Writing in the International Crisis Group (ICG), senior consultant Alan Keenan slams Sri Lanka's "One Country, One Law" Presidential Taskforce as a means by which the Rajapaksa can "divert discontent among the government’s Sinhala Buddhist base toward an embattled minority".
"The Rajapaksa government is deeply unpopular, including among large sections of its core Sinhala Buddhist constituency, and desperate to divert public attention from its economic mismanagement. There is thus a clear if deeply unfortunate logic for it to bring back to the fore the best-known proponent of a theme that was key to getting the president elected: fear of Muslims as a source of 'religious extremism", Keenan writes.
He further notes that whilst the Taskforce may be interpreted as simply requesting uniform treatment of citizens its "discriminatory implication was also obvious from the start". Its establishment gestures towards "a need to 'protect' the Buddhist nature of state and society by eliminating the separate rules and treatment that many Sinhalese believe Muslims use to gain economic and political advantages".
In his statement, Keenan calls for foreign partners and donors to reconsider funding for counter-terrorism programs which "only targets one faith".
"Until such programming finds – or creates – the space to name and challenge the violent history, rhetoric and exclusionary political projects of all communities, it is more likely to perpetuate, rather than resist, the anti-Muslim ideology that today poses the greatest risk of destabilising violence in a country that has yet to recover from decades of brutal civil war" Keenan maintains.
The appointment of Gnanasara
Commenting on the appointment of former convict and extremist monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, to head the President Task Force; Keenan highlights Gnanasara record of inciting anti-Muslim violence, including the June 2014 and March 2018 pogroms.
He describes Gnanasara as a "potentially powerful, and dangerous, asset for reframing political debate, deepening divisions between Tamils and Muslims and possibly even provoking a new round of anti-Muslim unrest".
Keenan further notes Gnanasara's central role in "propagating Buddhist nationalist ideology" as the public face of the country’s leading anti-Muslim campaign group, Bodu Bala Sena.
Gnanasara's appointment follows a presidential pardon issued by Rajapaksa’s predecessor, Maithripala Sirisena, in the final months in office. Gnanasara was serving six years for contempt of court for the wife of Prageeth Eknaligoda; a critic of the then government in 2010.
His appointment furthers the entrenchment of Sinhala Buddhist rule in Sri Lanka which Keenan notes is "nothing new". Keenan highlights that the 1978 constitution enshrined Sri Lanka's duty to give Buddhism the “foremost place” in the country’s religious landscape and to protect it.
"The Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian nature of the Sri Lankan state", Keenan writes, "has had disastrous effects on the country’s ethnic and religious minorities".
In cataloguing the rise in anti-muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka, Keenan details the role of the BBS in propagating hatred against the community including spreading rumours of a Muslim takeover and spreading demographic concerns.
Speaking in June 2014, Gnanasara maintained that:
“This country still has a Sinhala police. A Sinhala army. If a single Sinhalese is touched, that will be the end of them all [Muslims]”.
This precipitated the horrific two days of violence in Aluthgama in which three Muslims and a Tamil security guard were killed. Sinhala rioters set Muslim homes, businesses and mosques alit. Sri Lanka's police are accused of not only enabling the assaults but even assisting the rioters.
Whilst the government distanced itself from the BBS, it enabled the organisation and "like-minded groups permission to hold rallies at a time when government critics were not allowed to do so".
Responding to the violence, Sri Lanka's police took no action to prevent or investigate perpetrators and no one has been prosecuted for these crimes.
Similar scenes of violence also unfolded in February 2018 in Ampara and Kandy where footage showed "show local politicians from the Rajapaksa family’s party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, taking part in the mayhem".
Commenting on the patriarchal Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, Keenan warns that "Gnanasara’s involvement in government efforts to alter it will likely weaken the leverage of Muslim feminist reformers pushing to strengthen women’s marriage and divorce rights".
Currently, the legislation allows for "polygamy, setting no minimum age for marriage, requiring no explicit consent from the bride and establishing all-male courts to hear divorce cases".
Responding to the Easter bombing
Keenen further details how the Sirisena and Rajapaksa administration responded to the Easter Sunday bombings by cracking down on Muslims through a series of targetted legislations which included a ban on the niqab and the burial rites.
Whilst these moves have since been rescinded, with the latter being virulently opposed by UN experts, Keenan notes that families who pursue burials for their loved ones, which includes Christians and Hindus, continue to face hardship.
He further notes ongoing criticism of the government's failure to properly investigate the attack with the government arresting the "chief investigator, Shani Abeysekera, on what appear to be trumped-up charges, and demoted other officers".
He also details the administration's failure to heed recommendations which include "prosecuting Sirisena, who is now a key government ally, and banning BBS, whose anti-Muslim incitement the commission found had contributed to the bombers’ turn to violence in a process of 'reciprocal radicalisation".
Keenan also criticises the government's expansion of Sri Lanka's draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act under the banner of "deradicalisation" of those “holding violent extremist religious ideology”. He highlights that it enables "the defence ministry to detain anyone accused of causing 'acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups' for up to eighteen months, without any judicial process or oversight.
"The regulations were issued without evidence that any significant number of Muslims in Sri Lanka posed a threat to security or would benefit from a program along the contemplated lines" he adds.
Keenan further criticises the administration for its continued detention of a number of prominent Muslim personalities.
Balancing foreign relations
Keenan also notes the attempts by Sri Lanka's foreign minister to allay the concerns from Muslim countries by maintaining a commitment to retaining “personal laws specific to Muslim, Kandyan and Tamil communities”.
"Colombo has carefully calibrated its anti-Muslim policies so as to keep the backing of its hardline Buddhist nationalist supporters and win a degree of international support for helping “counter violent extremism” while maintaining good relations with economic and political allies in the Muslim world," Keenan writes.
Read the full statement here.