How Religious Competition is Fueling Electoral Violence in Sri Lanka

Incumbent Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa waves to the crowd at a political rally. Via President Rajapaksa’s flickr account.

Guest post by Matthew Isaacs

Incumbent Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa waves to the crowd at a political rally. Via President Rajapaksa's flickr account.
Incumbent Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa waves to the crowd at a political rally. Via President Rajapaksa’s flickr account.

This Thursday Sri Lanka’s voters will go to the polls to determine the fate of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in office since 2005. Until November, Rajapaksa’s grip on power seemed alarmingly secure. In addition to enjoying popular support among the Sinhalese majority in the wake of his 2009 victory over the Tamil Tigers, Rajapaksa has significant influence over the Sri Lankan media and security forces. Close family members occupy many of the most influential positions in Rajapaksa’s government, including Defense Minister, Economic Development Minister, and Speaker of Parliament.

Although the President’s re-election seemed a foregone conclusion as recently as November, Rajapaksa has been placed in the hot seat following the defection from his ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition of Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena along with dozens of other high-ranking UPFA officials and coalition members. Sirisena now enjoys the support of dozens of opposition parties, including the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress (which defected from UPFA coalition in December), and a number of Tamil parties. The unexpected unification of a diverse opposition has put the presidency within Sirisena’s reach.

However, the poll has already been marred by a number of violent incidents, including a shooting prior to a Sirisena rally in the central town of Kahawatta and an attack on election officials in Trincomolee in the Eastern Province. Evidence points to Rajapaksa supporters as the perpetrators in both incidents.

The unexpectedly contentious election has been fueled in part by conflict between the two politically active branches of the Sri Lankan Buddhist clergy, or sangha. While the hardline Buddhist Power Force (Bodu Bala Sena, BBS) supports President Rajapaksa, the slightly more moderate National Heritage Party (Jathika Hela Urumaya, JHU) defected from the UPFA to support Sirisena in November.

Though unprecedented for putting the presidency in play, this monk-on-monk conflict is the latest in a long line of escalating stages of competition within the Buddhist clergy. Following a dismantling of the sangha’s organizational hierarchy in the twentieth century, Sri Lanka’s Buddhist monks have become increasingly politically active as a means of securing influence over the island’s Sinhalese Buddhist population. Political activism has, in turn, engendered competition between groups of monks over the direction and leadership of the sangha.

Since its founding in 2012, the BBS has been implicated in dozens of attacks against religious minorities, including dozens of incidents in which monks directly incited violence against Christians or Muslims. Though the BBS has alienated many moderates, these tactics have increased their appeal among more radical elements of Sinhalese society. These campaigns demonstrate a clear attempt to take hold of the mantle of conservative leadership in the Buddhist clergy.

This movement thus poses a real threat to the current holders of that mantle, the JHU. While the BBS has taken an active role in protest events, the JHU has pursued a similar agenda through legislation. Since entering government in 2004, the all-monk political party has introduced legislation banning religious conversion and has called for the arming of Sinhalese Buddhist civilians to combat the threat posed by religious minorities.

While the JHU’s decision to leave the UPFA was in part a response to widespread corruption, Sirisena’s defection provided the JHU with a clear opportunity to undercut the influence of the BBS. In the context of power struggles within the sangha, the JHU’s defection to the Sirisena camp is a clear declaration of war against the BBS.

In this sense, the outcome of this election will have a significant impact on the balance of power within the Buddhist clergy. A victory for Rajapaksa is a vote of confidence in the BBS. This outcome may well mean several more years of deadly riots targeting Sri Lanka’s religious minorities and a more comprehensive politicization of Buddhism on the island.

A victory for Sirisena is a more complicated prospect. Such an outcome will certainly slow the rising tide of religious violence in Sri Lanka’s streets. However, an empowered JHU may take the opportunity to increase the influence of Buddhism through legislation – a less violent prospect in the short term, but just as threatening to religious minorities in the long term.

That being said, the JHU is only a small part of Sirisena’s coalition. A victory for Sirisena is also a victory for Sri Lanka’s Muslim parties as well as a number of Tamil parties that have been snubbed by the Rajapaksa government despite (or perhaps because of) the end of the Civil War. Should Sirisena win the election, long-term stability in Sri Lanka will depend on the new president’s ability to hold together this diverse coalition.

What does this mean for the prospect of electoral violence? All evidence suggests that a fragmented and politically active Buddhist clergy could spell trouble. By allowing both the Rajapaksa and Sirisena camps to claim religious legitimacy, the fragmentation of the sangha has contributed significantly to the salience of Buddhism in this election. Considerable scholarly research has found that political conflict involving religion is more violent, longer lasting, and less likely to be resolved through negotiated settlement than other forms of political conflict.

The religious character of this election coupled with Sirisena’s growing popularity suggests a high likelihood of violence. If Rajapaksa perceives a real threat from Sirisena on election day, there is little to stop the President from deploying security forces to impact the vote in key opposition areas. Given that both sides claim a degree of religious legitimacy, continued violence across party lines could have devastating effects for a country still reeling from decades of civil war.

Beyond this week’s election, the continued fragmentation of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist clergy and the increasingly combative moves taken by the BBS and JHU are likely to have lasting ramifications for the political stability of Sri Lanka. By pushing religious rivalry into the political sphere, these organizations ensure that once violence starts, it will be exceptionally difficult to stop.

Matthew Isaacs is a PhD candidate in Politics at Brandeis University. His dissertation examines the relationship between formal religious organizations and the political representation of ethnic identity.

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