Conflict Weekly 04

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Conflict Weekly 04
Sri Lanka drops Tamil anthem, Assam looks for a new census for the indigenous Muslim population, Bangladesh faces a Rohingya boat tragedy and Israel witnesses resurgence of violence post-Trump deal

  IPRI Team

Conflict Weekly, 12 February 2020, Vol.1, No. 4

MJ Unnikrishnan, Vaishali Handique, Sourina Bej & Lakshmi V Menon
 
SOUTH ASIA

Sri Lanka: The President drops Tamil national anthem from independence celebrations
 
In the news 
On 4 February, the Sri Lankan government dropped the constitutionally recognized Tamil national anthem while celebrating the 72nd independence day celebrations. This marked a shift from the previous government’s policy of accommodating the Tamil version of the national anthem in national celebrations and functions. 
 
The President, during his address to the nation on the same day, vowed against discrimination on any basis. “As the President today, I represent the entire Sri Lankan nation irrespective of ethnicity, religion, party affiliation or other differences. I have the vision that I must serve as the leader of the country looking after all citizens rather than serve as a political leader concerned only about a particular community”, Rajapaksa said. He also added, “We will not allow extremist organisations that pave the way for terrorism to further function in the country.”
 
Issues at large
Since 1948, the Tamil version of the national anthem has not been sung till 2016. Even after 2016, the Sinhala authorities were reluctant to allow Tamil version to be sung in schools. Effective bridging of the gap between the Tamil majority northern peninsula and the Lankan mainland has not happened yet, a decade after the end of Eelam war. 
 
‘Sri Lanka Thaaye’, the Tamil translation of Sinhala version ‘Sri Lanka Matha’, was first sung on 2016 aiming to boost ethnic harmony while Maithripala Sirisena was the President. The then opposition leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sirisena’s party opposed the move. Later in November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the Presidential elections. On his first independence celebration, after he took charge of the office of the President, he removed the Tamil version of the national anthem. 
 
Rajapaksa brothers led the stringent military action in the Tamil dominant regions and defeating Tamil Tigers in 2009. They are now back in power with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the President and Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. They have been criticized for their lack of support to the minorities.
 
The decades-old ethnic deadlock in Sri Lanka proves to be a hard nut to crack. “The Tamil anthem is not just another song, but the Sri Lankan identity of Tamil speaking community”, commented an opposition MP Mano Ganesan. 
 
In perspective                                                        
First, the ethnic divisions in Sri Lanka still prevail, and the Easter bomb blasts aggravated the situation causing the religious gaps to widen. This recent action of the state to avoid Tamil national anthem will setback the reconciliation efforts.
 
Second, the Rajapaksas are less likely to address the interests of the Tamil community. The minorities fear an iron fist rule by the state as both the offices of President and Prime Minister are held by the Rajapaksa brothers and see this action as an initiation of that. 
 
Last, Gotabaya, during his election campaign, promised equal consideration and rights for all Sri Lankan citizens but was not able to win the minority votes. With the general elections approaching later this year, the Rajapaksa brothers are likely to showcase right-wing politics to secure a majority.  
 
Bangladesh: 15 dead as an overcrowded boat with 138 Rohingyas capsizes 
In the news
An overcrowded wooden fishing boat carrying about 138 Rohingya refugees from the refugee camps in Bangladesh sank near the Saint Martin’s Island in the Bay of Bengal on 11 February, leaving at least 15 confirmed dead, mostly women. 

According to the Captain Waseem Maqsood, the coastguard commander in the Chittagong division, around 71 people were rescued alive, while more than 40 remain unaccounted

The Bangladesh authorities believe the boat departed from Teknaf, an administrative region of Cox's Bazar, south of Bangladesh on the Myanmar border. Teknaf is the point of entry to Bangladesh, where the influx of Rohingya refugees has taken place in recent years. While most still live in the refugee camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, more than few Rohingya refugees have attempted to go overseas.

Issues at large 
The incident on 11 February is the latest in the series of the attempts made by the Rohingya refugees to flee Myanmar by illegal routes in the sea. The exodus peaked in 2015 when an estimated 25,000 people fled across the Andaman Sea for Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia but were stranded and drowned after the respective governments restricted their illegal entry.

The Rohingya refugees are enticed by traffickers to board the boat from various points as they head for Malaysia. They are lured on promises of a better and dignified life, income and survival in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. The coast guard thwarted many past attempts to travel illegally by boat, but the Rohingyas have embarked on dangerous seas. The UN International Organisation for Migration has put an estimated 8,000 Rohingyas from Bangladesh and Myanmar to be stranded at sea.

The Thai government in 2015 begun crack down on smugglers who have traditionally taken the Rohingyas to camps in southern Thailand and held them ransom. As a result, the smugglers are now abandoning the Rohingyas at sea. Not only are the countries, but the fishermen are also restricted from helping them with boats. In Indonesia, the Aceh province has sometimes accepted asylum seekers, but they are usually barred from working and often spend years in immigration centres. Another favoured route by the Rohingyas is the Indo-Bangladesh border whereby the Rohingya refugees reach India through road by sneaking at night. 

In perspective 
First, the Rohingyas are unwelcome in the countries of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and India. The Thailand navy has indicated allowing refugee camps on its shores but is turning boats away and does not want permanent settlers. Malaysia is the choice of destination for most Rohingyas because it is predominantly Muslim and short of an unskilled labourer, but it has ordered its navy to repel them. Indonesia has an official stand on not welcoming the Rohingyas, thereby turning away boatloads. India had initially maintained a nonchalant stand on receiving the Rohingyas. However, with a strong message recently, India has detained and often deported the Rohingyas who cross the border illegally. In a situation where the neighbouring countries have repeatedly turned their back on the Rohingyas, the desperate choice of going illegally is most favoured.  

Second, the refugee camps in Bangladesh are overpopulated, dilapidated, water short and little scope for alternate livelihood. With Bangladesh facing the cost of a population upsurge, additional numbers of Rohingya are a burden for the country. Bangladesh has searched for a more permanent and tangible solution to rehabilitate the Rohingya refugees through repatriation. However, it has failed to materialise between Bangladesh and Myanmar. With a regular influx of Rohingyas from the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, Bangladesh is planning to shift the Rohingyas to a sinking island. Left with little choice, the Rohingya refugees are seeking to leave the camps and look for refuge again. 

Last, the first recognition of the condition of the Rohingyas came with the ICJ ruling last month, but a worsening relationship between Bangladesh and Myanmar and no political pressure on Myanmar from the neighbourhood leaves no scope for the Rohingyas but to fend for themselves. Bangladesh has taken steps to secure its only border with Myanmar by constructing barbed wires, while India has also secured its borders with Bangladesh. In this, the Rohingyas have sought the sea for survival. 
 

India’s Northeast: The Assam State Government to enumerate “indigenous” Muslim population in a new census
In the news
The Government of Assam is highly perplexed by the National Register of Citizens (NRC) drive. It is likely to survey to distinguish the indigenous Muslim population of the state. A meeting was called on 11 February 2020 by the State Minister Ranjit Kumar Dutta to finalize the proceedings of the survey. The socio-economic census will be a door to door one. It will enumerate the actual numbers of the religious community who is indigenous to the state, namely- Goria, Moria, Deshi and Jola. The government offices responsible for carrying out the survey will be the home, revenue and minorities welfare departments under the Government of Assam.

Issues at large
First, the total Muslim population of the state is at 34 per cent of the 3.1 crores state population out of which only four per cent are indigenous Assamese Muslims. The majority of the Muslims are Bengali-speaking and are immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. The last year’s uproar against the Citizenship Amendment Bill turned Act saw even the indigenous Muslim people fight against the possible awarding of citizenship to the minority Hindu populations of some selected countries. They asserted that Assam’s fight against CAA is not at all related to religion but is about the loss of opportunities of the indigenous people. 

Along with the rest of Assam, the indigenous Muslims too protested against the porous nature of the border of India and Bangladesh. They claim that the inclusion of any excess population, be it Hindu or Muslim, will create hindrance to the development of Assam’s own people and in turn create more agitations in the future.

Second, the BJP-led state government has called out the previous government for not being able to secure the livelihood and identity of the indigenous Muslims of the state. They claim that during the previous regime, many Bangladeshi Muslims have changed their names to access government services. This saw more Bangladeshi Muslims in the mainstream sectors and almost ceased the chances of the indigenous Muslim population who unfortunately fall under the “General” category of the reservation system as an addition to their woes.

In perspective
First, many believe that in 13 districts of Assam, today has a strong presence of the Bangladeshi Muslims. The Assam State Assembly has 14 Congress MLAs who are of Bangladeshi origin. This creates an unfair situation for the indigenous Muslims as they lack representation and hence their voices are almost unheard for a long time. 

Second, though the census will try to segregate the indigenous Muslim population, it will drop the word “indigenous.” It can be too sensitive. It will use “Goria, Moria, Deshi and Jolah Tribe Community Development Council” instead to reinforce the development agenda to be implemented for the concerned population and will not in any way fuel a communal uproar.

Third, it would be a good step, if successful, which will uplift the minority “indigenous” Muslims who have suffered greatly because of their awful categorization in the reservation system. All the Muslims in Assam are clubbed into the “general” category which provides them with no reservation benefits despite some of them living in extremely poor conditions.

Fourth, along with the census it should also be tried, by the State Government, to further categorize them according to their economic condition or at least give some relief to the poor Muslims in the education and employment sectors.

 

MIDDLE EAST

Israel: Violence in the post-Trump deal
In the news
As per Palestinian health ministry, on 5 February, Israeli forces killed a 17-year-old Palestinian during clashes in Hebron. On 6 February, two Palestinian lives were taken when Israeli forces opened fire on a demonstration against demolition of a Palestinian house in Jenin; 14 Israelis soldiers in Jerusalem were injured as a car rammed into them; thousands of Palestinians prayed in Al-Aqsa Mosque (Temple Mount for Jews); and a Palestinian citizen of Israel, accused of firing at Israeli forces near the mosque, was shot dead. On 7 February, Israeli forces sent back scores of Palestinians en route to the mosque and additional forces were deployed by Israel in Jerusalem and occupied West Bank. On 8 February a Palestinian teen was shot dead by Israeli forces in Tulkarem, West Bank. 

Issues at large
Israeli-Palestinian violence spiked post US President’s announcement of the contentious Trump-Jared Mideast peace plan on 28 January 2020. While Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed it as “the opportunity of a century”, contrastingly, President of Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas scorned it as “the slap of the century”. Palestinians denounced the plan as one that heavily favoured Israel by paving way for future annexation and called for “the day of rage”.

Reportedly, the plan offers a feasible path to Palestinian statehood, a two-state solution with mutual recognition of “nation-states”; recognizes undivided Jerusalem as Israel’s capital (while upholding that the future Palestinian state’s capital would lie in East Jerusalem); recognizes large majority of Israeli settlements, Golan Heights, Jordan valley as under Israeli sovereignty; recommends a demilitarized Palestine; suggests long term measures to reduce Israel’s security footprint; grants the choice to return, integrate or resettle to Palestinian refugees; and secures a four-year “land freeze” agreement from Israel.

Scores have died since the onset of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first intifada (1987-1993), second intifada (2000-2005) and third intifada (June, July 2014) spiked the death toll. However, in 2019, Palestinian resistance factions and Israel secured an informal truce leading to easing of crippling Israeli sanctions on Palestinian goods and people. But in November 2019, when Israel killed Islamic Jihad armed group’s leader, tensions re-escalated; killing 36 Palestinians. 

In perspective
Palestinians are being criticized as “nay-sayers” for rejecting Trump’s plan. The plan that proposes a demilitarized Palestine and grants greater security and surveillance authority to Israel will unnerve the Palestinians’ collective memory of trauma. Without addressing Palestinian grievances and concerns, any lasting peace plan is impossible. 
The ununiform responses from the international community and the muted Arab response (despite Arab league rejecting the plan) will also raise threat perceptions and sense of hopelessness amid Palestinians, leading to further clashes at regional, national, political, societal and grass-roots levels. In any violent scenario, Israel will naturally further their surveillance requirements and deepen its security clutches. 

The endurance and spiking of violence do not signal any positive outcome or prolonged peace. Crafting structural violence into a peace plan will not succeed. However, the unprecedented shrinking of protestor turnout for the “day of rage” is noteworthy. It signals to a growing mentality amongst the Palestinians to move on from the historical issue and indicates a yearning for normalcy. 

Simply put, the current spiking of violence is a direct result of intra-Palestinian issues, intra-Israeli matters, Israeli and Palestinian statecraft, respective psychologies, Israel-Arab rapprochement in the absence of a Palestinian state, and US advocacy for Israel.

 

Conflict Weekly is an academic initiative to follow conflicts and peace processes around the world. The Weekly is a part of research at the International Peace Research Initiative (IPRI) at ISSSP in NIAS.

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