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Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Peaceful Coexistence Under Attack
Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Peaceful Coexistence Under Attack
Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past
Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past
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.

A supporter of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), former secretary to the Ministry of Defence and presidential candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, holds election posters at the party's election office in Biyagama, in the outskirts of the capital Colombo. AFP/ISHARA S. KODIKARA
Commentary / Asia

Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past

Sri Lanka’s powerful Rajapaksa family appears to be making a political comeback, and presidential front runner Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a troubled, violent history with Tamils and Muslims. These groups and others worry Gotobaya’s election will leave them more vulnerable, and threatens fragile democratic progress after decades of war.

As Sri Lankans head to the polls to elect a new president on 16 November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands as the widely acknowledged front runner. As defence secretary during his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade-long presidency ending in 2015, he was a leading figure in a government that many minority Tamils and Muslims, as well as opposition politicians, blame for terrible political violence and repression. During that period, dozens of journalists were killed or forced into exile, prominent Tamil politicians were murdered, and thousands of Sri Lankans were forcibly disappeared; no one has since been held accountable for those crimes. Gotabaya is expected to name his brother prime minister, as Mahinda is constitutionally term-limited from seeking the presidency. The last Rajapaksa administration became increasingly authoritarian over its tenure, and the family’s political reprise would likely to bring more of the same.

Gotabaya’s main challenger is Sajith Premadasa, the standard bearer for the United National Party (UNP), headed by current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Premadasa is currently Cabinet Minister for Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs. Although Premadasa is more popular with average voters than the aloof prime minister, private polling, the largely pro-Rajapaksa media, and past voting patterns all suggest that Premadasa is the underdog. Although widely seen as having run a strong campaign so far, Premadasa is also competing against smaller party candidates who could take a significant block of the anti-Rajapaksa vote.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is campaigning on promises of security and order.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is campaigning on promises of security and order that appeal to many ethnic majority Sinhalese, especially in the wake of ISIS-inspired bombings last Easter that left more than 250 dead and at least 500 wounded. He announced his candidacy within days of those attacks, seizing the opportunity to position himself as the nation’s protector. Promising to eliminate all forms of terrorism, he has argued (with little evidence) that the government’s arrest of key intelligence operatives based on allegations of abductions and murders weakened security and paved the way for the Easter attacks.

Gotabaya has emphasised his central role as defence secretary in the 2009 military victory over the Tamil Tigers, a militant separatist organisation that fought for a Tamil homeland in the country’s north east for more than 30 years. Promising voters technocratic, military-style governance, led by professionals rather than politicians, Gotabaya also draws on middle class voters’ appreciation of the redevelopment projects he spearheaded as head of the Urban Development Agency and the general impression that he “gets things done”, albeit ruthlessly at times. Gotabaya has pledged that his government will instil “discipline”, and argued forcefully that love of country is more important than individual rights and that security is paramount.

The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists.

The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists. They worry electing Gotabaya, a strong Sinhala nationalist, would deepen already serious divides among the country’s ethnic communities and threaten its recent modest democratic gains. Sri Lanka’s Muslims are among those most fearful of a Gotabaya presidency. They worry about his support for militant Buddhist groups that attacked Muslims with impunity in 2013 and 2014, when Gotabaya was in charge of the police and army. Evidence that politicians from the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP) were involved in anti-Muslim violence in March 2018 and May 2019 has strengthened these fears, as has the backing of prominent nationalist monks promoting anti-Muslim attitudes for Gotabaya’s candidacy.

Posters of presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa next to rubble from burned-out Muslim-owned shops in Minuwangoda, Sri Lanka. CRISISGROUP/Alan Keenan

Gotabaya has always denied any links with militant Buddhists, and along with others in the SLPP has courted Muslim voters. Although some Muslim businessmen back Gotabaya hoping for business-friendly governance, most Muslims are expected to maintain their traditional support for the UNP. Many worry, however, that this will make their community vulnerable to retribution if Gotabaya wins. In a widely circulated video, Gotabaya’s personal lawyer and a prominent Muslim member of the SLPP articulated the bind in which many Muslims find themselves: telling his Muslim audience that Gotabaya is certain to win, he then asked them how they were likely to fare if Muslims were not seen to have supported him. When one audience member chuckles nervously and says they would get a “massive thrashing”, the lawyer laughs along, agrees and says Muslims would be wise to support Gotabaya to avoid increased harassment and even violent retribution. Smaller pro-Rajapaksa Tamil parties in the multi-ethnic north and east have appealed to Tamils to vote for Gotabaya in order to protect themselves against the perceived threat of Muslim extremism and economic power.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win. Under the Rajapaksas’ watch, thousands of Tamils disappeared in the final years of war – including hundreds who surrendered to the army on the last day of fighting in May 2009 and were never seen again. When asked at a 15 October press conference about their fate and how he would respond to the continued appeals of their families for the truth about what happened to them, Gotabaya denied anyone was unaccounted for after surrendering. When pressed, Gotabaya asserted there was no point in looking to the past and said he was running to be “the president of the future Sri Lanka”. At the same press conference, Gotabaya announced he would not recognise or honour commitments on post-war accountability and reconciliation the current government made to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015.

For Tamils especially, but also Sinhalese and Muslim victims, being asked to forget is both painful and impossible. The current government’s failure to investigate or press the army to provide answers about the disappeared has kept families’ wounds fresh. The Office of Missing Persons, established in 2018 to fulfil a government’s pledge to the UN, is still struggling to become effective. The police and army, whose assistance is necessary to establish the truth, will likely continue to resist the Office’s work under any scenario. Many expect Gotabaya will formally dismantle the Office of Missing Persons should he be elected.

The last five years represent a lost opportunity to help Sri Lanka recover from the war that ended a decade ago. The broad, multi-ethnic and multiparty coalition that came to power in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015 promised to strengthen the rule of law and tackle the culture of impunity engendered by the nation’s long history of political violence. They restored a degree of independence to the police and judiciary, and journalists as well as civil society activists have made the most of their increased freedom. Chances for more lasting reforms, however, and for prosecutions of the many high-profile cases of corruption, murder and disappearances during the Rajapaksa period, were frittered away in partisan battles between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The government’s failure to make decisive changes has left Sri Lanka’s citizens – and its still-fragile institutions – at risk.

A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past.

A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past. His election manifesto contains some positive proposals – including the creation of an independent prosecutor – but his career has not suggested a deep commitment to accountability or reconciliation. His popularity derives from his single-minded focus on the many housing developments his ministry has built and the sense that he cares about average and poor Sri Lankans. During the campaign, he has attempted to match Gotabaya with vows to “eradicate terrorism” and impose the death penalty on drug dealers. Despite this posture and widespread disappointment with the UNP-led government among minority voters and democratic activists, many of them see a Premadasa victory as essential to keeping open Sri Lanka’s fragile space for dissent and pluralism. With the backing of the main Tamil and Muslim parties, Premadasa has also challenged Gotabaya on the crimes and abuses committed during the Rajapaksa years, warning voters of the risks a new Rajapaksa government would carry.

Whether Gotabaya or Premadasa wins this next election, building the independent institutions needed to end impunity will be essential to ensuring lasting peace in Sri Lanka. For external supporters of human rights and democratic freedoms in Sri Lanka, their main leverage will be found in Sri Lanka’s need for help from the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral and bilateral agencies with its struggling economy and dangerously high foreign debt. Vulnerable human rights defenders and opposition politicians will also need political support from outside the country as they continue their quest for truth and justice for past atrocities.

This article first appeared in The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute