Getting the Story Right
Last week the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)—a bipartisan U.S. federal government commission—released a highly optimistic report on the degree of religious freedom in Sri Lanka. Notwithstanding broader questions on the right of any country to pass judgment on another country’s internal affairs, Sri Lankans should pay attention to this report as it could potentially influence U.S.’s policy towards Sri Lanka. And given U.S.’s dominant global role, such policy would have significant bearing on Sri Lanka’s overall geopolitical standing. As such, while it was heartening to note the rosy prognosis, it was also disappointing that this report was based on extremely flimsy evidence.
Primarily, the report is a damning indictment of the previous regime’s degree of religious intolerance. Detailing the many narrow-minded policies and action of that regime, the report equals its electoral defeat in January to the dawning of a more tolerant society in Sri Lanka. For us, this is a bit tenuous and we feel that the report is connecting the dots too quickly. True, the defeat of such an insular regime provides a huge opportunity to move in the right direction. But, to conclude that the defeat of that regime—by itself—consists a transformation of society, we feel, is a bit premature. Despite the right sound-bites coming from the new administration, the real proof of the pudding is in how average Sri Lankans—of different ethnic/religious backgrounds—experience their day-to-day interactions.
Lankaforum tried to get at this via its perception surveys in the Northern and Central Provinces during the Feb/Mar 2015 period. And our findings seem to indicate that the average Sri Lankans are not yet fully convinced—as opposed to USCIRF—that the society is headed in the right direction. In response to a straightforward question about the availability of space to practice cultural/religious norms, only the Sinhalese were overwhelmingly convinced. Both minorities—Tamils and Muslims—displayed some reservations (see below).
Similarly, asked if their particular ethnic/religious community faced additional challenges, both minorities seem to think so. As the following graph indicates, this contrasts significantly with how the Sinhalese feel about the situation.
Going further, this difference of opinion also extended to the main causes of these grievances. While the Sinhalese identified lack of employment opportunities, political marginalization, and government corruption, as important, the minorities identified additional factors—such as economic marginalization, actions by the Sri Lankan military, government discrimination, government insensitivity and discrimination by other groups—contributing to these problems. For us, these findings clearly indicate that the new administration’s promise of greater tolerance is yet to manifest fully at the ground-level, in contrast to USCIRF’s findings.
No doubt Sri Lanka stands to gain immensely from improved relations with the U.S.—from improved trade prospects to support at the UNHRC. But to claim that only Sri Lanka would gain from this relationship is also not accurate. Despite its small size, the island nation's location provides plenty of strategic value for the U.S.—whether to have a friendly port-of-call in the middle of the Indian Ocean or to push back on China's expanding regional influence. As such, we hope that the U.S. would come clean and clearly admit to that. It is simply disingenuous (and patronizing) to instead cast the recent rapprochement as a reward for Sri Lanka's ‘good behavior’—especially when that claim is supported by pseudo-analytics like the USCIRF report.