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Sri Lanka and Asia's failure of tolerance

Island's tragedy highlights regional inability to counter sectarian divisions

| Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan
Sri Lanka's Muslim population is unusually important in its business life.   © Reuters

Sri Lanka's Easter Sunday blasts were a unique tragedy, ending hundreds of lives and violently yanking the country backward toward a past of bloodshed many hoped had been left behind in 2009, with the end of its decades-long civil war.

The decision of Islamic State-linked Muslim groups to bomb churches was rooted in a toxic confluence of local Sri Lankan divisions and potent global Islamism. But the bombings, in which 250 people died, carry a warning with wider resonance -- namely the failure of many emerging Asian nations to build a kind of civic nationalism fit to counter their deepening sectarian divisions.

Sri Lanka's misfortune has many causes. Primary blame rests with its perpetrators, be that IS or its local affiliate, the National Thowheeth Jama'ath. The divided government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena shares responsibility too, given the many security failings that have since come to light.

That said, the attacks also shed light on wider failure, laying bare the post-2009 failure to build an ethnically-harmonious, inclusive state.

Sri Lanka's civil war pitted armed rebels from its northern Tamil minority against the Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist majority. Many hoped its conclusion would then begin to heal fractures between the country's religious groups, including its Muslims and Christians.

Yet since 2009, Sri Lanka's process of post-conflict reconciliation has been slow to nonexistent, despite the best intentions of Wickremesinghe's administration, which emerged following the welcome defeat of the more overtly Sinhalese nationalist leader Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015. And while the vast majority of Sri Lankan Muslims are horrified about the recent attacks, it seems likely that wider anxieties about their status helped to push a small number into the hateful embrace of IS.

In this Sri Lanka is far from alone. Many developing nations in South and Southeast Asia show a pattern of rapid growth going hand-in-hand with worsening ethnic and religious segregation. India is an obvious case. As its election winds toward a conclusion next month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to make strident speeches appealing to his Hindu base, highlighting fears about security in the aftermath of last month's border skirmish with Muslim-majority Pakistan in particular. Whatever else one thinks of Modi, he has done little to reassure minorities or heal social schisms.

Modi has done little to reassure minorities or heal social schisms.   © Reuters

Myanmar is an even more tragic example, given the hopes that greeted the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in 2015. These now stand dashed after years of orchestrated ethnic violence targeting the country's Rohingya Muslims, and a related upsurge in chauvinist Buddhist thinking, which shares much in common with similar movements in Sri Lanka. Variants of the same pattern can be seen in countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia, where leaders from supposedly more moderate parties preside over a drift toward more conservative Islamic politics.

The forces driving these developments are complex, ranging from the rise of social media to wider concerns about international terrorism. But there is broader economic pattern. Optimists hoped that the spoils of Asia's growth in an era of globalization would provide resources fit to repair tattered social fabrics. But more often than not the opposite occurs. As political scientist Samuel Huntington predicted half a century ago in Political Order in Changing Societies, the tumult of economic development can deepen rather than heal ethnic and religious divisions.

Sometimes this process is exacerbated by the style of political leaders, as with Modi or Rajapaksa. In others, they simply appear powerless to stop it, as has been the case with Wickremesinghe more recently in Sri Lanka. Some political parties that have traditionally argued for more tolerant politics are struggling to connect with voters, such as India's opposition Congress. Others, including the secular-leaning Awami League of Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, or indeed Suu Kyi's NLD in Myanmar, have grown increasingly autocratic while in office.

The best way forward is to develop policies that reassure worried minorities, be that with promises of political inclusion or ways of sharing the economic pie more fairly. Either way, historical grievances need to be addressed and more imaginative forms of nationalism developed, which root identity rooted in common values or institutions, not blood, faith and soil.

This is easier said than done, especially in democratic countries where politicians are ever-sensitive to the whims of majority voters. But it is likely to be the economically prudent path. Social disharmony does not always impede growth: the Indian state of Gujarat, which Narendra Modi once ran as chief minister, was both one of the country's most socially divided and economically vibrant. Nonetheless, simmering division tends to be a distraction from economic reform, and one that carries with it the threat of a descent into bloody violence, which certainly does discourage investment.

Sri Lanka will now find this out the hard way. The island's Muslim population is unusually important in its business life. Two of the bombers were sons of Mohamed Ibrahim, a wealthy local spice trader. But many other prominent companies led by Muslim entrepreneurs, such as Brandix, a prominent apparel outsourcer that makes clothes for Marks and Spencer and Victoria's Secret. But Muslims now face economic boycotts and a climate of suspicion, while the wider aftershocks of the attacks will hit everything from foreign investment to tourism.

Yet the true tragedy will now come at the ballot box. Sri Lanka votes later this year in a Presidential election. Given heightened worries about security, the likely outcome is victory for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, hard line brother of the former president and a firm believer in tough, majoritarian rule. In Colombo, as in so many other Asian capitals, the odds of a future that is at once more prosperous and less divided look slim.

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is author of "The Billionaire Raj."

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