The resignation of nine Muslim ministers and two governors in Sri Lanka is telling of how much and how swiftly the country has changed in the six weeks since the Easter bombings that killed more than 250 people. The attacks were carried out by a group of radicalised Muslims, later claimed by ISIS as its own. Security forces mopped up remnants of the group within days, arresting scores of people with active help from the wider Muslim community, which had long red-flagged the existence of these rotten apples to the authorities but to little effect. But even as this process continues and investigators are probing the networks of the perpetrators, there are other forces at work digging the crack between the majority Sinhala Buddhist community and the minority Muslims, widening and deepening it by the day.
It is unfortunate that the leadership of the country — divided between a prime minister and president who see each other as rivals in the presidential elections later this year, and both threatened by a former president — has done nothing to calm matters. In fact, they have done the opposite, by allowing majoritarian minded Buddhist monks to seize the agenda and dictate terms. Accused by Sinhala Buddhist extremists of “appeasement” of the Muslim community for votes, the present dispensation appears completely to have surrendered to these forces. The first sign was the imposition of a ban on face veils worn by women, then the laissez faire attitude as rioters targeted Muslims. Clearly the top leadership of the country believes that any attempt to stop these majoritarian forces will go against them at the elections. The resignations came after a hunger strike by a monk demanding that the two governors step down because of their alleged links to those who carried out the Easter attacks. The ministers resigned in solidarity, demanding that the allegations be established by due process instead of by word of mouth. Among those who visited the fasting monk was another man in saffron robes, who was in jail for instigating anti-Muslim violence in the past, until he was freed recently following a questionable presidential pardon.
Sri Lanka has been here before. It was the Tamils then, and it took a long and brutal war to learn that majoritarianism is not a workable political model in plural societies, even in those that do not call themselves secular. It is unfortunate that those lessons have been forgotten so quickly.