Course:ANTH302A/2020/Sri Lanka

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Introduction

Flag of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka, a country located south of India, has an estimated population of 22.8 million people.[1] Sri Lanka has two capitals: Colombo, the judicial and executive capital, and Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, the legislative capital.[2] Sri Lanka is considered a lower-middle-income island country with multiple ethnic and religious populations.[2] As of 2009, the region is recuperating from civil conflicts.[1] Despite this, Sri Lanka is a swiftly developing region.

According to the CoronaTracker database (2020), there are 2,902 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka as of August 2020.[3] Sri Lanka has a 95.1% recovery rate and a 0.4% fatality rate, with 11 deaths overall. On March 11, 2020, the first local case was confirmed in "a hospital near Colombo",[4] and the first death was confirmed on March 29, 2020, when a 65-year old man died in the Colombo's Infectious Diseases Hospital.[5] On March 20, 2020, Sri Lanka began a total pandemic lockdown to prevent the spreading of COVID within the community as well as from foreign countries.[6] After three months, the lockdown was lifted on June 20, 2020, with schools and stores opening gradually under strict pandemic policies. However, air and sea borders remain closed, and all international flights are suspended to prevent COVID-19 from re-entering the country.

COVID-19 is already being shown to have environmental effects in Sri Lanka, such as impacts on pollution levels and animal welfare. Drastic changes have occurred during lockdown on areas such as human activities, foreign trading, staff supervision, tourism regulations, and waste production. While some of these changes have resulted in favorable outcomes, such as reducing pollution levels,[7] and animals' stress levels,[8] other alterations have led to issues, such as lack of regulation and supervision over waste disposal,[9] and an upsurge in illegal animal tradings.[10]

COVID-19 has affected migrant workers in meaningful ways. About 20-25% of Sri Lanka’s working population work overseas, and numerous Chinese workers work in the country’s development projects.[11] Migrant workers are experiencing a disparity between their requests to the Sri Lankan government for help and the government’s efforts. While the government created an online portal to allow migrant workers to reach out for help,[12] there are many migrants still stranded in foreign countries.[13] Additionally, workers that make up minorities in Sri Lanka face marginalization within the country in relation to the pandemic, such as through Islamophobia.[14] Therefore, it is possible that Chinese workers in Sri Lanka will also experience marginalization or discrimination. Learning from previous disasters and disaster responses, such as responses to the tsunami in the area, and the challenges involved, such as the landscape itself,[15] may help Sri Lanka help migrant workers effectively. Considering the concerns and priorities of the workers may also be helpful.[16]

COVID-19 also had an effect on the issue of violence against women (VAW), exacerbating the underlying gender inequalities present in Sri Lanka. There is currently no systemic data on the rates of VAW;[2] this is a structural barrier that is hindering the progress of eradicating VAW. Thorough analysis inclusive of the rates of VAW and patriarchal values behind VAW, as well as the policies that have been implemented to limit these rates, may help provide strategies for reducing violence against women in Sri Lanka.

COVID-19’s impact on religions in Sri Lanka centers around the four main religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity; COVID-19 has agitated and, in some cases, inflamed the already strained relationships between the main religions. Much of the instability in Sri Lanka is directly connected to artificial religious superiority allocated by the Sri Lankan Constitution to protect Buddhism and award this doctrine preferential treatment.[17] The other religions, those not protected, such as Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity, not only form minorities but are systematically abused due to their minority status.[18]

COVID-19 has facilitated the issue of communal violence, which can be described as a "form of violence that is perpetrated across ethnic or communal lines, the violent parties feel solidarity for their respective groups, and victims are chosen based upon group membership",[19] with the issue worsening in Sri Lanka during the pandemic. The Sri Lankan government itself targets minorities, including Tamils and Muslims. For instance, COVID-19 victims are made to be cremated, regardless of religion and burial being approved under the World Health Organization guidelines.[14] While the government targets minorities during the pandemic, it openly supports other communities.

COVID-19 has affected Sri Lanka's economy in several ways, such as through border closures and associated blows to the tourism industry. The recent efforts to re-open the borders and reignite the tourism industry outlines how the country has been affected by the recent border closures and what they are doing to open them back up and increase tourism. However, tourism is a controversial industry due to its relationship to colonialism and modern-day profitability related to benevolent colonialism.

COVID-19 has a special relationship with inequality in Sri Lanka. Although Sri Lanka has several advantages, compared to India, by some measures of success, it nonetheless faces challenges regarding the treatment of its citizens along social and economic lines, with its citizens suffering from rampant inequality. Sri Lanka experiences both marginalization of minorities manifested and worsened by the pandemic as well as statistical wealth inequality.

Environmental Effects of The Lockdown

Plastic pollution in Sri Lanka

COVID-19 is associated with both positive and negative impacts, through the pandemic lockdown, on various environmental issues in Sri Lanka. Environmental concerns are some of the most complex and problematic issues in Sri Lanka, especially with regard to pollution and animal welfare.[20]

Impact on Air, Land, and Marine Pollution

As of May 2020, the monitoring station run by the Central Environment Authority (CEA) and the National Building Research Organization (NBRO) has found a 75% drop in PM 2.5 and a 65% drop in PM 10 levels. Both PM 2.5 and PM 10 are air pollutants, which pose serious health concerns for humans at a high level[7]. May and June's results are only half the measurement of air pollutant levels monitored in February, setting the record of being the lowest PM average in Sri Lanka in 20 years. Various officials and media sources suggest that a reduction in vehicle traffic during the lockdown is the main reason behind this positive change. It has been noted that vehicular emissions were previously responsible for more than 60% of the total air pollution in Sri Lanka, especially in urban areas. In addition, decreases in "industrial activity, mining, coal- and diesel-fired power plants, domestic activity, burning of agricultural residue, and the traditional slash-and-burn farming method" due to the lockdown were also held accountable for reducing methane and Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) releases.[7] Moreover, the temporary pause in various manufacturing processes further reduced water waste and decreased the nitrate and phosphate levels in water by 30%. Additionally, due to the reduction in tourism, plastic pollution on beaches and other popular tourist sites has also gone down by 40% in May compared to previous months.

However, as citizens become increasingly adapted to the lockdown lifestyle, some negative consequences COVID-19 posed on pollution levels are becoming evident as citizens became increasingly adapted to the lockdown lifestyle.[9] Plastic pollution began increasing dramatically in June as more people had access to masks and food deliveries. On the one hand, massive amounts of single-use plastic products were being produced daily to meet citizens' everyday needs. On the other hand, due to limited staffing, only 44% of all plastic waste was correctly collected, with a majority ending up on land or in the ocean. If the current plastic-use trend continues, it is anticipated that Sri Lanka can end up with more plastic pollution than before the lockdown began.

In addition, Zubair (2020) also criticized the media for posing COVID-19 as the solution to pollution problems in Sri Lanka.[21] While Zubair acknowledged the positive impact COVID-19 had on the environment, he argues that the public should not be dependent on this to solve long-term environmental issues. He emphasizes that the decreases in industrial activities and vehicle usage are only temporary, and asserts that the pollution level will inevitably rise to normal again when the lockdown ends. Additionally, researchers have found that the seasonal changes in wind direction that bring "clean [and] fresh air from the Indian Ocean" are the actual primary reason behind the significant drop in PM 2.5 and PM 10 levels.[21] Moreover, Zubair criticizes the government for using limited staffing as an excuse as there was no supervision on grasslands or forests and limited regulation against plastic waste even before the lockdown began. Similar criticism has also been made by Hong (2020), which suggested a new and more reliable climate monitoring system was needed so people could have access to accurate pollution measurements at all times.[22] Hong strongly believed that having apps that allowed citizens themselves to monitor the air condition would help to promote the need for environmental conservation. Furthermore, Rest, Lord and Butler (2015) also stressed the importance of preparing for "medium-and long-term prognosis after disasters [occurred]".[23] Their stands tied back to Zubair's point of needing to make real and long-term plans to improve air and marine quality rather than being satisfied over temporary results.

Impact on Animal Welfare

In Sri Lanka, animals in parks were frequently over-stressed due to the over-tourism year-around.[8] Animal's daily movements were also heavily restricted due to the overwhelming numbers of cars parked in these national parks. However, as parks became closed for visitation, animals were now given the freedom and opportunity to adjust their circadian cycles, which were previously disrupted by over-tourism. With fewer visitors, parks' environment also significantly improved as vegetation that was previously ruined by tourists and vehicle emissions now had the opportunity to recover. As a result, the animal mortality rate has decreased dramatically, with much fewer death resulting from environmental hazards. Furthermore, the decline in worldwide fishery tradings allowed developing countries, such as Sri Lanka, to recover some of their heavily exploited marine resources.[24] Reduction in excessive fishing behaviors has shown positive results as some of the previously declining populations of marine species were now increasing in numbers again.

However, the reduction in tourism quickly became a major problem when animals began to show extreme behaviors due to their over-dependence on humans.[8] Despite that officials and professionals had always warned not to feed wild animals, it was still a common practice amongst tourists and citizens. As a result, some animals, especially elephants, have developed preferences for human food. As the lockdown began, these animals had been suffering as they were no longer fed at the same rate as before by overflowing tourists. Consequently, animals began responding aggressively by "blocking dirt tracks and halting safari jeeps to sniff out food inside".[8] These behaviors posed serious dangers to households as citizens risked property damages, financial losses, and potential starvation when animals stole food from their storage.

Rezwan (2020) further found that many national parks had reported increased suspected poaching actions, with around 40 more poachers arrested per month.[10] As many national parks were closed down and staffing had undergone a significant decrease, animals became extremely vulnerable to poachers due to limited supervision. An estimated 600 wild animals had been killed by poachers per day after the lockdown began, and the numbers continued to rise steadily. One potential reason behind this issue could be due to the job loss during the pandemic that turned local citizens towards poaching to make money to survive[24]. Endangered animals, such as leopards, were especially targeted because they could be sold for a very high price in black markets.[10] Stirrat (2020)'s suggestion of viewing everything from a positive and negative perspective was especially evident in animal welfare under the pandemic lockdown.[25] In this case, the reduction in tourism "starts out as a gift" but also turned into a severe disadvantage as tourism used to be one of the major protection animals has against poaching behaviors.[25]

Migrant Workers’ Challenges

Dr. Sara Shneiderman (2018), in a lecture regarding her research on “Expertise, Labour and Mobility in Nepal's Post-Conflict, Post-Disaster Reconstruction”, she argues that, as evidenced in her case study of Nepal, for responses to disaster to be successful, there must be an element of ‘negotiation’ between “indigenous knowledge about building design, functionality and aesthetics, and technical expertise brought into communities by outsiders”.[16] Shneiderman’s research highlights how, in Nepal, government response to the series of earthquakes could have been improved by this kind of dialogue; Nepal’s government hired 3,000 engineers to oversee reconstruction in rural areas, but the designs “were developed without full consultation”, and the locals felt frustrated that their own skills and priorities were “not always fully acknowledged”.[16]  The opinions of the engineers took precedent over the people who would later inhabit the homes being built,[16] reflecting a hierarchy of legitimacy whereby the expertise of the locals, which is often knowledge that has been built through generations, is seen as inferior to academic expertise.

A similar hierarchy can be observed in government response in Sri Lanka to the COVID-19 pandemic. As reported by Mohammed Rasooldeen (2020)’s article, “Sri Lanka launches online portal for migrant workers amid virus scare”, in Arab News, the Sri Lankan government has created an ‘online portal’ to help migrant workers overseas amid the pandemic.[12] A majority of the inquiries submitted by migrant workers abroad “relate to the possibility of a return to the country”,[12] according to the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Though it will be interesting to see the effect of this use of digital technology in delivering aid to migrant workers efficiently, other aspects of government response to the pandemic suggest the priorities and concerns of migrant workers may not be taken into account or considered equally among workers.

According to Human Rights Watch (2020)’s article “Covid-19 Fueling Anti-Asian Racism and Xenophobia Worldwide”, the Sri Lankan government ruled that anyone who dies from Covid-19 complications must be cremated, which violates freedom of religion as cremation goes against Islamic practice.[26] Additionally, the report indicates that “Several government officials have made stigmatizing public comments about Sri Lanka’s minority Muslim community in the context of the pandemic, while hate speech is simultaneously being reported across the country.[26] This includes claims that Muslims are responsible for deliberately spreading the pandemic, along with calls for boycotts of Muslim businesses".[26] It is not unlikely that migrant workers in Sri Lanka, and perhaps Sri Lankan workers abroad, may experience similar scapegoating, as well as having their concerns and priorities put aside. Muslim inhabitants and migrant workers may experience discrimination even after death, in part mediated by the covid-19 pandemic and Islamophobic sentiments.

Workers at a garment factory production line in Sri Lanka, illustrating one of the key industries for migrant workers in Sri Lanka.

Based on long-term ethnographic research carried out in the Katunayake FTZ, Sandya Hewamanne's (2008) essay, “City of Whores”, argues that “while FTZ workers’ participation in stigmatized cultural practices and spaces was explicitly transgressive and critical at some levels, they also demonstrated acquiescence to different hegemonic influences, especially capitalist hegemony";[27] In analyzing these ‘oppositional practices’ as responses to marginalization, Hewamanne concludes that they are mediated by “transnational flows of ideas and resources”.[27] Further research on the way Islamophobic sentiments will shape identity and social behaviour in Sri Lanka, while adopting Hewamanne’s awareness of gender dynamics, may provide insight into the intersection between gender and religion in the experience of migrant workers in Sri Lanka and around the world.

Kalinga Tudor Silva's (2020) research, “Population Ageing and COVID-19 Infections in Sri Lanka”, notes the extreme pertinence of the COVID crisis and government response for both migrant workers from or working in Sri Lanka.[11] According to Tudor Silva’s research, about 20-25% of Sri Lanka’s working population work overseas, and “Two of the more popular destinations for Sri Lankan migrant workers are Italy and South Korea, two leading COVID-19 hot spots in the world. On the other hand, a large number of Chinese workers are employed in development projects in Sri Lanka".[11] Tudor Silva’s focus on Sri Lanka’s aging population also presents another dimension of consequences for migrant workers from Sri Lanka, who may struggle with the pressure of caring for or being there for older relatives while simultaneously working or being stranded abroad.

The impact of COVID-related job loss on migrant workers in Sri Lanka and elsewhere is yet to show. The financial consequences will certainly be significant: Sri Lanka’s Daily Financial Times’s (2020) article, “Apparel industry fears 100,000 job losses post-COVID-19”, reports that “Joint Apparel Association Forum (JAAF) estimates that close to 100,000 people engaged in the industry will be unemployed owing to COVID-19 pandemic impact with multiple waves experienced in major markets”.[28] Migrant workers are already poor; Hewamanne’s essay, “City of Whores”, outlines how migrant women are particularly affected, both living in poverty and having “to struggle to access public goods and services”.[27] Therefore, the effect of additional poverty due to job loss may be severe. Hewamanne’s research also shows that Sri Lanka’s poor were already marginalized; The rural women turned city garment factory workers in the FTZ Hewamanne interviews for her research were openly judged and criticized, and “their conduct became the space where deep anxieties and ambivalences over notions of development, modernity, and sexuality were played out".[27] The Tamil Guardian’s (2020) article, “Migrant workers teargassed at protest outside Sri Lankan embassy in Jordan”, reports on migrant workers’ exercise of agency in protesting their conditions, being laid off and stranded in a country where they are largely unprotected.[13] The online portal, created by the Sri Lankan government to help,[12] is contrasted against the large number of workers still stranded abroad. Additionally, the workers’ demands for “assistance from Sri Lankan authorities” in returning to the island is countered by further marginalization in the form of teargas.[13]

Similar to Dr. Shneiderman’s research, which acknowledges Nepal’s geography as another hinderance in disaster response, Stirrat’s (2006) research, “Competitive humanitarianism: Relief and the tsunami in Sri Lanka”, notes how Sri Lanka’s government struggled to appropriately respond to the tsunami because its tsunami-affected population was spread along the coast rather than focused in one central area.[15] It is likely that Sri Lanka will similarly struggle with COVID response, as they would need to have enough medical equipment to supply the entire island, and facilitate its transport, in order to not exacerbate death toll and complications.

Effects of COVID-19 on Violence Against Women in Sri Lanka

Infographic with Sri Lankan Helplines

Globally, 243 million women have endured some form of sexual or physical violence in the past twelve months.[29] The level of global violence has risen during global lockdowns amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. This section aims to assess the manner in which the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated violence against women in Sri Lanka. Violence against women (VAW) manifests itself in various forms, including femicide, sexual violence and harassment, cyber harassment, intimate partner violence, and trafficking. Such forms of violence also frequently apply to children under the age of 18. Patriarchal values that provide men with more power and control in society is one of the causes of VAW. Despite that Sri Lanka was the first country in the world to have democratically elected a female Prime Minister,[30] Sri Lanka has low female participation rates in politics,[2] thus, patriarchal values persist.

Analytical Frameworks to Better Understand VAW

Patriarchal values of masculinity can be identified as ideologies behind violence against women and children. Socially embedded values of patriarchal control can lead to physical control that is enforced through violence. Sandya Hewamanne recalls that during her field research, a majority of men, including police workers, have referred to workers along the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ) as "whores".[31] Young women in the urban areas of Sri Lanka are frequently thought of as loosely moralled, unmarried and ultimately less worthy than other women. Hewamanne goes on to examine the gender and class relations that have constructed this derogatory narrative of FTZ workers; most notably, workers themselves refuse to reduce themselves to the verbal, physical and sexual violence that is present in their every day lives.[31] Hewamanne’s ethnographic work informs the way in which narratives have been constructed around women who leave their families to work in urban climates. Colonial values have created the ideal of loyal, subordinate women who stay in their paternal homes. However, in both urban and rural areas, violence against women persists.[32]

Alpa Shah’s book, Nightmarch,[33] demonstrates that even when there is great desire to create systemic change, patriarchal values and gender discrimination can manifest themselves in movements against class, caste and gender discrimination. In Nightmarch, Shah describes the Maoist Naxalites as guerilla fighters who have read feminist readings, and have actively mobilized women in rural areas to join their movement. Despite their desire to change gender norms, Shah’s ethnographic research illuminates that Maoist hierarchies “often reproduce the cultural norms of the structures they sought to attack”.[33] This demonstrates that in dismantling patriarchal values and in combating violence against women, Sri Lankan activists, non-governmental organizations, non profits, and policies must be careful not to reproduce misogynistic cultural norms.

The 2020 article “How COVID-19 Worsens Gender Inequality in Nepal” provides a framework for understanding how crises such as pandemics can exacerbate gender inequality in South Asia.[29] Women face greater threats of poverty, marginalization, violence and inequality.[29] This article articulates that for women and children who are forced to stay home during lockdown, intimate partner violence and VAW can rise at rampant rates. External stressors such as the pandemic itself, and its repercussions such as unemployment rates, and the economic downturn can create additional scenarios for abusers to exert their control and toxic masculine traits over those whom they abuse. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates a surge in new cases of VAW women of up to 31 million.[29]

Solutions

While indicators of gender progress such as closing literacy gaps between men and women, including rural and urban contexts, demonstrate that Sri Lanka is working towards gender equality,  Sri Lanka fails to collect systemic data for its rates of VAW.[2] The lack of data surrounding VAW is a structural barrier, that combined with police impunity and low reporting rates, allows violence to continue. Furthermore, while there are no reports of large scale human trafficking in Sri Lanka, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), it still exists in the region.[2] The WHO documents that there are no systems in place to report murders related to dowries, honour killings and abortion that is sex-selected. Furthermore, the age of consent in Sri Lanka is sixteen years old. For this reason, statutory rape is only reported in cases in which survivors under the age of 16 years old are cohabitating with men. In a 2015 UN report, only 4% of Sri Lankan female respondents reported incidents of sexual harassment experienced on public transportation, yet 90% of respondents had experienced such harassment.[30] This indicates that instances of harassment are normalized in Sri Lanka. Despite progressive policies, barriers such as government and police impunity, and low reporting rates make it difficult to halt VAW. NGO’s and non-profit initiatives are working to change these norms, and to implement further systemic, legislative and judicial changes in order to reduce violence against women.

Solutions Informed by Ethnography & Past Policies

The WHO asserts that Sri Lanka must mandate data collection of all forms of gender-based violence, including human trafficking, rape of an individual at any age, intimate partner violence, and any additional form of femicide or violence against women and children.[2] Furthermore, as Hewamanne’s ethnography demonstrates, FTZ workers in Sri Lanka have been persistently stigmatized and consequently have been relegated as lesser in society. During the COVID-19 pandemic, FTZ workers were stranded in makeshift houses due to a nationally enforced curfew, and “were subsequently loaded onto buses to return to their hometowns, allegedly without having received their monthly salaries”.[30] Such employment instability, and lack of rights for FTZ workers, who are predominantly women, can create situations that foster a surge in VAW, rendering FTZ workers particularly susceptible to such violence. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women (UN Women) asserts that locally managed organizations for women are crucial in reducing the rates of violence against women, and children. Thus, UNICEF has begun to train social service workers with implementing and running helplines and youth development programs, and has begun to work within Sri Lankan courts to increase conviction rates for cases of VAW involving minors. UN Women further stresses that prevention of VAW is critical in reducing intimate partner violence. Only once policies, laws and supporting organizations make reducing VAW a priority, can patriarchal values begin to dissipate in Sri Lankan society. This will require better living standards and higher political and public participation for women in Sri Lanka, along with additional psycho-social support services for women. COVID-19 has demonstrated that preventative measures regarding VAW must be enforced during and after the pandemic.

COVID-19's Impact on Religions in Sri Lanka

Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians depict Sri Pada in their own unique traditional stories.  All who ascend Adam’s Peak ring a Sri Pada bell.  Will ringing a bell bring peace to Sri Lanka?

Religions in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a diverse ethnic population that identifies with four major religions. Among Sri Lanka's estimated 22.8 million citizens (July 2020), Buddhist account for 70.2%, Hindus 12.6%, Muslim 9.7%, Roman Catholic 6.1%, other Christian 1.3%, and other religions 0.05% as of 2012.[1]  With the majority of the population following Buddhism, the much smaller population belonging to the minority religions, struggle to keep their identities.        

Sri Lankan Government Constitutionally Mandated to Protect Buddhism Doctrine

In 1978, Sri Lanka revealed the Sri Lankan Constitution, which stated it would be known as a free, Sovereign, Independent and Democratic Socialist Republic.[34] Secularism, defined as the separation of religion from state, is not incorporated in the Sri Lankan constitution. Under Article 9 of the Sri Lankan constitution, it states Buddhism will have a foremost position, and the Sri Lankan government has a duty to protect and promote the development of Buddhist doctrine.[17] The Pew Research Center categorized Sri Lanka as a country with a preferred or favored religion.  The center’s analysis was based on the Sri Lankan government’s constitutional duty to protect Buddhism, its basic laws, policies and actions towards all religious groups. As a country classified as a favored religion, Sri Lanka may call for freedom of religion, but in practice, it does not treat all religions equally.[18]  According to Sandya Hewamanne (2008), Buddhist believe their traditions and disciplines create decent citizens with good manners and morals who have proper ideas.[31]  This could explain and coincides to the recent August 2020 election in which Buddhist affiliated political parties won a combined 199 of 225 seats in Sri Lanka’s Parliament.  The Sri Lanka People's Freedom Alliance (SLPFA) won 145 seats to form the new Sri Lankan government and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) won 54 seats to form the government’s opposition.  Both government and opposition swore to uphold the doctrines of Buddhism.[35] Government harassment and intimidation of the human rights society unable to work for religious equality during lockdown hindered progress and fueled minority religious tensions.[36] Human rights groups like Amnesty International, lawyers, journalists and past victims called on the Sri Lankan government to stop targeted arrests, intimidation and threats against members of minority religious groups.  The call for equality became a collective voice after the April 1, 2020 announcement by Sri Lankan police which stated they would crack down and arrest all persons criticizing officials who are responding to COVID-19.[36]  Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa further strengthened his control of the country’s future by appointing five of his family members to cabinet and ministry positions.  Many minority groups believe this decision will push Sri Lanka into a total authoritarian form of government and eliminate any chance of religious equality.[37]

COVID-19's Influence on Religion

Though there are ample examples of aggressive actions and violence by the Buddhist affiliated Sri Lankan government, conflict between religions found in Sri Lanka is ongoing.  A year before COVID-19 lockdown measures were initiated, a Christian mob attacked Hindu practitioners at a Shiva Temple in Mannar in hopes of disrupting their festivities.  A Shiva Ling Deity was also smashed while supposedly being protected by the police.[38] Weeks after the Shiva Temple attack, nine National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) Muslim suicide bombers entered hotels, churches and private residences killing 269.[39] These actions of a few have given the Sri Lankan government fuel to demonize minority groups and impose their Buddhist doctrine further on all citizens.  Under the guise of securing Sri Lanka from the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has been blessed with an opportunity to ramp up efforts to discriminate against minority groups and all who would see the Sri Lankan government become secular.[40]  Muslims are particularly being targeted by the Sri Lankan government as they made cremation of coronavirus victims mandatory.  The cremation mandate does not consider the Islamic tradition of burying the dead.  Sri Lankan Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi continues to uphold the mandatory cremation of any person who has died or is suspected to have died from the coronavirus.  This decision contrasts with the World Health Organization (WHO) which maintains any person passing away from the coronavirus can be buried or cremated as they would have wanted.[41] To some minority groups, the Sri Lankan government is using the death of Muslims as another opportunity to assert dominance.  There have been cases where a Muslim loved one didn’t die of COVID-19, but authorities pressured a family member into giving consent under duress.[42] The Covid-19 pandemic has produced new forms of Islamophobia.  The Easter Sunday bombing in Sir Lanka helped to stigmatize the Muslim community in the eyes of many Sir Lankan and led the way for them to be labeled as COVID-19 ‘Super-Spreaders’.  Even though it was Hindu nationalists in India that coined the phrase ‘corona terrorism’ and ‘corona jihad’, some Sinhala nationalist in Sri Lanka are running with the phrases on social media to put blame on their Muslim population.  The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), an extremist Sinhalese Buddhist group, stated Muslims are a threat to Buddhism and will weaken the status of the religion in Sri Lanka.  The BBS spread the idea that Sri Lankan Muslims were attracting Buddhist women to convert to Islam.  This propaganda has gained popularity among the Sinhalese communities and stigmatized all Muslims while also being a key rhetoric platform during the recent August 5, 2020 election.[14][43] Some electronic media sources found a profitable niche in sensationalizing the coronavirus and noting ethnic profiles of COVID cases.  The Sri Lankan Ministry of Health (MOH) prohibited reporting on infected individuals’ personal information, including their ethnicity.  Some social media outlets refused to acknowledge the forced exclusion and criticized several mosques that were going against COVID-19’s lockdown protocol.  In fact, the All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulma Association, a Islamic theologian leadership organization, announced its followers should observe curfew, pray from home and obey the law completely.[43] Misinformation and hate speech on electronic social media have been the cause of many ethno-religious hostilities between all religions in Sri Lanka.[44] Veena Das expressed how hate is created from the diffused comprehension of situations and events that are expressed as rumor and circulated during crises as truth.  Under these conditions, groups become fearful and eventually express hatred of others.[45]

Hope for Sri Lanka's Religious Future

International watchdog groups (IWG) have concern with the mounting religious turmoil and stigmatization in Sri Lanka.  IWGs fear the persecuted Sri Lankan youth who belong to minority religions will turn to extremist groups.  Some IWGs have partnered with respected local online media to create uplifting original stories that will inspire the youth to appreciate essential service workers while conveying ideas of social cohesion of all.[46] There has been a stronger call for equality from religious affiliated IWGs who fear the Sri Lankan Buddhist Nationalists’ increased powers and vengeful anti-Islamic stance will soon affect all minority religious groups.[47] In COVID-19’s wake, all religious gatherings have been cancelled as praying from home has become the new norm.[48] Sri Lankans may want to take a page from Willem van Schendel’s Zomia philosophy.  By understanding how individuals are linked together in different ways and by embracing the ideology of Zomia, Sri Lanka could have a utopian existence.[49]  As Sri Lankan’s look for hope, they can take comfort in Sri Pada (holy footprint) on Adam’s Peak.  All four Sri Lankan faiths can feel connected at the awe-inspiring summit.  The Buddhist find Buddha’s footprint. The Hindus find Lord Shiva’s footprint (Sivanolipatha Malai) left when he created the world.  The Muslims believe Adam created the footprint when he stood on the mountain after being cast out of Eden.  Some Christians believe the footprint belongs to St. Thomas, who brought Christianity to Sri Lanka. At the top of the mountain, some pray, some chant and others take pictures, but all ring the same bells.[50]

COVID-19 Escalates Communal Violence

Defining Sri Lankan Communal Violence

Communal violence is a “form of violence that is perpetrated across ethnic or communal lines, the violent parties feel solidarity for their respective groups, and victims are chosen based upon group membership”.[19] Communal violence is no longer an unknown term for Sri Lankan. Sri Lankan politicians and media has often brushed incidents of communal violence under the carpet. Even though there is a full attempt to ignore such events, these events are increasing in number. This section discusses communal violence in context with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, it highlights common violence against two minority groups, the Tamil people and Muslims. Out of the entire Sri Lankan population, Tamils constitute an estimated 11.9% of the population and Muslims constitute an estimated 9.3% of the population, making them both minorities.[51] It can be said that “material well-being, politics, power relations, and the violence these sometimes entail are also aspects” of life in Sri Lanka. [52]

Forced Cremation of Coronavirus Victims, Lacks Credibility

As mentioned above, communal violence has been a common form of violence in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in communal violence in Sri Lanka. The government is also using the pandemic to instigate communal tensions and has been targeting the Muslim minority in particular. According to Islamic traditions, “cremating a dead body is deemed as a form of mutilation and hence a violation of burial rites and practices”. The body should only be buried. However, the government has issued orders stating that all COVID-19 victims would be cremated. The striking fact is that there is no credibility in this decision since the World Health Organization has not given any such guidelines. So far, Sri Lanka is the only country to have implemented the hard and fast rule of cremating the body. It is evident that the government is using the pandemic to spread hate against the Muslim minority.[14] Nevertheless, the lack of credibility of the decision makes it evident that the Sri Lankan government is actively targeting Muslim and spreading hate. Islam does not allow cremation but since their forced to do so, they might protest. For other citizens of the country, this might appear to be a wrong step because people who protest might become more susceptible to contracting coronavirus and show the country in a bad light to the world. The forced cremation is also spreading hate among the citizens of the country. Movements like these “create the conditions under which social groups become pitted against each other in fear and mutual hatred, constructing images of self and other from which the subjectivity of experience has been evacuated” (Das, 1998).[45]

Discrimination against Minorities, the New Normal

Harini Amarasuriya (2020) in her article, "Sri Lanka's COVID-19 Response Is Proof That Demonisation of Minorities Has Been Normalised", states that the COVID 19 pandemic has demonstrated that the pandemic is a different experience for minorities in Sri Lanka. The discrimination and inequality against the minorities have been normalised and is no longer considered an issue in Sri Lanka. Amarasuriya also mentions that this communal tension in a country is essential in politics because change has never taken place without the help of a powerful political party.[40] This leads up to “religious politics creating new political parties vying for elected positions in parliament. Which in turn can lead to sometimes violent clashes between interest groups or “communities” defined by religious identity”.[52] The political party either does not look at the issue seriously or is too slow to take action.

However, Amsuriya (2020) argues that communities should not have their personal laws because these do not align with the standards of international and national human rights standards. Nevertheless, during the reporting of coronavirus cases in Sri Lanka, Muslims were specifically targeted. For instance, coronavirus cases that spread among the Muslim community or the region where Muslims were reported more than other regions in the country. The media was biased as well. Due to protests by various communities, the Ministry of Health had to make a decision to prohibit mentioning of the infected person’s ethnicity/religion. The fact that the reports would only highlight Muslims impacted the Muslims and they became more undisciplined. Certain reports also suggested that there were gatherings in mosques only to violate curfew rules and regulations made by the government.[40]

Tamil Minority Also on the Radar of the Sri Lankan Government

The Tamil ethnic community is another minority in Sri Lanka. Similar to the Muslim community, the Tamil minority has also been subjected to communal violence. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has been fighting with the Sri Lanka government for more than eighteen years for an independent Tamil state. Each member of the LTTE belongs to the Tamil community. Certain groups such as EPRLF (Eelam People’s Revolutionary Front), TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization), and PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam) at one time fought for the same goal as the LTTE, to have an independent Tamil state. However, these groups now work for the Sri Lankan government. Their main job is to hunt down existing members of the LTTE and kill them.[53]

Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Ashik Kumar, in his article “Sri Lanka’s excessively militarized response to COVID-19”, writes about injustice towards the Tamil community. He mentions that in 2009, the Sri Lanka army killed over forty thousand people were killed, the army, however, was not held accountable instead escaped and disappeared after murdering innocent people. Kumar (2020) accuses the Sri Lankan government of using the pandemic as an excuse to promote their campaign.[54]

Sri Lankan Government's Manipulative Response

Sri Lankan government has been responsible for spreading hate among the citizens of the country and has been discriminant towards the Tamil ethnic group and Muslims. The bias is very clear because while Sri Lanka has been unfair towards minorities, it has been offering Buddhist prayers to cope up with the ongoing situation.[55] When the government itself follows a religion that a particular community practice, the minorities are bound to feel disrespected. Moreover, communities that fall within the majority populace might also start to disrespect minority groups.

To ensure that the citizens of the country follow rules and regulations, especially during the pandemic and when life is at stake, the government should be unbiased. Treating one community different than the other not only promotes hate among the citizens but also makes minorities more vulnerable to going against the government’s decision, even if it is for the well-being of everyone.

Impacts of COVID-19 on Sri Lanka's Economy: Tourism

Economic Impacts

The recent COVID-19 epidemic has caused the entire world to shut down for a period of time. Devastating impacts have occurred worldwide, but Sri Lanka has been fortunate from a health standpoint since the impacts have been significantly low in comparison to other countries (889 COVD-19 cases and 9 deaths as of May 13th, 2020).[56] However, facing serious economic and social impacts, Sri Lanka was rated 61st among 66 emerging economies that was hit the worst by the COVID-19 epidemic.[56] Many workers have been affected and lost their jobs, with those in the tourism sector losing their income entirely. Even agricultural workers have trouble selling their produce, and the disruption to supply chains and restrictions on travelling between high risk cities plus the lack of demand from tourists, has made the impacts all the more devastating. [56]

COVID-19 Outbreak Cases in Sri Lanka

Tourism

In Sri Lanka, tourism accounts for about 5% of the economy, and India, China and Britain are the main tourist groups. The number of international tourists declined by 70.8% in March 2020 compared to the previous year.[57] The central bank said that earnings from the tourism sector were projected to decline from $461 million in March 2019 to $135 million in March 2020. [57] The Easter Sunday bombings that took place in Sri Lanka last year, killed 279 people, 45 of which were tourists. [58] Tourism was only just recovering when, hit with another blow, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the borders to all tourism in the country. With international travel halted and hotels forced to shut, tens of thousands of people were left jobless.[58] In 2018 the number of visitors to Sri Lanka was 2.33 million, and last year it dropped to 1.91 million after the bombings.[58] The government of Sri Lanka is set to re-open the borders to travellers from across the world with minimal restrictions.[59] Travellers will require a visa for $100US that will be issued for 30 days and extendable for 6 months after arrival.[59] Travellers are required to have a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken prior to boarding their flight taken no less than 72 hours prior to boarding and upon arrival.[59]  A positive test would result in quarantine upon arrival, otherwise there is no quarantine unless symptoms are detected and the test results currently take 24 hours to be received.[59] Since Sri Lanka is an island, it is easier to control the numbers of the outbreak, however, if its borders are opened up to international travellers, that will greatly increase the risks of the virus cases increasing and could potentially lead to a major health crisis.

Broader Perspective and Analytical Framework

One article suggested that it was especially due to the loss of what they called 'high-end' tourists that the negative economic impacts were felt.[58] The article goes on to say that these ‘high-end’ tourists were mainly from European countries, particularly from the UK, Germany, France, US, and Canada.[58] What is not addressed in this article though, is the reality that these countries that are considered to have ‘high-end’ consumers (tourists) because they have wealth - and are therefore able to spend more money that tourists that would be considered ‘low-end’, are only able to spend this money because of colonization and the continued effects of it. Martin Sokefeld writes that “systems of colonization inscribe their marks so deeply upon the societies of both the colonized and the colonizers that they cannot simply be eradicated by the political act of declaring independence”.[60] By keeping a country dependent on another financially, which European and other wealthy tourists are playing a role in, it acts as a form of domination and therefore control that carries on the echoes of colonialism even though the colonizers are no longer directly colonizing the country, this is what can be called ‘indirect colonization’. “The power of the ruler is not aimed at the negation of the agency of those ruled, but at the manipulation of their actions in order to achieve certain goals,” which is exactly what we see with tourism.[60] The ways in which the colonizers, who, even though on paper are no longer colonizing the countries they had colonized (so are in a post-colonial state), they continue to manipulate the actions of those they had colonized to meet their own wants and needs. This is exactly what is happening with tourism as it means that the colonizers are still able to enjoy the benefits of the countries of which they are no longer formally colonizing: the resources, the weather, the culture – and they have manipulated the residents of the destination country into thinking that this is a good deal for them through offering a source of income. The tour guides and hotel staff will rarely if ever make the amount of income that these wealthy tourists do in their home countries, and will likely stay at the same job position the rest of their lives. As seen in the film 'Trembling Mountain' by Kesang Tseten, the earthquake in Nepal in 2015 left the locals with the belief that it was because of their own bad and greedy behaviour, which they believed was brought on by a boom in tourism, that the earthquake happened as a form of Karma brought on by their bad actions.[61] In the film, one of the men being interviewed said after talking about his family members who were deceased in the disaster: “we must’ve committed many ill deeds, we did anything to make money. We must’ve cheated tourists in one way or another” [61]. He believed that it was karma from their bad behaviour that brought on the death of their family members and the loss of their villages.[61] However, colonization left a less than perfect social situation that may have fostered negative behaviour that was exacerbated by the opportunity to make money – especially when given the opportunity to make money off of tourists who very clearly have wealth and a higher quality of life.

In 2004 in Sri Lanka, a Tsunami left around 35,000 people dead.[62] British organizations rallied for large amounts of support and came to the country with abundant financial aid.[62] In theory this was great, but according to Jock Stirrat, the actions of the aid workers were more pre-occupied with how they appeared to the public back at home, than listening to locals and truly meeting their needs in terms of traditional housing and community building strategies.[62] This is yet another example of continued colonization and how the international aid, though on the surface was well intentioned, had behind it other intentions that sought to keep certain relationships/concepts of control, and to appear a certain way to a particular audience through news outlets and the media.[62] These and other factors make a post-colonial state such as Sri Lanka still highly affected by the colonizing countries that once oversaw everything, and this is especially visible in the tourism industry. The recent closure of the tourism industry in Sri Lanka due to the corona virus shows that tourism is not a long-term solution to community and nation building, especially because it makes the country extremely dependant on other, wealthier countries that hold the majority of world power anyways. Building self-sufficiency and autonomy of the nation would be a better long-term goal to focus on for community resilience and safety for potential disasters in the future.

COVID-19 and Inequality in Sri Lanka

Low-caste men in 1868 - Photo by J. Forbes Watson & John William Kaye

Despite Sri Lanka’s island's status and somewhat unique demography, this 65,000 km² stretch of land nonetheless faces similar issues to mainland India in regards to inequality and discrimination. Inter-caste violence, military repression and economic inequality can be as prevalent here as anywhere on the subcontinent, turning life into a difficult struggle for some, and disproportionate economic luxury for others. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of these issues, and led to a stratified level of response and care, largely favouring those with majority demographic status. During this section I will analyze some of these inequalities, examine their history, and explore their intersections with the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Statistical Factors & Successes

In order to undertake meaningful analysis of Sri Lanka's social issues, I believe it is important to begin with an honest assessment of some their measures of success. Certain markers display a better quality of life for those living in Sri Lanka compared to those living in behemoth India. Statistics originally sourced from the United States Central Intelligence Agencies “World Factbook” make it clear that Sri Lankans enjoy many advantages compared to India, so I shall begin by highlighting some of these instances. Infant mortality rate in Sri Lanka exists at a relatively low 8.2 deaths per 1000 live births, compared to India's 37.8 deaths per 1000 births. Life expectancy is also notably higher in Sri Lanka at 77 years compared to India’s 69. Additionally, the literacy rate is much higher in Sri Lanka compared to mainland India, with a total literate population of 91.9% compared to India’s 71.2%. Rapid urbanization and a more tightly compressed population in India may be a factor in some of these statistics, with 34.5% of India’s population living in urban settings, compared to Sri Lanka’s 18.6%. Sri Lanka also enjoys greater access to health care on average compared to India. Sri Lanka possesses 3.6 hospital beds per 1000 population compared to just .7 beds per 1000 population in India.[63]

The Effect of Caste

However, despite these notable statistical differences, Sri Lanka and India share a common history and possess many of the same problems in regard to social inequality. Sri Lanka divides it population according to several key social markers: ethnicity, gender, caste and class.[64] Because of Sri Lanka’s unique demographics, with 74% of the population being Sinhalese and the rest mostly Tamil,[65] the Sri Lankan caste system is somewhat distinct from the Indian interpretation, and is divided into five different versions.

1. Caste among Sinhalese: Kandiyan (Up-Country)

2. Caste among Sinhalese: Southern (Low-Country)

3. Caste among Sri Lankan Tamils: Northern Caste

4. Caste among Sri Lankan Tamils: Eastern Caste

5. Caste among Tamils: Hill Country Tamils (Indian Origin)[66]

For the purposes of this section I will mainly be analyzing the struggles of high versus low castes, regardless of their localized nomenclature. My primary focus will be fifth and lowest caste, the so-called “untouchables”, otherwise known in contemporary India as “Dalits”. Tamil Nadu, a Tamil majority state in Sri Lanka, has had an increase in caste violence since the start of the epidemic.  According to A. Kathir, executive director of the Madurai-based human rights organization “Evidence”, April 2020 saw a 40% increase in atrocities against Dalits. In Madurai alone, there have been 150 reported cases of violence, with many more, according to Kathir, going unreported.[67] Although caste remains, according to Indian historian Mridu Rai “a certain kind of hierarchical ranking peculiar to the subcontinent”, it is nonetheless important to understand the impact colonialism had on this pre-existing system. Although caste undoubtedly played a role in Indian society pre-colonial rule, the British administration and subsequent census classifications played a large role in solidifying the meaning of caste in contemporary India.[68] In order to understand how caste intersects with the COVID-19 pandemic, its important to understand the traditional roles of low and high castes in regards to employment. The highest castes, known as "Brahmins", are broadly known as the priestly or religious class. They traditionally avoid all work considered to pertain to the "impure" processes of life. This relegates the most medically high-risk functions to the two lowest classes, the 'Sudras' and the 'Untouchables'. These two bottom castes could be generally considered at much higher risk for COVID-19 and other diseases due to their traditional roles, washing clothes, cleaning sewers or working with animals,[69] as well as their economic reality, which forces many of them to live in close physical quarters.

LGBTQ and Gendered Forms of Persecution

Certain populations face even greater jeopardy, particularly the LGBTQ community. Long facing their own intra-community discrimination, LGBTQ Sri Lankans are now experiencing exacerbated inequalities in light of the military enforced lockdown resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. Historically speaking, laws surrounding LGBTQ people can be traced back to British colonialism, and the adoption of the British penal code. Negative attitudes against LGBTQ people are still prevalent in Sri Lanka, and affect the lives of an unknown number of people. Living openly as a queer individual in Sri Lanka can result in brutalization by both the community and the state at large. It often results in people being kicked out of their homes by family. During times of the military enforced coronavirus lockdown, this displacement can be a death sentence. Sri Lankan security forces routinely target, abuse and sexually assault designated “vagrants”, while at the same time barring these people from financial aid allocated to more traditional family units.[70] Women who fall out of the traditional family categorization are similarly discriminated against. Garment workers in the western city of Katunayake are routinely demonized for their perceived abandonment of traditional village life, their status as single women, and their decision to move to the city alone.[71] These stand as several examples of inequality based on social categorization outside of caste.

Wealth Inequality

On a larger scale, and outside of the COVID-19 crisis, we can see evidence of wealth inequality within Sri Lanka. Although the government in Sri Lanka has managed to reduce poverty from 26.1% in 1990/91 to 4.1% by 2016, overall, income inequality has stayed the same for over forty years. Currently, the richest 20% of Sri Lankans amass more than half the total household income for the entire country, while the poorest 20% acquire only 5%. This metric is magnified further down the economic scale, with the bottom 10% of Sri Lankan earners only receiving 1.8% of total household income.[72] Mainland Indian statistics tell a similar story. Indian’s private companies are owned, almost entirely, by the upper castes. In fact, just two high caste groups, a minuscule minority of the population, constitute 90% of India’s corporate boards.[73] In addition to their corporate control, the top 1% of the Indian population currently enjoys 77% of the nations total wealth.[74]

To summarize, despite certain statistical advantages Sri Lanka enjoys compared to mainland India, certain inequalities still exist and remain prevalent on this island nation. Further analysis on the results of this pandemic will be required, but until these issues of inequality are addressed, it remains clear that Sri Lanka will face challenges in their pursuit of becoming a more equal and balanced society.

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