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India and Sri Lanka after the LTTE
India and Sri Lanka after the LTTE
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Peaceful Coexistence Under Attack
Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Peaceful Coexistence Under Attack
Report 206 / Asia

India and Sri Lanka after the LTTE

India needs to push Sri Lanka harder towards steps that will avert a return to violent conflict on the island.

Executive Summary

India has long been the country with the greatest influence over Sri Lanka but its policies to encourage the government there towards a sustainable peace are not working. Despite India’s active engagement and unprecedented financial assistance, the Sri Lankan government has failed to make progress on pressing post-war challenges. Government actions and the growing political power of the military are instead generating new grievances that increase the risk of an eventual return to violence. To support a sustainable and equitable post-war settlement in Sri Lanka and limit the chances of another authoritarian and military-dominated government on its borders, India needs to work more closely with the United States, the European Union and Japan, encouraging them to send the message that Sri Lanka’s current direction is not acceptable. It should press for the demilitarisation of the north, a return to civil administration there and in the east and the end of emergency rule throughout the country.

New Delhi’s relations with Sri Lanka in the two years since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have had four main priorities:

  • providing humanitarian assistance to displaced Tamils in the north and east;
  • supporting major development projects, primarily in the north, with concessionary loans;
  • pressing the Sri Lankan government and the main Sri Lankan Tamil political alliance, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), to work towards a negotiated settlement of ethnic conflict through the devolution of power to Tamil-majority areas in the north and east; and
  • encouraging greater economic integration between the two economies.

India’s approach has so far paid only limited dividends. Deepening militarisation and Sinhalisation in the northern province have increased the insecurity and political marginalisation of Tamils and are undermining prospects for inter-ethnic reconciliation. The government continues to resist any investigation or accounting for mass atrocities in the final months of the war. Democratic governance is under sustained assault throughout the country, as power is concentrated in the president’s family and the military; attacks on independent media and political opponents continue with impunity. Even on Indian-sponsored development projects and economic integration, the Sri Lankan government has dragged its feet; for example, construction has begun on only a handful of the 50,000 houses India has offered to build in the northern province.

While officials in New Delhi admit they are frustrated, India remains hesitant to press President Rajapaksa’s regime very hard. This is due in part to its history of counter-productive interventions in Sri Lanka. India’s misguided policy of arming Tamil militants in 1980s significantly expanded the conflict, and its decision to send peacekeepers to enforce the 1987 Indo-Lanka accord ended in disaster as the LTTE fought them to a standstill and later took revenge by assassinating former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. India’s interventions have made Sri Lankans of all communities suspicious, limiting India’s room for manoeuvre. Many Sinhalese see India as favouring Tamils and as wanting to weaken or divide the country, despite its crucial role in destroying the Tamil Tigers. For many Tamils, on the other hand, India is seen as having repeatedly broken its pledges to defend their rights and protect their lives, especially during the final phase of the war in 2009.

India’s reluctance to put serious pressure on the Sri Lankan government is also due to strategic considerations, in particular its desire to counter the growing influence of China, whose financial and political support the Rajapaksa government has been cultivating. India’s own growing economic interests in Sri Lanka have also tempered its political activism. New Delhi’s traditional reluctance to work through multilateral bodies or in close coordination with other governments – due in part to its fear of international scrutiny of its own conflicts, particularly in Kashmir – has also significantly weakened its ability to influence Sri Lanka.

India, nonetheless, has strong reasons to work for fundamental changes in Sri Lanka’s post-war policies. It has a clear interest in preventing either a return to violent militancy or the consolidation on its borders of another authoritarian government with an overly powerful military. India’s own democratic values and successes in accommodating ethnic diversity should also encourage an activist approach, especially as it seeks recognition as a rising global power with hopes of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. India’s own restive domestic Tamil constituency, to which the central government needs to respond for electoral considerations, is pressing for stronger action. After decades of actively supporting minority rights and devolution of power in Sri Lanka, India has its reputation on the line. With the much-hated LTTE defeated with Indian assistance, New Delhi should, in principle, have more leeway to push for reforms.

If it is serious about promoting a stable and democratic Sri Lanka, India will have to rebalance its priorities and press more consistently and in concert with other powers for major political reforms in Sri Lanka. Parties in Tamil Nadu, in turn, will need to use their leverage with New Delhi in consistent and principled ways, even at the risk of sacrificing potentially profitable political deals.

India’s support for negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil National Alliance, which belatedly began in January 2011, has been useful and should be maintained. But the immediate focus of the talks and of Indian influence should shift from pressing for effective devolution of power to demilitarising the north and east and rebuilding meaningful democratic institutions and freedoms. This would require:

  • re-establishing the authority of the local civil administration in the north and east to oversee development and humanitarian assistance without interference by the military or central government;
  • holding the long-delayed election for the Northern Provincial Council;
  • publicising the names and locations of all those detained on suspected involvement with the LTTE (including those in “rehabilitation” centres);
  • expediting the release of land currently designated as (or operating as de facto) high-security zones; and
  • removing arbitrary restrictions on political activities and on the humanitarian activities of local and international NGOs.

India should monitor its projects in the north more closely and insist, along with other donors, that they effectively empower local people. India should insist on working through the newly elected local governments and, eventually, with the Northern Provincial Council. To make this possible, India will need to coordinate more closely with Japan, Western donors and international development banks. Together they have the political and financial leverage to influence the Rajapaksa administration should they choose to use it. India should revive its idea of a donors conference to review post-war progress and to push the government to demilitarise the north, lift the state of emergency and relax anti-terrorism laws.

In New York, Geneva and Colombo, India should publicly acknowledge the importance and credibility of the report by the UN Secretary-General’s panel of experts on accountability and should support an independent international investigation into allegations of war crimes at the close of the civil war in 2009. At the same time, it should send strong, public messages to the Sri Lankan government on the need for domestic action on accountability. It should also work towards the establishment of a truth commission that would examine the injustices and crimes suffered by all communities, including those committed by all parties during the Indian army’s presence in northern Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. Acknowledging the suffering of all communities will be necessary for lasting peace.

India should broaden its political agenda from focusing solely on devolution and ensuring the rights of Tamils. Without a reversal of the Sri Lankan government’s growing authoritarianism, centralisation of power and continued repression of dissent, any devolution will be meaningless and the risks of renewed conflict will increase. India’s longstanding interest in a peaceful and politically stable Sri Lanka is best served by strong messages to Colombo to end impunity and reverse the democratic decay that undermines the rights of all Sri Lankans. By raising political concerns that affect all of Sri Lanka’s communities, India can also counter suspicions among Sinhalese and eventually strengthen its hand with the government. This will take some time, but the work should start now.

Colombo/Brussels, 23 June 2011

Police officers work at the scene at St. Sebastian Catholic Church, after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter, in Negombo, Sri Lanka 22 April, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Commentary / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Peaceful Coexistence Under Attack

The lethal Easter bombings in Sri Lanka have stunned a country still recovering from decades of internal war. Political and religious leaders alike should reject the rhetoric of collective blame and reaffirm the island’s strained but living tradition of intercommunal amity.

Sri Lankans from all ethnic and religious groups – Sinhalese and Tamil, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian and Hindu – lived through terrible violence during the decades of war and terrorism that ended ten years ago. Still, no one was prepared for Easter Sunday’s atrocities, whose death toll – now over 300, with more than 500 injured – and degree of organisation make them Sri Lanka’s worst-ever terror attack. The damage to the country’s already torn social fabric is likely to be immense.

Amid the shock, grief and anger, there is also bewilderment. For many, the attacks seem to have come from nowhere. The government has arrested twenty-four Sri Lankan Muslim suspects, allegedly part of a hitherto little-known Islamist militant group, National Towheed Jamaat (NTJ), which government officials have said carried out the attacks with foreign support.

Sri Lanka has a long and complex history of inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence. Political struggles between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese and mostly Buddhist majority and the mostly Hindu Tamil minority, who make up about 15 per cent of the population and are concentrated in the north and east of the island, eventually led to a three-decade civil war, which left some 150,000 dead (a small minority of both Sinhalese and Tamils are Christians). Soon after the government crushed the Tamil Tigers’ separatist struggle in May 2009, Sri Lanka’s Muslim community – about 10 per cent of the population – became the target of violence, hate speech and economic boycotts by groups of Sinhalese Buddhists who claimed that Muslims threatened the island’s stability and Buddhist character. (Historically, Sri Lankan Muslims have been considered and considered themselves a separate ethnic group, but increasingly their identity is defined in religious terms as well.) Nearly a week of anti-Muslim rioting by Sinhalese mobs in March 2018 was contained only after the government declared a state of emergency and deployed the army.

In the face of years of sustained attack, Sri Lanka’s Muslims have displayed calm and restraint

In the face of years of sustained attack, Sri Lanka’s Muslims have displayed calm and restraint, with not a single act of retaliation against Sinhalese. Nor is there any history of serious tension between Muslims and Christians. Indeed, recent years have seen unusual joint advocacy campaigns by Muslim and evangelical Christian groups, as the latter have also suffered violent attacks by militant Buddhists angered by what they see as “unethical conversions”.

Extremist voices have emerged in recent decades among Sri Lankan Muslims, but the limited violence such groups have committed has hitherto been against other Muslims, not Christians or Buddhists. NTJ, for instance, was one of a number of Salafi groups known and criticised for its violent rhetoric and occasional physical attacks on Sufi Muslims, whom it considers not to be true Muslims. Until very recently, however, there were never attacks against Sri Lankans of other faiths. In part for this reason, the police and Sinhala political leadership largely deferred to Muslim political and religious leaders, who did little to challenge such groups.

The first sign that NTJ’s targets might be changing came in December 2018 when Buddhist and Christian statues were vandalised in the central town of Mawanella. Police quickly arrested a group of young Muslim men who reportedly had attended Quran classes taught by the NTJ leader and Salafi preacher M. T. M. Zahran. Worries grew among Muslim community leaders, who were struggling to keep the peace, when police investigations into the statue attacks led to the discovery in January of a weapons cache hidden on a farm in north-western Sri Lanka.

The Easter attacks appear principally to be the fruit of seeds planted by transnational jihadists, which responsible local Muslim leaders failed to effectively uproot. A small number of Sri Lankan Muslims are known to have travelled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State (ISIS). The scale and complexity of the attacks suggest that a small number of local radicals received outside guidance. ISIS has now laid claim online to what it calls Sunday’s “blessed raid”. In statements released over social media, it has celebrated the killing of Christians and “subjects of the countries of the Crusader Coalition” that has combated the group globally. ISIS aims to eliminate any space for tolerance and coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims, and to draw Muslims everywhere into the group’s cataclysmic battle with “infidel” and “apostate” enemies.

Sunday’s atrocities thus do not appear to grow directly from Sri Lanka’s previous complicated history of intercommunal tensions and political violence, though years of pressure on Muslims from Sinhala Buddhist militants have increased the alienation and anger felt by many young Muslims. Now, however, the attacks will likely become an essential part of Sri Lankan conflict dynamics and – as interpreted from within that history and made use of by multiple political actors – could go on to have lasting and destabilising effects. The bombings, shocking in their large number, brutality and high death toll, will now be cited as evidence of the violent Muslim extremism of which militant Buddhists have long warned. The anger felt by Christians – both ethnic Tamil and Sinhalese – at the massacre of their brothers and sisters threatens to strengthen already powerful anti-Muslim sentiments across society.

The attacks will also strengthen the hand of the Sinhala nationalist opposition, led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, and would-be presidential candidate, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during whose government militant Buddhist organisations such as Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) were allowed to incite violence against Muslims with impunity. Already the front runners in the presidential and parliamentary elections due over the next year or so, the Rajapaksas and their party supporters are certain to argue that during their government, terrorism – in the form of the Tamil Tigers – was defeated, and that only they can save Sri Lanka from the latest brand of terror that the divided government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has failed to prevent. The government’s apparent failure to act on intelligence reports warning of the suicide attacks seems to have been at least in part a product of the bitter political infighting between the president and prime minister and the former’s refusal to share police warnings with the cabinet. It has deepened the widespread sense that the government is weak and the country at risk.

Should the Rajapaksas return to power, the current government’s modest efforts at post-war reconciliation and strengthening the rule of law will almost certainly end. Already, in response to the attacks, the president has declared an emergency that provides broad powers of arrest and detention to the security forces, and plans to replace the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act – long criticized by the UN and others for facilitating torture of Tamil detainees – are likely to be scrapped.

Thorough investigations and tightened security measures are essential to reassure a frightened public.

Thorough investigations and tightened security measures are essential to reassure a frightened public. The capital Colombo in particular remains tense, with reports of rising anger toward Muslims, particularly after ISIS’s claim of responsibility and police warnings of possible further bombings. A serious and independent inquiry into the failure to act on intelligence warnings must lead to reform of Sri Lanka’s dysfunctional system of intelligence sharing.

Muslim leaders, in turn, need to speak out much more forcefully against the forces of hate within their own community that they have until now been reluctant to challenge. The fear of giving ammunition to their antagonists in other communities, which is one reason they have held back, can no longer be accepted. Continued silence, instead, is the greater danger.

Yet at the same time, efforts are needed to avoid demonising Sri Lanka’s overwhelmingly peaceful Muslim community. The alternative would be to erode the authority of Muslim leaders who themselves are horrified by the violence, and wish to contain it, and deepen the sense of alienation that some young Muslims already feel. Intercommunal conflict and schism is precisely what ISIS hopes to provoke. Instead, leaders from all ethnic and religious communities must speak out against holding Muslims as a whole responsible for atrocities that a very small number of their community may have committed. All must work to protect Muslims from reprisals that could eventually set off a deadly cycle of intercommunal conflict. In addition to the Christian community that was the direct target of the bombings, what was attacked was Sri Lanka’s strained but still living tradition of inter-religious and inter-ethnic cooperation and friendship. This tradition must be defended in every way possible by Sri Lanka’s political, national security and religious leadership.