Will there be an end of communal divide in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lankan Muslims are the third largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, comprising 10 percent of the country's total population, according to the 2011 census. They are native speakers of the Tamil language, the country's other significant minority is Tamils, who comprise about 15 percent of the population.

Will there be an end of communal divide in Sri Lanka?

Monavvar Alam

Normally it would have been a lazy Saturday afternoon, but on January 10, 2015 there were jubilations in the air of the areas surrounding the southwest Sri Lankan town of Aluthgama, an idyllic coastal settlement popular with tourists. In Colombo the New Democratic Front presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena was being sworn in as the new Sri Lankan president after defeating the incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse in general election. Sirisena had polled 51.28 percent of the vote, four percent more than Rajapakse.

In this coastal town, Muslims and Buddhists have lived side by side peacefully for generations. But a wave of deadly communal violence destroyed the calm and peace of the entire area after a rally was called by the far-right Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (literary Buddhist Power Force; BBS) in response to an alleged altercation in the area between a group of young Muslims and a Buddhist monk and his driver. The inflammatory speeches of BBS leaders poisoned the air of this idyllic town. The Muslim community of this area never came out of the nightmarish experiences of that period.

After returning to the country from a G77 meeting of developing nations in Bolivia, the then President Rajapaksa had visited the affected Muslim town and vowed that an "impartial inquiry would be held and those responsible punished." He, however, neither made any reference to the divisive politics of BBS leaders nor took any action against the instigators of violence in the area. In his arrogance of power, President Mahinda Rajapaksa simply ignored the need and mood of the masses. However, this ignorance proved very costly for him and resulted into his defeat in the general election.
Many in Sri Lanka, including Rajapaksa's own political allies within government, are critical of the authorities for allowing the communal violence to occur. Rauff Hakeem, the then Minister of Justice in Rajapaksa cabinet and the leader the country's largest Muslim political party, had openly blamed BBS for inciting the "orgy of attacks against Muslims."

Hakeem had said in parliament that police had been asked to stop the rally but had failed to heed the request. For long Buddhist radicalism has been on the rise in Sri Lanka, in line with Myanmar, where a monk-led Buddhist nationalist movement has been blamed for drumming up deadly mob violence against minority Muslim groups. While a heavy military presence had been brought in to enforce a curfew and prevent further violence, it had given little comfort to the minority community. Muslims blamed that the armed forces were supporting the majority, referring to the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese, who account for about three-quarters of Sri Lanka's population.

Sri Lankan Muslims are the third largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka, comprising 10 percent of the country's total population, according to the 2011 census. They are native speakers of the Tamil language, the country's other significant minority is Tamils, who comprise about 15 percent of the population.

Muslims and Hindu Tamils emerged as king-makers in January's presidential election as the majority Sinhalese split down the middle. Earlier, Muslims had thrown their lot in favour of Rajapaksa over his vocal support for Palestinians. But he had "totally alienated" them in recent times due his covert support of monk-led Buddhist extremist group BBS which vehemently supported Rajapaksa in his bid for re-election. Both Rajapaksa and Sirisena are members of the majority Sinhala Buddhist community.

Sri Lanka's main Muslim party has quit the government and pledged its support to the opposition in a move seen as one of the biggest setbacks to President Mahinda Rajapaksa's re-election bid.

Sri Lankan Muslim Congress leader Rauf Hakeem, had joined hands with Maithripala Sirisena after announcing his own resignation as justice minister. Ostensibly, he had blamed the government because of widening rifts over a 2010 law that lifted the two-term limit on the presidency and gave Rajapaksa wide powers over the police, the judiciary and the civil service. Hakeem was the second Muslim minister to quit Rajapaksa's government after industry and commerce minister Rishad Bathiudeen had resigned earlier.

Rajapaksa's government had come under heavy criticism in recent years for backing extremist Buddhist groups and turning a blind eye on the recent anti-Muslim violence. It is said that any dissident voices or ideas were unjustly suppressed by the former President Rajapaksa and his “totalitarian” family clan. This had resulted into wide ranging resentment of not only the minorities but even the majority of Sri Lanka. There were favouritism and nepotism galore as the family members of Rajapaksa controlled nearly all the key posts in the Sri Lankan government. It appears that while wrestling with Prabakan's Tigers, they learnt all the bad habits of them and completely lost sight of the original problems of the masses.

According to political experts in Sri Lanka, the election result reflected common people’s displeasure of Rajapakse’s regime far more than any popular support for Sirisena and the UNP. That is not unexpected because until he defected, Sirisena was himself one of the leading members of Rajapakse’s government and was fully complicit in all the social and political atrocities committed by him.

The shares of voting followed a clear pattern on ethnic line. In North province of the Tamil majority, the opposition candidate polled an overwhelming 70 percent of votes. In the Eastern province, which has a large Muslim population, this even exceeded 80 percent in some areas. The minority communities in both provinces had earlier witnessed the brutal killing of thousands of civilians when the Rajapakse government and the military crushed the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009, but have suffered ongoing military repression.

Now the new government has begun to assuage the hurt sentiments of the Tamil and Muslim minorities in keeping with its electoral promises. A Tamil has been appointed as the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Senior leaders of the the Tamil National Alliance can now be seen on stage along with President Maithripala Sirisena. It is also clear from elected President Maithripala Sirisena’s maiden cabinet, which comprises of 27 cabinet ministers, 10 state ministers and 8 deputy ministers. Out of them a total of four ministers in Sirisena cabinet are Muslims. While Rauff Hakeem has been appointed as Minister of Urban Development, Water Supply and Drainage, Rishad Bathiudeen as Minister of Industry and Commerce, and Kabir Hashim as Minister of Highways and Investment Promotion, Faizer Mustapha has been appointed as State Minister of Aviation.

It, however, remains to be seen how far the new Sirisena government in Sri Lanka succeeds in assuaging the hurt sentiments of minorities and ending the poisonous communal divide in the society so that once again Muslims and Buddhists could start living side by side as they had been doing it for generations.

Güncelleme Tarihi: 11 Şubat 2015, 13:33