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Women of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam marching in Killinochchi, 2002. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

From draconian emergency powers to a ban on Muslim women’s face coverings, a delinquent government seeks to mask its own catastrophic failures, writes Susan Ram

It did not take long for the government of Sri Lanka to revert to form. In the aftermath of the April 21 terrorist atrocities, in which radicalised Muslim suicide bombers targeted Christian worshippers and hotel visitors, leaving more than 250 people dead and hundreds more grievously wounded, operation ‘distract and cover up’ was initiated across a range of fronts. 

First came that familiar stock in trade: the declaration of a national state of emergency. This activated key sections of the country’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), empowering the military and police to make arbitrary arrests and detain suspects without trial for up to 90 days. The 33-page declaration, announced by President Maithripala Sirisena the day after the bombings, also permits the government to ban public assembly and to restrict the publication of anything deemed “prejudicial to national security or the preservation of public order.”  

Further emergency measures followed, among them the ordering of a ban on face coverings in public. The ban, which took effect on April 29, prohibits any face covering “that may hinder one’s identity [from being] ascertained.” Unambiguously targeted at Muslim women, the ban will further stigmatise a religious minority already suffering reprisals in the wake of the April 21 bombings. 

Behind the facade

Beyond the tourist brochure sell of sun-kissed beaches, smiling people and serendipitous calm, Sri Lanka is a nation wracked by bloody conflict and horrific violence, much of it perpetrated by the state. Its constitution privileges the status and language of the dominant ethno-linguistic- religious group: Sinhala Buddhists, who constitute roughly 75 per cent of the total population. To enforce this majoritarianism in the face of minority demands and aspirations, the state has had to shore itself up with extended periods of emergency rule: as, for example, during much of the period between 1971 and 2011. With little exaggeration, ethno-religious conflict and draconian state powers can be considered the twin defining features of Sri Lanka’s bleak postcolonial history. 

Before independence in 1948, the diversity of the island’s population offered a series of colonial rulers – the Portuguese arrived first, followed by the Dutch and finally the British-- ample scope for divide-and-rule manoeuvres. Long settled in the north and east of the island were substantial Tamil-speaking populations, mostly Hindu by religious persuasion but also including Muslims and Christians. In the 19th century, the British brought large numbers of Tamil-speaking workers over from South India to labour on the tea estates. 

Deftly and insidiously, the colonial state worked to set one ‘community’ against another, fashioning a bizarre ethno-religious kaleidoscope whose arbitrary divisions survive to this day.  ‘Tamils’, for example, were split into several categories; the ‘Jaffna’ Tamils of the north were differentiated from the parvenu ‘Indian’ Tamils’ toiling away in the central highlands, while Tamil-speaking Muslims were cut loose from their fellow ethnic and linguistic compatriots by being designated ‘Muslims’ or ‘Moors’.  

The fissures and fractures stoked by colonial rule had a distorting impact on the Ceylonese response to imperialism. Buddhist revivalism became the dominant strain; under the leadership of Anargarika Dharmpala (1864-1933), the focus of the nationalist movement was on founding Buddhist schools and strengthening Buddhism and the Sinhala language in the public sphere. 

Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism – and civil war

State formation following independence in 1948 continued the project of embedding and perpetuating an increasingly virulent form of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. Its ideology contends that, as the home of Sinhala Thervada Buddhism, Sri Lanka holds a unique place in the world and must see off all cultural-religious interlopers. From this perspective, minorities are ‘invaders’ who must acknowledge Sinhala hegemony if their presence is to be tolerated. 

One of the first actions by the new government was to strip the island’s one million ‘Indian’ Tamil plantation workers of their Sri Lankan citizenship.

In 1956, Sinhala was made the sole official language of the multilingual nation, at a stroke depriving Tamil speakers of access to public sector jobs and disadvantaging them across a range of spheres.  Peaceful campaigns by Tamils for autonomy and equal rights from the 1950s to the 1970s encountered increasingly violent army and police repression, along with riots instigated by Sinhalese politicians and Buddhist monks. 

In July 1983, the state let loose a progrom against Tamil residents of the capital, Colombo, in which hundreds were killed and Tamils in their tens of thousands were forced to flee to refugee camps or exile in India. This fateful turning point set Tamil youth on the path of separatist armed struggle. By the time it was finally crushed in 2009, more than 100,000 civilians (mainly Tamils) had been killed, along with tens of thousands of fighters on both sides of the conflict. Industrial scale human rights abuses, carried out not only by the state but also by the increasingly brutal and fratricidal Tigers, ran to extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture. 

During the fighting, the government made expert use of intra-community fault-lines to prevent a Tamil consolidation around the goal of ‘Eelam’ (the name of the projected independent Tamil state). One step taken was the recruitment of Muslims to a force known as the Home Guard. Setting Tamil against Tamil bore fruit: in 1990 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) expelled some 70,000 Tamil-speaking Muslims from the Northern Province because of their lukewarm attitude or outright hostility to separatism (in 2002 LTTE leaders apologised for this gargantuan error). 

Among Muslims, the interplay of a brutal civil war at home with the international ‘war on terror’ was gradually eroding the tolerant beliefs and practices associated with Sufism, the prevailing Islamic tradition in Sri Lanka up to that point. Ultra-strict Wahhabism began penetrating the community, possibly with behind-the-scenes assistance from the state (Athithan Jayapalan, a Norway-based Tamil anthropologist, has evidence to this effect).  

Post-civil war: new targets for majoritarianism 

Confronting the desolation it called ‘peace’, the Sri Lankan state crowed over its victory before returning, reinvigorated, to its Sinhala Buddhist Only drumbeating. New far-right organisations, often led by Buddhist monks, stepped in to lend muscle power. Minority communities, especially Muslims and Christians, have been feeling the impact ever since. In 2014, Muslims in two coastal towns suffered violent attacks at the hands of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS: Buddhist Power Force). Recent years have seen numerous attacks on mosques, churches and shops owned by members of religious minorities.

While all the above provides context for the horrific events of April 21, the routine dysfunctionality and incompetence of Sri Lanka’s rulers must be added to the mixture. The Himalayan proportions of the failure on display that Sunday morning, as the hospitals filled, the body parts were gathered, and the first reports came in of intelligence warnings received but not heeded, speak to something monstrously wrong. Irrespective of the (Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian) party in power, Sri Lanka can be seen to be controlled by a state that is rotten to the core, mired in corruption, anti-democratic to its finger-tips, and incapable of that most basic of state roles: safeguarding the  population. 

For such a state, clamping down emergency measures while channelling popular grief and fury towards soft targets (in this case, Muslim women who prefer to cover their faces outside the home) comes as second nature. Among its many advantages, the national state of emergency empowers the government to censor the press and bear down on information-sharing. Under its regulations, coverage of the intelligence failures behind the April 21 bombings, including the leaked document that revealed the extent of the security breakdown, will be banned.  

While researching this piece, I came across an article from 2014 whose prescience took my breath away. Written by New Delhi-based journalist Sanjay Kumar, the article explored the rise of the Buddhist far right in Sri Lanka in the post-civil war period. Kumar noted the tendency of groups such as the BBS to seek closer ties with similar organisations in South Asia, including the Hindutva right in India. He observed that in countries promoting religious fanaticism, the sense of insecurity suffered by minority groups could turn to radicalism and violence if such groups felt threatened, something that had already happened in Sri Lanka with its Tamil minority. “It is possible”, Kumar concluded, “that Sri Lanka could become a breeding ground for Islamic terrorism if it does not control the violence committed by Buddhist groups against Muslims.”1


1Sanjay Kumar, ‘The rise of Buddhist Nationalism in Sri Lanka’, The Diplomat, July 9, 2014. Retrieved on May 7 2019 at https://thediplomat.com/2014/07/the-rise-of-buddhist-nationalism-in-sri-lanka/

Susan Ram

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.

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