Sri Lanka’s Muslims have reason to fear the new Rajapaksa era

The anti-Muslim sentiments that helped him get elected are likely to shape Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tenure as president.

Rajapaksa Sri lanka Reuters
Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves at his supporters as he leaves, after the presidential swearing-in ceremony in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka Nov 18, 2019 [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

On Saturday, Sri Lankans elected Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former secretary of defence and brother of two-time former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as their new president in an election that has seen rising religious tensions take centre stage. 

Gotabaya’s election marked a return to majoritarian politics in the predominantly Buddhist South Asian island nation and left Sri Lanka’s myriad minorities, especially the Muslims who constitute roughly 10 percent of the population, in a precarious position.

He secured victory with an impressive 52.25 percent of the vote but achieved this result with hardly any support from Sri Lanka’s minorities. This marked a significant shift in Sri Lankan politics since Muslims have long been perceived as “kingmakers” in the country and played a key role in determining the winners of presidential and parliamentary elections. In the 2015 presidential elections, for example, they formed a united front with Tamil and Sinhalese opposition groups to defeat then-President Mahinda. But this time around they failed to influence the result of the election and likely lost the opportunity to have a representative in the new cabinet that will be sworn-in in January 2020.

But not having any representation in the cabinet is only the tip of an iceberg of problems awaiting Sri Lanka’s Muslims following Gotabaya’s election.

The newly-elected president, who served as defence secretary under his authoritarian older brother between 2005-2015 and helped him bring an end to Sri Lanka’s 26-year war with Tamil rebels, based his campaign for Saturday’s election on providing strong leadership on national security issues in general and the perceived threat of “Muslim extremism” in particular. This raised concerns among Sri Lanka’s human rights activists, who fear Gotabaya could repeat the human rights violations allegedly committed against minorities during his brother’s tenure.

Easter Sunday bombings behind Rajapaksa’s rise

Gotabaya’s election victory came on the back of a series of coordinated bombings on Easter Sunday that killed at least 257 people and wounded hundreds of others. The attacks, which were claimed by a little known local Muslim armed group, caused the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority to openly turn on the Muslim community. In the months that followed, as the International Crisis Group (ICG) documented in a recent report, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists waged a campaign of “violence and hate” against Sri Lanka’s Muslims, while “a weak and divided political leadership has either stood idly by or, worse, egged on the abuse”. 

Large-scale violence was seen in Kurunegala, Kuliyapitiya and Minuwangoda among other places. As part of the Buddhist hardliners’ campaign against Muslims, it is estimated that more than 30 mosques and Quranic schools, as well as 50 Muslim-owned shops and more than 100 houses, were attacked. Leading Buddhist monks, such as Venerable Rathna Himi and Galaboda Ghanasara, also openly criticised Muslims and encouraged violence against them.

All this boosted the political fortunes of Gotabaya who seized the opportunity to position himself as the nation’s protector against the “Muslim threat” and to run for president on a security ticket.

The dramatic shift in Sri Lankan society’s perception of Muslims and its decision to elect a strictly majoritarian leader like Gotabaya, however, cannot be tied solely to the Easter Sunday bombings.

Tensions had long been simmering under the surface

The growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka that at least partially led to the election of Gotabaya as president is the cumulative result of a set of insecurities specific to the Sinhalese majority.

First, the Sinhalese believe that Muslims in Sri Lanka, who first arrived on the island as traders and continued to be involved in trade over the centuries, are economically better-off than the rest of the Sri Lankan population. This perception fosters a sense of unfair distribution of wealth and is one of the underlying causes behind the long-simmering tensions between the Sinhalese and Muslim communities, which led to bursts of communal violence even before the Easter Sunday attacks.

Second, while the Sinhalese are clearly the majority in Sri Lanka, they carry significant demographic insecurities stemming from the fact that they are a minority in their wider neighbourhood, which is home to some 70 million Indian Tamils. As a result, even a decade after their victory against Tamil rebels, they still have deep-rooted fears about being “outnumbered” in their own homeland. Today, certain politicians and military leaders are using this deep-rooted fear to fuel not only anti-Tamil but also anti-Muslim sentiments in Sri Lanka in order to retain power and advantageous access to resources.

Following the definitive defeat of Tamil separatists in 2009, the post-war economic and social challenges, particularly the lack of progress in terms of reconciliation and resettlement of displaced people, caused the Sri Lankan population to slowly cease its support for Mahinda’s government. Sri Lankans raised questions about the need to maintain the very high levels of military expenditure, given that the threat posed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had been eliminated completely. 

The only way for the government to hold on to power at the time was to turn a blind eye to or even actively encourage the creation of “extremist” Buddhist groups, such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Ravana Balaya; groups which sought to represent the country’s Muslim minority as the new enemy of the state and, in so doing, helped the government to justify its high military spending. Moreover, the creation of this new “threat” allowed Mahinda to ask the public to support the incumbent government that defeated the LTTE in the face of a new security crisis.

While all these efforts did not prove enough to keep Mahinda in power – he lost the presidency in 2015 when the minorities he tried to turn into public enemies joined forces against him – it slowly paved the way for his brother’s election some four years later. Even after Mahinda‘s removal from office, radical Buddhist groups continued to steer anti-Muslim feelings in the Sinhalese population. They even tried to use the desperate attempts by a very small number of Muslim-majority Rohingya to reach the shores of the island to convince the Sinhalese majority that Muslims present a threat to them. 

The BBS was very vocal of its criticism of the arrival of Rohingya refugees on the island and heavily lobbied the government to “send them back”. The group argued that allowing the arrival of a small number of Rohingya refugees could pave the way for a major Muslim refugee influx which, they claimed, would cause a “religious imbalance” and a higher number of terror incidents on the island. These very same groups also led the attacks and boycotts on Muslim businesses following the Easter Sunday bombings.

Third, Sri Lankan Muslims are treated with a growing sense of suspicion by the Sinhalese partly due to a rising conservative trend linked to religious influence from the Middle East. In early 1980, Following the entry of Saudi-funded mosques and satellite television channels proselytising Wahhabi ideals into the country, Muslims in Sri Lanka started to take on increasing signs of religious identity, beginning with the introduction of Hijab as part of school uniforms for girls in the 1980s. This caused alarm among the Sinhalese, who viewed the growing conservatism of the Sri Lankan Muslim community as a worrying sign of its descent into extremism.

These insecurities, exacerbated by the fears triggered by the 9/11 attacks and the consequent mainstreaming of Islamophobia across the world, led the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka to grow increasingly suspicious of Muslims. With some politicians and nationalist groups using these fears and insecurities to gain favour in the eyes of the public, and fringe Muslim extremist groups targeting innocent civilians, these suspicions transformed into outright hostility and caused a return to majoritarian politics in the country.

Following the election of Gotabaya as president, Muslims in Sri Lanka are facing the risk of being marginalised further. As he was elected on the premise of restoring security, Gotabaya is likely to bring forth a government that will play on Sinhalese fears about Muslims and prioritise security on the national agenda. In short, Muslims in Sri Lanka are likely to face a harsher crackdown under Gotabaya’s leadership than ever before.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.