Religious Freedom and Sri Lanka's Upcoming Election

A child protests against the Buddhist nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena.


Religious Freedom and Sri Lanka's Upcoming Election

Sahar Chaudhry

04 Aug 2015

The inaction of the previous government led to increased persecution of religious minority communities in Sri Lanka. The situation has improved since the March 2015 election, writes Sahar Chaudhry.

Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) may have ended in 2009, but the pluralistic country's battle for full religious freedom, communal harmony, and reconciliation continues. The country's general elections on 17 August are around the corner and former-President Mahinda Rajapaksa is running for prime minister. With this, there is a risk of an increase in religiously-divisive rhetoric, or worse, violence against religious minority communities by members and supporters of Buddhist nationalist groups, particularly Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Sinhala Ravaya. Whatever the result of the forthcoming election, the international community and advocates of religious freedom should continue to monitor the situation.

I visited Sri Lanka twice in recent months, once before the January 2015 elections and once after, which allowed me to see firsthand how things changed for the better. In August 2014, I travelled to Sri Lanka to assess the religious freedom situation on behalf of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and discovered that negative policies of the Rajapaksa government were raised in every conversation. In March 2015, following Maitripala Sirisena's victory over Mr. Rajapaksa in the elections, I returned with USCIRF Commissioner Eric Schwartz. The differences in climate between the first and second visits were stark, and the number of reports of religiously-motivated harassment and violence had dropped significantly. For the religious minority communities and non-governmental organisations I met during both visits, the improvements for religious freedom and communal harmony were directly correlated with Sirisena's win. 

As USCIRF noted in our annual report, during the Rajapaksa government USCIRF received numerous reports of attacks against religious minority communities by extremist monks and laity affiliated with Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist groups. Government officials and police did not stop these attacks, did not provide minority communities with adequate protection, harassed religious minorities at their places of worship, and were even involved in some of the attacks themselves. For example, in June 2014 a mob of around 500 Buddhist nationalists attacked Muslims in the towns of Aluthgama, Beruwala, and Dharga in the southwestern Kalutara district, leaving several people dead, dozens severely injured, an estimated 10,000 people displaced, and mosques and Muslim-owned properties destroyed. There were also dozens of attacks against Christian churches in 2014. During my visit to Sri Lanka in August 2014, I also heard about BBS' divisive and inflammatory propaganda, including claims that Muslims were secretly sterilising Buddhist women and that Christians were forcing Buddhists to convert away from their faith.

There have been improvements for human rights, including religious freedom.

The Rajapaksa government's inability and unwillingness to curtail BBS' propaganda and violent attacks was not the most troubling religious freedom issue. There are also longstanding allegations that senior government officials, including then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (President Rajapaska's brother), supported BBS both financially and by protecting them from investigation or arrest for their crimes. The Rajapaksa government also limited other internationally protected human rights, including the freedoms of expression and assembly that are inherently intertwined with religious freedom.

In the short time since Mr Sirisena was elected president, there have been several improvements for human rights, including religious freedom. For example, President Sirisena created three new ministries to handle religious affairs for the Muslim, Christian, and Hindu communities. Most importantly, Muslim and Christian communities have reported to USCIRF that the number of violent attacks and harassment cases have diminished considerably. While some concerns remain, Sri Lanka has seen significant progress on these issues. 

But this trend could change. Mr Rajapaksa maintains significant support, predominately from Sinhalese Buddhists and Buddhist nationalists, including BBS. Meanwhile, religious minority communities and ethnic Tamils are largely believed to be responsible for Rajapaksa's defeat in January. Therefore, the August elections may show how deeply divided the country is along religious and ethnic lines, which could exacerbate those tensions and undermine Sri Lanka's positive steps towards religious and communal harmony and reconciliation. 

The government should pursue policies that bolster religious harmony.

As Sri Lanka moves past the election, no matter the results, the government should pursue actions and policies that bolster religious and communal harmony. Such actions would include elected leaders speaking out and publicly denouncing religiously-motivated harassment and violence, as well as the government providing training for local government officials, police officers and judges on international religious freedom standards.

Finally, the international community should encourage the government to cast off the old vestiges of the civil war by allowing an independent and transparent investigation of war crimes, including targeted attacks on religious minority communities. In order for Sri Lanka to win the battle for full religious freedom, communal harmony, and reconciliation, all Sri Lankans regardless of religious or ethnic community must know that religiously-motivated attacks and persecution will not be tolerated and perpetrators of these crimes will be held accountable.


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