Sri Lanka burqa ban: Bigotry masked as ‘National Security’ issue?

Why the statement on Muslim customs by the Public Security Minister is troubling

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By P. M.  Heblikar

Sri Lanka is at the cusp of creating its own national security policy with largely ‘Sri Lankan characteristics’. The ill-fated Easter Sunday Bombings (April 2019) — that claimed hundreds of innocent lives besides causing injuries to hundreds of others and massive economic damage — is the catalyst to the new national security doctrine.

Glimpses of it can be seen in the document entitled The Pathfinder – National Security Strategy 2020 for Sri Lanka crafted by the Colombo-based think-tank, The Pathfinder Foundation, in October 2019.

The Pathfinder Foundation comprises former influential politicians, civil servants, military officials and eminent persons from across the spectrum. It has a 360º overview of the subject addressed in a cogent and candid fashion. The focus is on internal security, and examines the existing fault lines — especially reasons behind the bombings.

What does the new national security strategy for Sri Lanka state?

This document, which is in the public domain, should attract the attention of security analysts for two reasons:

  1. firstly, the bombing incident has brought about changes in the socio-political and religious outlook of the country
  2. secondly, it has created new security architecture with ramifications for the future

The Pathfinder document may have to undergo changes and incorporate new inputs to make it a holistic document capable of finding acceptance across the community.

In the two years since the bombing incident, Sri Lanka has seen several major developments of consequence, mainly the Rajapaksa triumvirate returning to power, both in the Parliament and the presidency, with the mandate for political governance over the next four years.

The eclipse of the traditional political parties, the emergence of the Buddhist Sinhala influence on governance — coupled with partisan trade union movements and decreased popularity of the government — are some noteworthy features.

Now that the major reports on the Church bombings are expected to be made public, partially or otherwise, it will put the spotlight on the former government of President Sirisena and his then Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The calendar has two major items, namely, elections to the provincial councils — now slated for June 2021— and crafting a modern day constitution. Both of them are crucial to the political agenda of the ruling party and also to the others, including the ethnic minority parties. The outcome of the voting at the United Nations Human Rights (UNHR) body is going to be watched with great attention, since its results will determine how the political elements will react to it.

Comments on Muslim customs, madrasas: Avoidable embarrassment for Sri Lanka Govt.

The announcement — by Sarath Weerasekara, Sri Lanka’s minister for public security, on March 13, 2021 that he had readied a Cabinet document that would spell out new regulations on certain Muslim customs, and the closure of madrasas on “national security grounds” — created avoidable embarrassment to the government.

Given the current political situation, the statement was retracted almost immediately, following public outcry as also international reactions — especially the remarks of the Pakistani envoy to Sri Lanka.

Moreover, the government policy on the cremation of COVID-19 victims belonging to the Muslim community has drawn flak from domestic quarters and the international community alike.

‘National Security’ concerns post-Easter bombings

The 138-page report of the Sectoral Oversight Committee, Parliament of Sri Lanka on National Security: On Eliminating New Terrorism and Extremism by Strengthening Friendship Among Races and Religions (19 February 2020) sets out the subject in detail. It deals with emotive issues in a clear manner, taking into account inputs from a cross-section of the community.

Two things must be said:

  1. firstly, the government had undertaken the task at the request of mainstream Muslim organizations
  2. secondly, the oversight committee had made a detailed study of the subject and given suitable recommendations

The chapters on education, banning face covering, creation of a single ministry of religious affairs are very significant. There are other noteworthy recommendations.

It is now for the executive branch of the government to implement the policy in a seamless manner, taking the entire country into confidence.

The statement by the Public Security Minister, Sarath Werasekara, however, that the suggested changes are based on “national security grounds” is troubling, especially without assigning reasons or giving adequate clarifications.

What did he have in mind at the time of making the statement from the precincts of a Hindu temple? The government, however, must take credit for postponing any decision or action on it for the time being, as stated by Keheliya Rambukwella, the government spokesman.

-PM Heblikar is Managing Trustee, Institute of Contemporary Studies Bangalore (ICSB). This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. This article was originally featured on thequint.com

 

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