After spending five days in Maldives in a remote island, I arrived in Colombo from Male and straight headed for Kandy, the major city in the central highlands and famous for its tea plantations in the hills surrounding the city. But I did not have the slightest idea that I was heading for the very epicentre of an anti-Muslim riot in progress in the areas around the city. This was my first visit to Sri Lanka. Talking to many of my Sri Lankan friends and information gathered from other sources, I formed an idea that despite an ethnically and religiously diverse country and having a relatively small population (21 million) compared to Bangladesh (a country double the size of Sri Lanka in area but eight times more in population) and not to speak of the devastation caused by the 2004 tsunami and the bloody war against the Tamil separatists, the country appears to have achieved a certain degree of modernity in developing state institutions that other South Asian sub-continental countries, including India and Bangladesh, can look up to, or more precisely can aspire for, such achievements. Its economic achievements are also commendable.
Sri Lankan life expectancy at birth is 75 years and increasing. The country has a universal health care system and spends 3.5 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) on health care. In a recent report, the World Bank lauded Sri Lanka's health service as the best among middle-income countries. Free education from the primary to the tertiary levels is constitutionally guaranteed and considered as a fundamental right. The adult literacy rate is 92.6 per cent, highest in the sub-continent and also one of the highest in the world. 2.2 per cent of GDP is spent on education. The economy achieved a growth rate of 4.7 per cent in 2017 and per capita income doubled over the last decade with a per capita income now standing at US$4,065. Along with rising income, poverty rate dropped from 15 per cent to 7.6 per cent and the unemployment rate also dropped from 7.2 per cent to 4.3 per cent during the same period.
Both Kandy and Colombo, the capital city, definitely display the signs of prosperity and rising confidence in the country's economic future. Cities are also very clean and orderly unlike cities in other countries in the sub-continent such as India and Bangladesh. Colombo exudes an aura of rising prosperity and confidence in its future. This is reflected in a land reclamation project near Colombo. This will enable Sri Lanka to add to its landmass as has been done in Singapore. This reclaimed land is planned to be the hub of the Colombo International Financial City (CIFC). While the CIFC project faced some obstacles as the new President Maithripala Sirisena took power, it appears that the project is back on track now. As a late comer to the world of international finance, making dent into the already established centres, such as Singapore, Mumbai and Dubai will be a challenging task. But you never know until you try it. This project has been undertaken also in a bid to diversify the economy. Meanwhile, the government is undertaking major tax reforms and will open tax files for every one above the age of 18 with effect from April 01 this year. This will enable the government to impose direct taxes on almost everyone in the country.
More initiatives are afoot to further diversify the economy. The country is endowed with beautiful beaches and wonderful ecological diversity. The government is promoting eco-friendly tourism. To aid tourism and other economic diversification projects, the government is making huge investment in infrastructure. Further privatisation of state-owned enterprises will also be undertaken to ease the burden of public debt which is relatively high (the debt/GDP ratio stood at 79.6 per cent in 2017).
Since independence, Sri Lanka's history has been marked by incidents of communal and religious violence which was an enduring feature of the British colonial rule in the sub-continent; the British colonial administration itself quite often instigated such violence. But despite decolonisation that legacy still continues not only in Sri Lanka but also in India. All communal violence in Sri Lanka and also in India (where the current Prime Minister Naredra Modi himself orchestrated a pogrom against the Muslims in 2002 while he was Chief Minister of Gujarat) are mostly sponsored by the state with the law enforcement and security apparatus actively aiding and abetting it. Since the early 1950s a series of anti-Tamil riots took place in the country.
Sri Lanka went through a prolonged armed conflict for 26 years which ended in 2009 through a military victory. The conflict saw the rise of radical Sinhalese (who are Buddhist and speak Sinhalese) nationalism which found its expression through the Buddhist clergy establishment who became very active in politics and advocated merciless pursuit of war against the Tamils (who are Hindus and speak Tamil). They still advocate a purely Buddhist State. They use the Mahavamsa (The Great Chronicle) written in Pali (Pali is the forerunner of Bengali, the language spoken in Bangladesh), a historical chronicle, to justify their stand. The Chronicle portrays Sri Lanka as the "Dhammadeepa", the chosen land of Buddha, to protect and propagate his "Dhamma". Implicit in the saying is that Sri Lanka is a "Buddhist country" where Buddhism alone as a religion will prevail. The state has also given Buddhism "the foremost place'' among the country's religions. Since the end of the civil war in 2009, the rage has now been directed against the Muslims who mostly speak Tamil but not considered as Tamils or Sinhalese, but only as Muslims thus leaving them in a peculiar ethnic space of their own.
Though the radicalised Buddhist religious establishment has turned into a politically destabilising force in Sri Lanka as in Myanmar (the notorious ultranationalist Myanmar Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu attended the BoduBalaSena (Buddhist Force) convention in Colombo in September 2014 and was feted by the radical nationalist Buddhists establishment. Also the current Myanmar Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Han Tu maintains close liaison with the Buddhist religious establishment in Sri Lanka. The ambassador appears as a guest of honour at various Buddhist ceremonies in Sri Lanka.), yet it exercises considerable influence on the government in developing policies towards minorities in the country as well as help in rewriting the history to suit its political ends. Some political analysts in Sri Lanka argue that Buddhist chauvinism in Sri Lanka is out of control and these radicals draw inspiration from the Buddhist extremists in Myanmar and Hindu nationalist radicals in India hostile to Muslims. Buddhist radicals in Sri Lanka argue that Islam is a threat to the Buddhist way of life. So much so that Buddhist radicals in Sri Lanka now cite the Mahavamsa in defence of killing Muslims in Sri Lanka.
The latest spate of anti-Muslim riot was triggered by a rumour that a small-time Muslim restaurateur named F.L. Farsith was adding contraceptives to food served to Sinhalese customers. The rumour's subtext was clear that Muslims were attempting to wipe out the majority Sinhalese community. The clothing stores, which are mostly owned by Muslims, have also been the target of communal frenzy on the same ground as the restaurateur was accused of. While these accusations may sound farcical to us, they are pretty deadly serious for the Muslims in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Secretariat for Muslims, a civil society group, logged more than 600 cases of attack and threat to Muslims in the last five years. A number of mosques, homes and businesses were destroyed as the Sinhalese mob ran amok.
More ominous, like in India, police and politicians, backed by the country's former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, joined the latest anti-Muslim riots in Kandy. According to Reuters, information gathered from victims and eye-witnesses, backed by CCTV footage, clearly show that members of an elite paramilitary police unit, the Special Task Force (STF) assaulting Muslim clerics and leaders. They used abusive language in addressing the Muslims and accused them of being terrorists (a popular theme in India and Myanmar also). The role of police in particular, clearly demonstrates that the current government practically has lost control over its own security and law-enforcement forces. However, Rajapaksa has denied the allegation of his involvement in the riots.
There are clear indications that the post-civil war governments in Sri Lanka allowed, if not encouraged, pro-Sinhalese Buddhist movement to flourish and gain increasing political strength. In their drive to build an entirely Sinhalese Buddhist state leaving no space for any ethnic or religious diversity, the use of Islamophobia has become one the major instruments to articulate that aggressive Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism. In this regard they are on the same page with the Hindu nationalist forces in India. Such religious and ethnic conflicts threaten to tear down the country's social fabric thus seriously compromising its optimistic economic future.
Muhammad Mahmood is an independent economic and political analyst.
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