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Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Peaceful Coexistence Under Attack
Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Peaceful Coexistence Under Attack
Picturing Sri Lanka’s Undead War
Picturing Sri Lanka’s Undead War
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 memorial in Gonagala, Ampara, commemorates 54 Sinhala villagers murdered in a Tamil Tiger terror attack in September 1999. CRISIS GROUP/Julie David de Lossy
Our Journeys / Asia

Picturing Sri Lanka’s Undead War

Ten years after the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Project Director Alan Keenan and Photographer Julie David de Lossy travelled 1,500km through ex-combat zones. They found a population finding ways to cope with their traumatic experiences and an extraordinary array of monuments to the war. 

Ten years have passed since Sri Lanka’s 26-year war came to an end on 18 May 2009. A decisive victory over the Tamil Tigers placed the Sinhalese-majority government firmly back in control of the country. The war-weary population of 21 million hoped war’s end would usher in reconstruction that would strengthen battered democratic institutions and deal with the longstanding concerns of the country’s diverse ethnic and religious groups.

But the government has done little either to heal the war’s wounds or to address the ethno-nationalist dynamics that drove the conflict. It has largely limited itself to generic statements in support of “reconciliation”, disappointing many Sri Lankans, most notably the 11 per cent Tamil minority, who suffered huge casualties in the war’s crushing last days. Failed political reforms, inadequate economic development, heavy militarisation of the Tamil-majority north and government resistance to providing information on disappeared persons have further deepened many Tamils’ grievances. Their sense of betrayal, and the absence of spaces to work through the suffering experienced by Muslims and Sinhalese, too, threatens hopes of reconciliation – either between ethno-religious groups and the state or among the groups themselves – and risks further instability. For many Sri Lankans living in the bitterly contested north and east, the war has never quite ended. The Easter jihadist terror attacks compounded the general anxiety, tearing again at the social fabric, unleashing further violence and complicating the road to sustainable peace.

A map of Sri Lanka showing places mentioned in this article. A full-size map is at the bottom of this article. CRISIS GROUP

In April, Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka Project Director Alan Keenan and Photographer Julie David de Lossy travelled through the former combat zones in the north and east to explore how the Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese civilians who suffered most intensely during the war remember their experience – and what these collective memories mean for the prospects of lasting peace. On their ten-day, 1,500km-long trip, they found scattered across the country’s landscape an extraordinary array of war memorials. State-sponsored monuments glorifying the government’s victory contrast with the grassroots memorials, some of them hidden or secret, to the estimated 150,000 dead – everything from statues to bulldozed Tamil cemeteries to bus shelters honouring soldiers killed in action. The sheer number of memorials shows a population coping in myriad ways with the legacy of an undead war.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The father of a government soldier killed on 21 December 2000 arranged for this rural bus stop in Mahiyanganaya to be converted into a camouflage-painted memorial to his son. Similar bus stop memorials dot roads throughout the Sinhala-majority rural areas where the government recruited most of its soldiers.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

In 1987, Tamil Tiger militants ambushed a bus carrying young Sinhalese Buddhist monks on pilgrimage as they were passing through the village of Aranthalawa, in Ampara district. They killed thirty-three monks. The same bus now stands anchored in concrete, carved into Sri Lanka’s landscape. Inside, statues of young monks cry out in pain and terror amid splatters of red paint.

The Tamil Tigers, the Sri Lankan security forces and government-backed paramilitaries all committed mass atrocities over the course of the war. But, aside from Tamil Tigers convicted of terrorist offences, only a handful of Sri Lanka’s worst human rights violators have faced prosecution.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A memorial in Gonagala, Ampara, commemorates 54 Sinhala villagers murdered in a Tamil Tiger terror attack in September 1999. Weeds are creeping up the monument, hiding the names of those who died. Local residents do their best to preserve it, complaining that authorities make no effort to assist them.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

This red brick monument in Kokkadichcholai, Batticaloa district, records the names of more than 200 Tamil civilians killed in separate massacres by Sri Lankan security forces on 28 September 1987 and 12 June 1991.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Militants believed to be Tamil Tigers attacked the Meera Jumma Mosque in Kattankudy, a Muslim-majority town in Batticaloa district, in August 1990, killing 147 worshippers. Three decades later, the walls are riddled with bullet holes, as locals choose not to forget. The Tamil Tigers’ overnight expulsion of Muslims from the north in October that same year, together with its massacres of Muslims and reciprocal killings of Tamils by pro-government Muslim “home guards” in the east, deepened divisions between the two Tamil-speaking communities that remain salient today.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A memorial and graveyard on the ground of the Eravur mosque, north of Batticaloa town, commemorates 121 Muslims massacred in various nearby locations, by suspected Tamil Tiger attackers in August 1990. All are buried within the shrine’s walled grounds.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Antonia Amma picks fruits for her grandchildren from a tree facing a simple cross that commemorates the 31 Tamil Christians – including Antonia’s sister and parents – killed on 20 September 1990 in her village of Savukkady, Batticaloa. Muslim militias, armed by and working with state forces, are blamed for the attack, reportedly carried out in retaliation for the massacre of Muslims in Eravur just weeks earlier.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Two Tamil mothers, in Mullaitivu, leaders of families of the disappeared, continue to search for their family members, among the hundreds missing after they surrendered to the Sri Lankan Army in the war’s final days. Tamil women across the island’s north and east continue to press for truth about their missing loved ones and for accountability for wartime violations. Their ongoing suffering, and their sustained protests, run counter to the state narrative of the war’s end as a “humanitarian achievement” and highlight survivors’ unmet needs for support in coping with their experiences of violence and loss.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Tamil women protest the army’s occupation of their land in the village of Keppapulavu, located across the Nandikadal lagoon from Mullivaikkal, site of the final battles. During and after the war, the military seized large swathes of land from villagers to build camps, a policy it said was intended to keep the peace. While the state has now returned most of the land, a number of locations, including Keppapulavu, remain sites of public protest and continued grievance for Tamils in the heavily militarised northern province.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Hands stretch skyward at a Tamil memorial in Mullivaikkal remembering the many Tamil civilians killed in the final battles between the military and the Tamil Tigers. As the government closed in on the insurgents – who refused to surrender or allow civilians to leave their shrinking area of control – the distinction between combatant and civilian fell away. Government attacks on its own self-declared “no-fire zones” killed tens of thousands of civilians, though the exact number remains bitterly contested. In the absence of a credible investigation, claims range from 7,000 to 147,000 dead.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A young Tamil man from Mullivaikkal, who survived the final battles, speaks of his family’s hardships as his mother searches for his brother, one of the war’s many “disappeared”. Some families of the disappeared hold out hope that the Office of Missing Persons, an independent government body established in 2018, may one day reveal their missing loved ones’ whereabouts. But as wartime atrocities fade into memory, and nationalist sentiments grow in all communities, scepticism about the Office’s value runs high among Tamil families of the disappeared, many of whom call instead for international justice.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A statue put up in May 2016 remembers victims and survivors of the final battles in Mullivaikkal. The next year, in the same location, police blocked a project organised by a local Catholic priest to carve the names of those killed onto rocks, arguing some may have been members of the Tamil Tigers. Police intimidation forced the priest to end the carving, though some of the rocks remain. For years after the war, the government denied that civilians had been killed and prevented northern Tamils from commemorating loved ones killed in the fighting, especially if they had been with the Tamil Tigers. While the state has gradually eased restrictions on commemoration, its surveillance and frequent harassment of those organising ceremonies remain barriers to public mourning.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The army’s Victory Monument overlooks the A35 highway just outside Puthukkudiyiruppu, close to some of the final fighting in early 2009. It commemorates the troops’ “conquest” in defeating “terrorists”. This triumphalist state memorial stands in stark contrast to those constructed by Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala civilians in the north and east.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

In a storeroom behind an army victory monument in Kilinochchi, an old poster of wartime leaders Gotabaya and Mahinda Rajapaksa overlooks the watchman’s mosquito net-covered bed. The monument celebrates the army’s capture of Kilinochchi, then the Tamil Tigers’ “capital”, seized in January 2009 as troops began their final push toward victory.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A memorial made from a destroyed Tamil Tiger cemetery in Kanakapuram, Kilinochchi. During the final military campaign and following their victory in May 2009, government forces bulldozed many cemeteries the Tigers had built for fighters in the areas they controlled in the northern and eastern provinces. In the past few years, Tamil activists have worked to use the remains – everything from intact headstones to bits of rubble – to construct new memorials.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Elephant Pass, an isthmus connecting Jaffna Peninsula and the mainland, was the site of many important and bloody battles throughout the war. Just south of it stands a monument to Army Corporal Gamini Kularatne, who sacrificed his life defending his camp against Tamil Tiger assault in 1991. The monument to Corporal Gamini stands between a museum and a train station, which are also dedicated to his memory.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Officers at the Sri Lankan Army Headquarters in Palali, in the northern Jaffna Peninsula. Ten years after the Tamil Tigers’ defeat, the military remains very popular among Sinhalese, and military commanders in the north speak proudly of the humanitarian support they provide the local population and the role they have played in assuring post-war stability. Many Tamils in the north, however, are bitter about the province’s heavy militarisation – with more than 150,000 army personnel amid a population of one million – as well as the military’s commercial activities and continued occupation of large tracts of land.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

In October 1990, the Tamil Tigers evicted an estimated 75,000 Muslims from Sri Lanka’s Northern Province in the war’s worst case of ethnic cleansing. Muslims like this Jaffna-based NGO activist left businesses and all their belongings behind, sacrificing their livelihoods to save their lives. Since the war’s end, with the state doing little to facilitate resettlement, and resentment still strong among many local Tamils, only a fraction of these Muslims have returned to Jaffna.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Sister Kanthini, from the southern district of Galle, accompanies high school students from Peace Clubs across the island on a tour of the Northern Province, here in the north-western coastal village of Mullikulam, most of which remains occupied by the Sri Lankan Navy. The Peace Clubs aim to raise awareness among young Sri Lankans about the war’s causes and effects as well as ways to achieve reconciliation and lasting peace.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Muslim residents in Silavathurai, Mannar district, on the 45th day of their protest against the occupation of their lands by the army, navy and police, who established separate camps on their land after the war ended.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

A picture of Father Mary Bastian, a Tamil Catholic priest and human rights activist, hangs on a wall at St. Anne's church near Vankalai, Mannar district. Eyewitnesses report that the army murdered Fr. Bastian and ten other civilians on 6 January 1985. His body was never found. The church also houses a statue and shrine to the murdered priest.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Tamil women light candles for their missing family members at a private memorial in Mannar. The memorial offers a safe place for women to grieve for loved ones abducted and disappeared by the Sri Lankan military, pro-government paramilitaries and Tamil Tigers during the three decades of war.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Unrecognisable and barely visible, this disturbed earth by a roadside in Thiruketheeswaram, Mannar district, is the site of a mass grave discovered in December 2013. Under court supervision, workers exhumed 84 bodies, but investigations ceased in 2015 with none of the dead identified.

CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Vasantha, a Sinhalese Christian forced by fighting to flee the village of Madhu Road, Mannar, in 1985, moved back with her husband in 2010 after a difficult quarter-century in displacement. Having lost much of her property during the war, she now owns a small roadside shop and tea room.

Map of Sri Lanka showing places pictured in this article.

Contributors

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