After conflicts erupted between Sinhalese Buddhist and Muslim communities in Kandy, Sri Lanka, the government imposed a 10-day nationwide state of emergency. On March 4th, a young Sinhalese Buddhist man was fatally assaulted with an iron bar after a taxi carrying four Muslim men collided with the man’s van, according to local police. This isolated incident incited a wave of violence that targeted Muslim business owners in Kandy, resulting in the destruction of over four mosques, 37 houses, 46 shops, and 35 vehicles by Sinhalese Buddhists in only a few days. Soldiers were deployed across Sri Lanka to prevent further incidents. Also, schools were suspended, a curfew was imposed, and Internet and phone access were restricted. The country’s Law and Order Minister has now declared there is no reason to extend the 10-day nationwide state of emergency as there haven’t been any fresh violent episodes in the country.
While the uprising occurred after an isolated incident, the events of last week have far deeper roots in the region. In Kandy, around 75 percent of the 125 000-person population is Sinhalese Buddhist, making it an integral religious and cultural hub. Muslims are a significant minority in the region, making up only around 10 percent of the population.
Prior to the outbreak of violence in Kandy, there were already concerns over Buddhist radicalism across the country due to the historically entrenched Sinhalese Buddhist national identity. Other reasons for tensions between the two groups include the fact that Muslims own a disproportionately high number of small businesses and reports by Sinhalese Buddhists that Muslims force people to convert to Islam and destroy religious Buddhist centers.
The primary reason for this modern nationalist identity is the legacy of the Sri Lankan Civil War that lasted from 1983 to 2009. Tamil rebels were fighting to create an independent homeland in the country but were eventually defeated, cementing the Buddhist-Muslim divide. When the war ended, it was seen as a time of national unity, prospective peace, and development. While this held true for some regions in the country, it has been far from reality for individuals living in the north and east where the war was the most intense. In these regions, including Kandy, legacies of violent ethnic divisions persist today.
While the scars of the Sri Lankan civil war partially explain the tensions between Sinhalese Buddhist and Muslim groups in Sri Lanka, the impetus for the civil war is less clear. When the British arrived in Sri Lanka, the majority of the country was comprised of Sinhalese speakers and around 10 percent of the country was made up of Hindu Tamils. The British brought over roughly a million Tamil speakers from India to work on the coffee, rubber, and tea plantations they had erected in northern Sri Lanka. The British also set up higher quality schools in the north. This meant that the Tamils typically received a higher level of education than the Sinhalese Buddhists and were appointed to more bureaucratic positions. Understandably, this created resentment by the Sinhalese majority.
This divide-and-rule tactic employed by the British is uncomfortably similar to the systematic conflict created in Rwanda between the Hutus and the Tutsis that resulted in an even more deadly civil war. As in the case of Rwanda, when Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, the Sinhalese Buddhist majority began passing discriminatory laws against the Tamils, such as making Sinhalese the official language, which prevented Tamils from being part of the civil service. Even more blatant was the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948, which revoked Indian Tamils’ citizenship, making around 700 000 Indian Tamils stateless. This tension prompted the civil war in which Tamils sought to create a sovereign nation-state. The Tamils initiated the first acts of violence which were reciprocated by the government, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands Tamil civilians.
The roots of the Sri Lankan and Rwandan civil wars are hauntingly similar. However, the repatriation afterward had very different outcomes. After the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, Buddhist Sinhalese nationalism increased, which drew an even thicker line in the sand between the Muslim and Sinhalese Buddhist groups.
After the civil war, Sri Lanka became a militarized society with strong measures against political and social pluralism. The country sought to maintain a solid unified national identity, which was embodied by Sinhalese Buddhist ethnicity and nationalist ideology.
Along with promoting a strong militarized national identity, economic investment in Sri Lanka after the civil war did not focus on reconciliation or repatriation. Rather, most investments focused on national security, which again solidified the need to protect the national identity and promote intense infrastructure development. This style of investment is known as “Singapore Sling” capitalism, in which the country focuses on developing projects including shopping malls, casinos, clean streets, and resorts. President Rajapaksa’s administration did not invest in political settlement and reconciliation with the Tamil community, which was not well received by the international community as per the United Nations Advisory Panel report.
While there has been significant investment in the Tamil-majority regions in the north and the east, which led to economic development and effective resettlement, the rapid development of these regions is just a fast-track way to avoid the resurgence of Tamil militancy. This is not considered a sustainable tactic by the global community as “all humanitarian and reconstruction programs must go through a slow and restrictive process of vetting and clearance for access,” according to Jonathan Goodhand in his article Consolidation and Militarization of the Post War Regime.
The actions taken by the Sri Lankan government last week towards the crisis that resulted in the destruction of primarily Muslim-owned businesses and places of worship have proven to be quite effective given the termination of violence. However, criticism is due concerning the post-civil war actions taken by the Sri Lankan government, which caused extremist nationalism among Sinhalese Buddhists and eventually this flare-up of conflict. After the civil war, the government should have prioritized settling a fair deal with the Tamils in order to sustainably integrate them with the rest of the nation rather than focusing on ‘developmentalism.’ An appropriate three-pronged strategy would have been to resettle all displaced Tamil civilians, provide humanitarian aid to civilians, and devolve the government so that power was not as centralized.
In 2012, Sri Lanka also reduced investment in health, education, and social services, demonstrating a disregard towards establishing greater equality. Without equality, in a fragile nation still impacted by the scars of a fresh civil war, extremism and ethnic tensions are inevitable. Therefore, in order to establish harmony in the region, equality, through ‘soft welfarism’ tactics, needs to be established by increasing investment into social programs. An increase in equality will also help shape the country’s national identity. With equality, the Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka may not feel a need to defend their position in society, subsequently reducing their perceived obligation to bring down the Muslim minority.
Social programs may not be enough to erase generations of a radical nationalist ideology. Therefore, the place to trigger the change is in education. By ensuring classes are diverse, do not exclude minorities, and teach an unbiased perspective that promotes inclusion, there is hope that future generations in Sri Lanka can progress without the barriers erected from years of ethnonationalism.
Fundamentally, the outbreak of violence witnessed in Sri Lanka last week between Muslims and Sinhalese Buddhists is far from an isolated event. Rather, its roots are deeply entrenched in the country’s history. After the end of the civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka had the opportunity to rebuild the country and create civilian unity. However, due to poor investment decisions, this harmony was not forged, resulting in the exacerbation of a militant and exclusive nationalist identity which has further developed the volatile ties between ethnic groups, resulting in the conflicts we see today. Therefore, the government needs to focus on investing in projects that will increase civilian equality, such as social welfare programs and education to decrease the need for ethnic groups to defend themselves, which could decrease extremism and hostility in Sri Lanka.