understood to wish ill upon others on racial or religious basis and instigates “communal disharmony.” The vague language means the regulation’s enforcement is likely to be inconsistent and questionable.

Regulation 02, which includes nine “local religious and social organizations” in addition to the Islamic State group and al-Qaida, states that anyone connected to those groups could face up to two decades in prison.

Furthermore, a “burqa ban” proposed in March by the Minister for Public Security Sarath Weerasekera, restricts the rights of Muslim women to veil their faces, proposing to make it illegal for Muslim women to wear niqab, or face covering. A similar restriction was put in place immediately following the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks but then lifted.

Debates around religious attire and symbols — particularly around Muslim women’s rights to choose to cover — are ongoing around the world. Religious freedom proponents argue that all people have the freedom of religious practice and belief or none. Any restriction thereof is a violation of religious freedom.

The proposed “burqa ban” raises human rights concerns and risks further ostracizing a minority community that is already suffering disproportionately. The government’s call to close some thousand madrassas across the country for allegedly not complying with national curricula, only furthers that concern.

Continued efforts by the government to marginalize an already beleaguered community can lead to dehumanization and push certain groups, especially young people, toward a radical path. It will only lead to a vicious cycle of further crackdowns and a greater likelihood of violence. And yet, anecdotes from religious peacebuilders offer a reason to be hopeful.

A Ray of Hope

commemoration last week of the second anniversary of the Easter Sunday attacks included religious leaders representing Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim faiths, symbolizing interreligious solidarity during a particularly fraught period in Sri Lanka. Organizations like the Centre for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation, a USIP partner, convene interfaith groups of women, men, and youth to ensure communication and coordination between religious communities across the country. Inter- and intra-religious efforts are with urgency helping to curb hate speech and establish trust and solidarity between ethno-religious groups.

Furthermore, there is hope that war crimes will be investigated. The international community is noticing the deterioration of religious minorities’ rights in Sri Lanka. In March, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted to investigate war crimes during Sri Lanka’s civil war in a symbolic blow to the Rajapaksa government.

Recommendations

International policymakers and practitioners should continue to call for equal rights for all, regardless of religious beliefs. Specifically:

  • International governments and human rights organizations should continue to advocate for equal rights for people of all faiths and none in Sri Lanka.
  • Civil society organizations, that are continuing to build bridges across religious and ethnic lines, can be recognized and, where helpful, supported. Peacebuilding practitioners can amplify and support local efforts aimed at fostering social cohesion. The international donor community can and should play a key role in supporting civil society organizations in these efforts.
  • As the UNHRC moves forward with a new resolution to investigate war crimes during the civil war, policymakers can continue to encourage international pressure to check the Sri Lankan government’s restrictive policies to prevent further oppression of religious and ethnic minorities and to encourage a more peaceful, resilient civil society.
  • Broader efforts at reconciliation are needed in the country as ethnic cleavages still remain.  Learning from past efforts will provide a road map for post-Easter bombing and post-pandemic reconciliation processes.
  • As the United States focuses on the Indo-Pacific and China’s increased influence in Sri Lanka, it needs to further support Sri Lanka’s beleaguered civil society to be able to stand up to the government’s increasing suppression of minorities.

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