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Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Peaceful Coexistence Under Attack
Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Peaceful Coexistence Under Attack
Sri Lankan opposition party workers erect a cutout of their presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena in the north central town of Polonnaruwa on 30 November 2014. AFP/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi
Report 272 / Asia

Sri Lanka Between Elections

Sri Lanka’s 17 August parliamentary elections will test the country’s fragile democratic opening. With the hardline Sinhala nationalism of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa challenging the “good governance” agenda of the United National Party and President Sirisena, the outcome will affect chances for reconciliation and lasting resolution of the country’s long-running conflicts.

Executive Summary

A half year after Maithripala Sirisena’s stunning defeat of President Mahinda Raja­paksa raised hopes for democratic renaissance, the complexities of partisan politics, and Rajapaksa himself, have returned to centre stage. Sirisena’s initial months with a minority government led by the United National Party (UNP) have opened important political space: robust debate and criticism have replaced the fear under Rajapaksa, and important governance reforms have been made, but much remains undone. By initial steps on reconciliation, the government set a more accommodating tone on the legacy of the civil war and the ethnic conflict that drove it. But divisions within government and Sirisena’s failure to take control of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) prevented deeper reform and allowed Rajapaksa and his supporters to mount a comeback. With Sirisena opposing Rajapaksa’s return, the 17 August parliamentary elections will test the continued appeal of the ex-president’s hardline Sinhala nationalism and give a chance for the fresh start that lasting solutions to the country’s social divisions require.

Before running out of steam in June, Sirisena’s first six months saw notable achievements. Most important was parliament’s April passage of the nineteenth amendment to the constitution. Largely fulfilling the central pledge of the joint opposition campaign, it considerably reduced presidential powers and established independent oversight commissions. Though the original draft was watered down, the amendment is a welcome move away from authoritarianism and could assist in re-establishing the badly-damaged rule of law. As promised in their election manifesto, Sirisena and his UNP partners also launched scores of investigations into alleged major fraud and abuse of power by officials of the former government. While the unprecedented scale of the anti-corruption drive raised public expectations, the lack of indictments thus far has fed rumours of backroom deals and growing doubts that the institutional and political obstacles to effective prosecutions can ever be overcome.

The bright hopes of the government’s initial months were increasingly tarnished by unclear, ad hoc policies, frequently contradictory policy statements and missed deadlines for pledged reforms. As parliamentary elections, originally promised for June, were postponed, the coalition that elected Sirisena began to fragment. While the UNP and smaller parties urged him to dissolve parliament and hold elections after passage of the nineteenth amendment, he spent months trying and failing to win over the SLFP, whose nominal leadership he assumed after winning the presidency, following a decade of Rajapaksa at its helm.

The SLFP, which has a large majority in parliament, resented Sirisena’s unprecedented experiment with a “national government” dominated by its arch-rival UNP. Many SLFP parliamentarians remain loyal to Rajapaksa; others see the ex-president as the party’s best chance to retain its majority in the next parliament, given his popularity among Sinhala voters. After months of resisting Rajapaksa’s selection as the prime ministerial candidate of the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), lack of support in the party forced Sirisena to yield in early July.

Sirisena has since made it clear he opposes Rajapaksa’s candidacy and will not appoint him prime minister, even if the UPFA wins an unlikely majority. The ex-president’s opponents within the SLFP, along with smaller parties, have joined a new version of the UNP-led coalition that brought Sirisena victory in January, now re-energised by the threat of a Rajapaksa comeback. With the UPFA arguing the UNP threatens national security and supports Tamil separatism, the election will test the strength of Rajapaksa’s brand of Sinhala nationalism, as well as the depth of public concern over corruption and abuses of power. Even if he cannot become prime minister, Rajapaksa’s leadership of a large Sinhala nationalist bloc in parliament could make it harder for a UNP-led government’s to act as promised on reconciliation and accountability.

The Sirisena-UNP government set a new, less Sinhala triumphalist tone on ethnic issues and took some steps for reconciliation: releasing a number of Tamil political prisoners and limited amounts of military-occupied land in Tamil areas, while reducing the presence, though not size, of the military and its involvement in governing the north and east. Despite growing frustration among many Tamils, larger moves have been put off until after elections, as has action on alleged war crimes by both the military and the defeated Tamil Tigers. The government promises a credible domestic inquiry that meets international standards, but doubts about its willingness and ability to tackle institutionalised impunity and prosecute war crimes are widespread and well founded. Successful prosecutions require significant legal and institutional reforms and management of resistance from military leaders and nationalist parties.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) is due to deliver its long-awaited war crimes report to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) before it meets in September. At that session, the newly-elected government should commit to the legal reforms needed to effectively prosecute serious human rights violations suffered by all ethnic communities, including war crimes; to pursue prosecutions with adequate witness protection and international involvement; and to consult widely with victims, survivors and community groups on its longer-term program of transitional justice, including a possible truth commission. To be effective, these processes will require consistent international scrutiny and participation, including OHCHR assistance to investigations and continued monitoring and reporting to the HRC.

The parliamentary elections offer voters the chance to renew the mandate for change they gave Sirisena and the UNP in January. A strong showing by the Raja­paksa-led UPFA, however, would complicate the president’s plans to form a broad-based “national” government between the UNP, smaller parties and the reformist wing of the SLFP and place obstacles to further progress on much-needed governance reforms and reconciliation. Sri Lanka’s chance to finally start on the road to a sustainable resolution of the country’s decades-long ethnic strife, including a negotiated political settlement, depends on the outcome.

Colombo/Brussels, 12 August 2015

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.