Sri Lanka is in the midst of a ten-day state of emergency, with social media blocked and martial law in effect.
The announcement came after riots broke out in the central district of Kandy, with hundreds of Sinhalese rioters targeting Muslim homes and businesses, burning at least 11 and leaving two dead.
The riots broke out last Sunday and were provoked by the beating death of a Sinhalese man by Muslim men in a traffic dispute. In response, the government issued a nationwide state of emergency and imposed a curfew. In defiance of the curfew, another mob took to the streets in Welekada, this time vandalizing fifteen homes, a mosque, and vehicles with Muslim owners.
In response, the government has suspended Facebook and its subsidiaries, in an attempt to quell the spread of hateful rhetoric and misinformation. Facebook was compliant with the government and has suspended service in Sri Lanka. A government spokesperson identified core issues with Facebook, saying:
“These platforms are banned because they were spreading hate speeches and amplifying them. Some attacks that have actually not taken place are being reported. It spreads that we are being attacked and we have to respond.”
But the misallocation of government resources is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to parsing the situation in Sri Lanka surrounding these attacks.
First, one must understand that Sri Lanka has been in a state of civil war for the last thirty years, with ethnic Tamils – known internationally as the Tamil Tigers – fighting government forces for the right to their own state on the northeast of the island. In 2009 that bloody conflict came to an end, but not before the majority-Sinhalese government forces had committed some atrocities that could not soon be forgotten.
This included anti-Tamil pogroms in the 50’s, 70’s and the ‘Black July’ pogrom in 1983, where mobs armed with lists of Tamil voters burned homes and killed 3,000 Tamils in one night.
The root of these conflicts is an apparent tension between the Sinhalese ethnic majority of Sri Lanka, who are predominantly Buddhist, and other ethnic and religious groups. While Tamil identity spans multiple faiths, this new wave of attacks seems to have zeroed in on Muslims.
Whether the attacks aimed at Muslims are the remnants of the war or a fresh targeting of a minority group, what is clear is that the new attacks are reminiscent of the old. Before violence broke out last week, a video was released by a group of Sinhalese nationalists was distributing leaflets and lamented that they could not find enough Sinhalese businesses to distribute them to.
One member said, “This town has come to belong only to the Muslims. We should have started to address this a long time ago.”
Much like in other parts of the world, this wave of ethnonationalism is being encouraged by some for political gain. In the case of Sri Lanka, it comes down to their former President trying to regain power.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was President from 2005-2015, and though he presided over the end of the civil war, he was widely accused of cronyism, corruption, elections fraud and war crimes. More troubling is that looking at the electoral map from his 2010 election is like looking at a map of the ethnically based attacks of late.
His unseating by moderate Maithripala Sirisena was expected to signal a new era for Sri Lanka, one of unity and democracy. The coalition which brought down the previous government swiftly dissolved, and in the discord, Rajapaska’s party took back seats in the Kandy district in the elections this February.
They might as well have run under the slogan, “Make Sri Lanka Great Again,” as they emphasized a government that would work for the ethnic majority while vilifying Muslims specifically as provoking violence and desecrating Buddhist holy places.
While the rhetoric might be poison, this shift in sentiment also has ramifications for the way law enforcement operates during the riots. Many believe that police response has been slow or negligent because of a fear that Rajapaska may return to power.
These are soldiers and officers who remember a regime that did not ask an abundance of questions before removing people from their posts or blacklisting them. This hedging of bets might also extend to state and local governments, who are not eager to get on anyone’s bad side in a very contentious political climate.
So, these riots have in many ways become the litmus test for Sirisena’s hold on power and for the new Sri Lanka more broadly. If the response is swift and the violence stops, there is a good chance that these attacks will be remembered as an isolated incident, a flash in the pan. If the violence persists, there is no telling what it might signal for the future of Sri Lanka.