Beneath the Sandy Beaches: A Tale of Disarray
One’s geographical homeland is supposed to be a safe haven. A place where not only one calls home but is reassured that they live in a land where they’re able to freely practice their religious traditions and walk along the streets with no fear of oppression. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s minority groups, the Tamils and the Muslims, do not enjoy such luxuries. Despite the 27-year-long civil war ending over a decade ago, the effects of oppression still lurk amongst Sri Lanka’s minority. The Sri Lankan government has been turning a blind eye to the limitations of living standards experienced by the minorities, even going so far as to justify them. The troubling patterns, originating from the civil war, displayed in modern Lanka not only are concerning but may lead to a path that will result in the extermination of millions of people.
The origins of the Sri Lankan civil war go back to before the country gained independence. Before independence, Sri Lanka was ruled by the British from 1815-1948. During the later years of their ruling, the British favored the Tamils. They brought in millions of Tamils from southern India to work in the fields, established schools in Tamil-majority lands, and appointed Tamils, such as Ponnambalam Arunachalam in the 1920s, to represent the Sinhalese in government. This favoritism is what motivated the Sinhala government to pass laws aimed to discriminate against Tamils, which were the Ceylon Citizenship Act in 1948 and the Sinhala Only Act. The Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 made it mandatory that in order to obtain citizenship, one must prove that their ancestors lived in Sri Lanka. This was an unrealistic task as many Indian Tamils returned to India for births and births were usually not documented. The Sinhala Only Act of 1956 replaced English as the official language, a language spoken by both ethnic groups (Sinahla & Tamil), with Sinhala. This made it difficult for Tamils to attain public jobs, such as engineering and military jobs, and even forced many employed Tamils in the public sector to retire as they didn’t speak Sinhala - making governmental services out of reach for Tamils. These actions angered the Tamil population, who formed many Tamil militant groups and led many attacks on the Sinhaelse-majority government. The most successful group was the LTTE, or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam, who began conducting significant, widespread attacks in 1976 against the government and its supporters. Guided under Velupillai Prabhakaran, the insurgent group fought for a separate Tamil nation in northern Sri Lankan, known as “Ealam”. The 25+ year long war, beginning officially in 1983 and ending in 2009 with a Sri Lankan government victory, was met with the deaths of “80,000 to 100,000 people”, forced disappearance of “about 20,000 [people], mostly Tamils”, war-crime allegations geared towards the federal government and the lives of over a million: ruined.
Although mother Lanka has recovered well from their civil war, displaying “sustained growth and reduced poverty levels” (“Reconstruction of Sri Lanka”) and tourism levels have shown to hold “over 300 percent growth in six years [after the war]”, the government continues to turn a blind eye to allegations of war crimes and ethnic tensions between the minority and majority ethnic groups are worsening. In late 2017, a United Nations report revealed that governmental efforts to maintain peace in the country were “inadequate”. The president at the time, Maithripala Sirisena, even went as far as refusing to acknowledge any allegations towards his party members in 2015, refusing “anyone to level allegations against the war heroes”. In a 2013 interview with Al Jazeera English, the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, dismissed allegations of war crimes and oppressions of minorities as “propaganda against Sri Lanka”. When queried in regards to the mysterious disappearances of Tamil youths during the civil war, Rajapaksa stated that they were “all speculations”. Tamils have appeared to not receive any improved treatment, as they’re “still experiencing harsh treatment from the government”. In early 2020, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the current Sri Lankan president, removed the Tamil translation of the national anthem during the Independence Day celebrations in Colombo, alienating the second largest ethnic group in the island. In addition to ethnic issues, Mahinda Rajapaksa regarded increasing religious tensions as “incidents” and that religious clashes were not present, stating that “Muslims, the Hindus, even the Catholics, Christians, all are practicing their religion without any issue”. Rajapaksa’s claim that all religions practice their religion issue-free is questionable as “mix, radical Buddhist activists are deliberately stoking tensions with Muslims”. A Sinhalese Buddhist extreme nationalistic group, Bodu Bala Sena (translated as “Buddhist Power Force”, abbreviated as BBS), have been conducting attacks on the Muslim population in recent years, including initiating the 2014 anti-Muslim riots and fueling the fire for the 2018 anti-Muslim riots, and “the pace [of anti-Muslim violence] is increasing”. Muslims have complained that the government fails to intervene “with sufficient urgency”. The general secretary of the BBS and a close figure of the current Sri Lankan government, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, was appointed as chairman of the Presidential Task Force in drafting a “One Country, One Law” for all Sri Lankan ethnic groups in late 2021. The appointment of an extreme anti-Muslim figure in a position of power and the failure to appoint a Tamil representative in the Presidential Task Force Committee has raised questions about Sri Lanka’s hospitality in her treatment of minorities.
Sri Lanka’s failure of acknowledging her minorities raises significant and legitimate concerns and raises questions about their future in the country. Myanmar, a country in South Asia, had similar patterns that led to what eventually became known as the Rohingya genocide, starting in 2016. Mirroring the 1948 Ceylon Citizenship Act, the Burmese government passed the Union Citizenship Act in the same year, where the Rohingya, a minority, Muslim-majority ethnic group, were almost wiped out of the country’s application process for citizenship. Subsequent laws passed over the decades restricted the Rohingyas in terms of not only citizenship but the right to education and work. Similarly, many anti-Muslim riots have taken place in Myanmar, perpetrated by the majority Buddhist Rakhine population. The instigators for these Burmese riots are almost exactly the same as the instigators for the Sri Lankan riots: false rumors. In 2014, a Facebook post erroneously claimed that a Buddhist woman was raped by a Muslim man. As a response, 300 Rakhine rioters stormed and attacked Muslim businesses. In 2018, anti-Muslim riots were sparked in Sri Lanka due to an unbiased claim that Muslims were “plot[ting] to sterilize Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority”. Eventually, all of those oppressive actions taken against the minority Rohingya population in Myanmar have led to one of the most significant genocides the world has ever seen. In 2021, Sri Lanka’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa expanded the Terrorism Prevention Act, allowing the government to detain any suspicious persons without cause. Even the Christians, who make up a smaller population than the Muslims, fear for their right to practice their religion. Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, commented that conditions will “worse[n] for families of victims and other government critics already facing harassment, intimidation, and surveillance” as a result of the new expansion. As observed, the situation for the minority population has been steadily going downhill - and it might just be about time until the Sri Lankans replicate the Burmese in their endeavors.
Although many options have gone amiss, there are endless opportunities for the Sri Lankan government to amend its ways with her minorities. A major action that the government should take, in order to bring about religious peace, is to shut down radical groups. The most notable group, the BBS, has made themselves apparent over the years, by instigating violence towards the Muslims, that they are not looking out for the country’s future, but for religious and personal appeal. Removing BBS from influencing the government, such as its general secretary from being appointed to take part in law-making that affects all ethnicities, would see a generally safer environment as their influence is being decreased in this action. Another action that the government can take is to take care of the minority Tamil population. This would be in the form of completing thorough investigations of the allegations of war crimes and holding responsible those that did commit war crimes, rather than totally preventing consideration of war crimes (no matter the political influence of the person). In a speech delivered by Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2020 during the Remembrance Day speeches, he is quoted as saying, “throughout its history, people in this country including Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, and Burgher have had equal rights”, but immediately follows this claim with a stubbornness to acknowledge allegations made to politicians of power, declaring that he will prevent “attempts to discredit and destroy the dignity of our war heroes”. The public of Sri Lanka has seen the politicians of the island make several claims of improvement in the country, but no action - and action is what’s needed.
Sri Lanka has done an extraordinary job in restoring its outward appearance to the world, as evident in its increased tourism and economic development over the past decade. Unfortunately, beneath the sandy, scenic beaches mixed in with the dancing palm trees, lies a blanket of fear and animosity. The fuel for these unsettling emotions is none other than the politicians lying above it, who have the ability to remove the blanket to allow freedom to ring but choose not to. The state of the island’s inner peace is unclear and what may follow-through may be the minority’s worst nightmare.
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