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Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Peaceful Coexistence Under Attack
Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: Peaceful Coexistence Under Attack
Sri Lanka: Landslide win for the Rajapaksa puts democracy and pluralism at risk
Sri Lanka: Landslide win for the Rajapaksa puts democracy and pluralism at risk
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.

Op-Ed / Asia

Sri Lanka: Landslide win for the Rajapaksa puts democracy and pluralism at risk

Originally published in LSE South Asia Centre

Twice postponed because of COVID-19, Sri Lanka's parliamentary election finally took place on 5 August. The SLPP's electoral victory should be understood not simply as a result of dissatisfaction with rival party UNP, but of the failure of its internationally-backed liberal reform agenda to gain lasting traction with Sri Lankan voters.

Wednesday, 5 August saw the landslide general election victory of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The vote sets Sri Lanka on a path likely to bring fundamental political and social change. With 59 percent of the vote, the SLPP won enough seats – together with allied parties – to achieve the two-thirds parliamentary majority they requested from voters in order to change the constitution. With executive power shared between the Rajapaksa brothers, the family and their party have the power to reshape Sri Lanka’s political institutions in fundamental – and potentially dangerous – ways.

The Sinhala nationalist ideology the Rajapaksas and the SLPP promote has long structured Sri Lankan politics, marginalising Tamils (about 15 percent of the population) and, in different ways, Muslims (who make up ten percent). The explicitly pro-Sinhala and anti-minority rhetoric of the SLPP’s campaign, the Rajapaksas’ demonstrated commitment to centralised and authoritarian rule – Mahinda’s presidency from 2005-2015 saw widespread human rights violations and numerous well-documented atrocities –  and the comprehensive defeat of the political voices supporting a more liberal, pluralist and tolerant vision of Sri Lanka – together these threaten to entrench a more dangerously intolerant form of majoritarianism than Sri Lanka has seen before.

Following Gotabaya’s decisive victory in the November 2019 presidential election, and in light of the continued popularity of his elder brother Mahinda, few political observers doubted the SLPP would win a big victory. Given the mostly proportional nature of Sri Lanka’s electoral system, however, few expected it would win a two-thirds majority, something no party had achieved before in a single election. That it was able to cross this threshold is due in part to the long and bitter infighting that hobbled its main rival, the United National Party (UNP), which eventually split it in two just before the election campaign began. The historic decimation of the UNP – it gained just one seat from two percent of the vote, while its splinter formation, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), won 24 percent and 54 seats – was a public rebuke for the party’s disastrous incompetence when in power from 2015-2019.

Crippled by the dysfunctional cohabitation between President Maithripala Sirisena, leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and his prime minister, UNP leader Ranil Wickemesinghe, the government ignored intelligence warnings and failed to prevent the ISIS-inspired Easter bombings that killed 279 people and injured hundreds more. The SLPP ran on Gotabaya’s trademark promises of security and competent technocratic rule, the strong performance of his minority government in limiting the spread of COVID-19, and its aggressively Sinhala and Buddhist agenda. All this resonated widely with Sinhalese voters who had seen little improvement in their economic situation under the UNP and had received a steady diet of nationalist, often anti-Muslim, rhetoric from the overwhelmingly pro-SLPP and pro-Rajapaksa state and private media. The SLPP also capitalised on its strong local party structures and its sophisticated and unrivalled use of social media.

But the SLPP’s victory goes deeper than current and recent party dynamics. It expresses the exhaustion – and the Sinhalese public’s rejection – of the liberal, largely western-oriented elite that dominated the UNP and, until at least 2005, had strong influence within the SLPP’s predecessor, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Promises of inter-ethnic reconciliation, constitutional reform for greater devolution of power to Tamil-majority regions, strengthened rule of law and human rights protections and accountability for past abuses – this was a political reform agenda encouraged by western governments and taken up, if rather timidly, by the last UNP administration, after being endorsed on paper by other governments before it. That agenda is now dead. Badly packaged to the public, linked to no clear or tangible benefits to average Sinhalese during the UNP’s 2015-19 government, and undercut by the economic liberalisation policies that accompanied it, the liberal reform agenda was no match for the relentless nationalist rhetoric and framing of issues by the Rajapaksas and their media allies since the formation of the SLPP in 2016. The UNP’s back-to-back defeats in 2019 and 2020 express the decisive victory of nationalist narratives and policies that have been promoted for decades.

Sri Lanka’s democracy has always been incomplete and deeply flawed. Tamils have been excluded from effective power-sharing and their collective identity undermined. Muslims’ economic and cultural security is at growing risk. But even as an ethnocracy, rather than a full democracy, important elements in Sri Lanka have resisted the full flowering of a Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic project. The island’s embattled pluralist traditions, and the occasional attempts to give institutional form to Sri Lanka’s multicultural and multi-religious demographic reality, however, are now so severely weakened as to be politically irrelevant. Under Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency the state has abandoned any pretence of Sri Lanka as a multi-cultural nation. Even as the country suffered repeated periods of insurgency, brutal counter-insurgency and mass atrocity – culminating in the tens of thousands of Tamil civilians killed in the final stages of the war with the Tamil Tigers in 2009 – Sri Lanka retained genuine democratic energies and traditions of questioning and contesting the ruling powers. These traditions – and those who wish to maintain them – are now under intense pressure.

What this is likely to mean in practice is a deepening of developments already begun during Gotabaya’s first nine months in office. The president’s preference for centralised rule with little oversight is clear: he has ruled without parliament for the previous five months – despite the constitution’s explicit limit of three months – relying instead on a series of ad hoc presidential task forces to set and implement policy. The SLPP’s central campaign pledge was to abolish or drastically rework – they never proposed specific changes – the nineteenth amendment. Approved by parliament in 2015 with only one vote against, the amendment limited the president’s previously near-absolute powers. It expanded the powers of the prime minister and strengthened a series of independent oversight commissions – e.g., on police, human rights, judiciary and right to information – and the constitutional council that appoints them. All this is certain to change. Gotabaya and Mahinda might, quite naturally, disagree over how to distribute their respective powers as president and prime minister, and intra-family tensions could shape policy, but it is clear that the executive as a whole will be made significantly stronger and the power of the Rajapaksa family consolidated for the long term.

The military and the Buddhist clergy will also continue to enjoy the expanded prestige and power they have received so far under Gotabaya. The ministry of defence has taken over numerous non-military agencies, and serving and retired military personnel have been appointed to at least twenty senior civil administrative positions, including the presidential task force on controlling the COVID-19 outbreak, chaired by the serving army commander. A separate presidential task force “to build … a disciplined, virtuous and lawful society” is staffed entirely by military and police officers and has sweeping powers to oversee and direct government agencies outside of established procedures. A number of the retired and serving generals are implicated by the UN and others in gross human rights violations during the final months of the civil war. A third task force on preserving archaeological heritage in the multi-ethnic and majority Tamil-speaking eastern province features senior defence and police officials and prominent nationalist Buddhist monks, but no Tamils or Muslims.

Tamils and Muslims in the north and east feel their land rights are increasingly vulnerable to seizures by a range of government initiatives, often through the construction of military camps and Buddhist temples, or through environmental and archaeological regulations. The government is also expected to propose new legislation to regulate Muslim religious education and marriage laws – done in the name of curbing “extremism” – as part of a wider set of policies widely seen by Muslims and rights activists as designed to weaken the community and assert the primacy of Sinhalese and Buddhists. Soon after coming to power, Gotabaya established a Buddhist Advisory Council, which he meets once a month, and his inauguration ceremony in November and Mahinda’s swearing-in as prime minister on 9 August were both held at important and politically-powerful Buddhist temples.

The first nine months of Gotabaya’s presidency has seen a concerted attack on the rule of law and the independence of the police and judiciary. Police investigations into corruption, murder and abduction cases implicating officials serving when Mahinda was president, including Gotabaya and senior military officials, have been stopped, with the key investigators either transferred or in some cases themselves charged with crimes on flimsy grounds. There are increasing reports of lawyers involved in human rights cases facing intimidation by police or military, and there are growing fears of a return to the active repression of dissent experienced during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, when scores of media personnel, humanitarian workers and political activists, particularly but not only Tamils, were killed, assaulted or forced into exile. With the government now possessing new technologies that provide radically expanded powers of surveillance, and enjoying unprecedented influence in both traditional and social media, democratic space is at real risk.

In this environment, the opposition – divided on ideological and ethno-religious lines – has its work cut out for it. Following the collapse of the UNP, the SJB will face a major test in becoming an effective opposition. Led by long-time UNP leader-in-waiting Sajith Premadasa, the party will need to find a way of distinguishing itself from the failed liberalism of the UNP while effectively challenging the hyper-nationalism of the SLPP. The election also weakened the position of the leftist Janath Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which once again failed to emerge as a strong third force, despite the hopes and growing support of progressive intellectuals and activists. Thanks in part to savvy government moves, the Tamil vote was increasingly splintered, with smaller parties eating considerably into the support of the largest grouping, the Tamil National Alliance. Muslim parties, and community as a whole, remain divided and have yet to devise an effective response to the years of anti-Muslim violence and hate-speech and the rising levels of distrust that followed the Easter bombings, which Gotabaya and the SLPP have skilfully exploited.

Despite the Rajapaksas’ overwhelming victory and essentially unbridled power, the next months and years will bring major challenges.  Most urgent is a looming economic crisis. Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, the government was facing major difficulties paying back its large foreign debt, with some $3-4 billion in loan payments due over the next year. Chronic fiscal deficits, which make it hard to maintain Sri Lanka’s beleaguered welfare state, has already grown under Gotabaya’s watch and are expected to grow further. The COVID-19 crisis, while surprisingly well-controlled domestically, has crippled the nation’s main sources of desperately needed hard currency: tourism, remittances from overseas workers, and exports. To date, the government has presented no concrete proposals for bridging its financial gaps, other than appealing to creditors for debt relief and deepening its ties with China, which offered a $500 million emergency loan in March. While the economic pain has yet to reach breaking point, popular expectations of government relief are high. Should they be disappointed, political unrest is not out of the question. Many Muslims fear they could be made scapegoats, and a convenient target for displacing popular anger.

It remains uncertain whether China has the resources or the will to bail out Sri Lanka single-handedly. The new government is certain to repeat its previously successful strategy of using fears about China’s growing political – and possible military – role in Sri Lanka to encourage increased financial support from India, Japan and Western governments. With hostility to China rising sharply among all these actors, Sri Lanka’s ability to play the two blocs off against each other may not be endless, however. Should economic and military competition with China continue to grow, it remains possible the anti-Chinese bloc could choose to collaborate more closely and challenge Sri Lanka’s move further into the Chinese orbit by using their collective political and economic leverage in more punitive ways. Given the increased use of human rights-related targeted sanctions against Chinese officials, this could be accompanied by renewed challenges on the unfinished human rights and accountability agenda left-over from the brutal end to the civil war. This could either be through the UN Human Rights Council, which once again considers Sri Lanka in March 2021, or through attempts to assert universal jurisdiction or impose targeted sanctions against some of the key military and political leaders – including Gotabaya – against whom there are credible allegations of serious violations of international criminal law.

For the moment, however, all of Sri Lanka’s key international partners appear willing to work with the newly-elected government. Western governments and the UN in particular hope it can be cajoled into moderating its more authoritarian and hardline nationalist policies, while successfully managing the economic crisis that appears to be just on the horizon. Sri Lanka’s international partners will ultimately need to develop more effective ways to support its pluralist traditions and protect its democratic space than has been the case to date. In the meantime, one has to hope that Sri Lanka’s embattled rights activists, independent journalists and other democratic and pluralist voices are able to develop the new strategies that will be required to resist the country’s complete collapse into nationalist authoritarianism.