Sri Lanka: Refugees And Religion

by Sathiya Moorthy

Coming as does in the midst of the controversy over ensuring the existing exclusive prominence and predominance of Buddhism in the affairs of Sri Lankan State under the new constitutional scheme, the Rohingya refugee issue may have acquired a religious angle that may have otherwise gone unnoticed, whatever be the motive and consequence. Worse still, by attacking some refugees housed by the UNHCR in the Colombo suburb of Mt Lavina, Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liners have once again given a religious angle to what even otherwise was/is a ticklish issue for the Government to handle.

Sri Lanka has prided itself with its strategic locale in the Indian Ocean, and successive Governments, starting at least with President J R Jayewardene, have betted on it for political and diplomatic benefits, by playing the global Peter and Paul against each other. But little has the Government and its strategists looked at the real possibility of the nation being used as a refugee-locale for landing and staying, now that the ‘Sea Tigers’ menace is a thing of the past, and the parent LTTE’s acts of terror, violence and war are confined to the pages of history – at least for now.

The question thus arises if the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) did the best possible thing by arresting the Rohingya refugee boat for trespassing into the nation’s territorial waters and also bringing them to the shore. Leave aside the fact that around 1,300-plus refugees and asylum-seekers many of them from other war-torn countries who are on Sri Lankan soil just now, the timing of the ‘Rohingya episode’ coincides with a sudden burst in international diplomatic and media attention on the issue after Bangladesh claimed that over half a million of them have already crossed into its territory.

This may have already attracted greater refugee-attention to Sri Lanka than earlier, and more so involving professional ‘human smugglers’ operating in various names and forms across the world. True, the SLN has mastered the immediate seas, and has successfully liquidated the ‘Sea Tigers’ with all its known assets, but for them to take on ‘hapless and half/unfed refugees, prone to despair and sickness is another.


True or not, stories woven around such situations could embarrass the Government more than the UNHRC is already doing over allegations of ‘war crimes’, ‘HR violations’ and ‘forced disappearances’. Give it to the pro-LTTE Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora to do its bit for the ‘refugee cause’, and the international community and more so their INGOs and media could well pounce on Sri Lanka on one more count.

It is not without reason or cause. The human-smugglers often risk putting refugee lives at peril and wantonly so. That is the only way, if at all, they could arouse international sympathy, required to pressure host-Governments into ‘acting’ at their behest without having the time and comfort to think things over, in any substantive matter.

But then, there is no better way for them to ensure immediate acceptance of the ‘boat people’ by a neighbourhood nation unless those boats are leaky and over-crowded and the people themselves are sick and tired, hungry and angry. They leave the rest to the international media and INGOs to do it for them and succeed one way or the other.

This has become the norm, acceptable or not, to host-nations. The global trend, especially Europe, where nations used to be sympathetic to the case and cause of refugees in the aftermath of their own experiences from the Second World War, is of Governments opposing them, but the population and opinion-makers fighting the refugees’ cause with local Establishments divided on issues of security and demography on the one hand, and human and humanitarian values, on the other.  

Sinhalas in jeopardy

If the Sri Lankan Government has had such issues and even such divisions, that would have been understandable though, still arguable. Considering that the nation has been a net ‘exporter’ of Tamil refugees and asylum-seekers by their tens of thousands, almost since Independence apart from the large-scale repatriation of Upcountry Tamils to neighbouring India the international community may or may not consider any security concerns of the Government with sympathy, but not necessarily outright support.

The fact also remains that Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees all these past decades, but since 2008 has allowed the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR, not to be confused with UNHRC) to take care of the refugees who land. There is thus no harm in the Government declaring that it was not ready to receive more of them, or review the considered position of all predecessors in signing the UN Convention or enacting a refugee-law of its own.

In this context, the Government and the majority Sinhala-Buddhist polity have to look at their lame lament and latent disinterest in not condemning the monk-led attackers of the Rohingya refugees and ponder over it, too. Through these attacks, the Buddhist hard-liners may have unwittingly identified with their majority Buddhist brethren ruling Myanmar, where the Rohingya problem is located.

This has meant that going beyond the issue of refugee-relief, present and future concerns, the Buddhist hard-liners in the country have inserted a ‘religious angle’ to the discourse that was not present earlier. After all, there have been refugees of the kind from such other Islamic nations such as Iran and Afghanistan, now housed in the country, for a longer period, but they do not seem to have felt threatened.

By inserting a ‘religious angle’ now, that too in relation to another Buddhist-majority country, who knows, Sri Lanka’s majoritarian hard-liners may have put the safety of their brethren working elsewhere, especially in Islamic nations and Muslim neighbourhoods, in jeopardy. If events go that way, the Government should know, so should the Buddhist majority polity, as to whom to blame but themselves.

As has become the norm, Government Ministers have blamed the police for the hard-liners’ attacks on the hapless refugees. They have also indicated that the UNHCR would soon transfer the Rohingyas to third nations, a further indication of a religious-bias, involving not Muslim refugees but brethren Buddhist rulers.  

Stoic silence

President Maithiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have maintained stoic silence on the issue, so has former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, around whom both ‘majoritarian’ and non-majoritarian politics of the nation is still centred on. Ironically, barring C V Wigneswaran, TNA rebel Chief Minister of Northern Province, no Tamil leader, either of the SLT or the Upcountry Tamil community, is known to have spoken up, one way or the other.

As if to make a point, Wigneswaran is reported to have said that there was enough space in the North to house the Rohingya refugees. If he meant not only the 30-odd present ones, but also future arrivals is unclear, but it is a political statement that will be taken with a lot of salt, by all other stake-holders, including the nation’s Muslim political leadership and for justifiable and not-so-justifiable reasons.

The much-divided Muslim polity of the country has been feeble in its protests to the religious attacks, though as Ministers and partners in successive Governments for long, they may have understood the security concerns and consequences better than their lay followers. However, throughout the previous years and decades, it is the silent Muslim masses that have mostly confined themselves to their businesses and family interests have even more silently forced their political leaderships to have a re-think in supporting or joining the Government.

The last time it happened, Muslim political parties sharing power with the Rajapaksa regime could not but quit the Government and coalition after the grassroots-level community murmurs and protests over the attacks by the self-styled ‘Sinhala nationalist’ Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Like the Rajapaksa regime, the present one too has been paying only lip-service to the cause of the community, though this time the direct attack is (only) on the refugees but the indirect target however is the Muslims of Sri Lanka, all the same.

In the present-day political milieu, it would be enough for the Muslims with or without the Sri Lankan Tamils, to stay away from any national-level vote, including a possible referendum on a new Constitution, for the incumbent Government to taste defeat. They may then even decide to try and negotiate a fresh deal with a future Government, than play along the current thinking of the incumbent leadership that they would have the ‘minority vote’ as long as the Rajapaksas are on the other side.  

History repeats

Truth to be acknowledged, throughout the past, the Tamils especially have always played hide-and-seek with any possible solution to the ethnic issue, even as they have convinced themselves and the world that the shoe is on the other, Sinhala-Buddhist foot. The Muslim polity is not adept at playing the game, but then, pushed to the wall, they can play along with the Tamils, and consolidate a ‘minority combine’ as in the pre-war era, possibly roping in the Upcountry Tamils, as well.

Of course, contemporary history would dictate otherwise, but history keeps getting re-written all the same, all the time. It is not only for the majority Sinhala-Buddhist polity and hard-liners to keep doing it all the time. It could well consolidate the Sinhala society behind a known hard-liner all over again, and the soft-pedalling present leadership, especially the majority UNP partner, in this Government, would be left at the mercy of the ‘minorities’ – not the other way round.

There is then the ‘hidden issue’ of the Census-2012 figures, the details of which the Rajapaksa regime did not let out, nor has the present Government opened it up. The Muslim polity especially is shy of asking questions, so is the Upcountry Tamil counterparts, who at least may have other ideas. At least for sections of this Government leadership to tell the Mahanayakes to discipline Buddhist monks involved in incidents and episodes like the attack on the Rohingya refugees even while going through the motions of arresting the one now involved, is only passing on their responsibility, accountability and more!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:

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