A decade of peace in Sri Lanka was brutally shattered on Easter Sunday. After the days of the ethnic civil war, fought between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government from 1983 to 2009, the island nation was largely peaceful and violence was fading from popular memory.
The Easter Sunday bombings, which killed around 250 people, brought back those unwanted memories. Coming soon after the brutal terror attacks in New Zealand last month, it clearly shows that the world’s anti-terror efforts have much catching up to do. Letting down the guard, even in the most peaceful areas, is simply not an option.
Six almost simultaneous blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels in Colombo. The targets included two Catholic churches — St Sebastian’s and St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo — and the Protestant Zion Church in the coastal city of Batticaloa.
Seventy per cent of Sri Lanka is Buddhist, 13% is Hindu, 10% Muslim and the Christian community is just about 7% of the population. The community has avoided taking sides and has kept away from the country’s ethnic and religious divides.
While the animosity between the majority Buddhists and Muslims has grown over the years and there have been incidents of violence among them, Christians have largely been a peaceful group. Yet they came under the attack. This is why many analysts claim that this is a retaliation for the recent attacks at the Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in New Zealand.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the attacks. But the Sri Lankan authorities have pinned the blame on a local extremist group, National Towheed Jamaat.
Muslims in Sri Lanka have largely remained marginalised. But during the 26-year war with the LTTE, some did join various militant groups. There were also largescale massacres in mosques in Kattakundy and Eravur, which killed over 260 Muslims in 1990. There were also occasions when Muslims were forced to flee northern towns in the island nation.
In their paper, Dennis McGilvray and Mirak Raheem for the East-West Center in Washington point out that given the scale of violence and frustration within the Muslim community, the environment appeared ripe for fostering radicalism and militancy. Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations, said as far back as 22 years ago on his first visit to Sri Lanka, there were Muslims who were concerned about people being radicalised.
He pointed out that Sunday’s attacks would have required an elaborate process of recruitment, radicalisation and then sequestration to prepare suicide bombers for their mission. The plan would have also needed safe houses for bomb makers, operatives who could conduct surveillance and reconnaissance of targets, and others to transport the bombers safely. “You are talking about a resource and manpower-intensive activity … that has historically been beyond the capabilities of a small local would-be terrorist organisation,” Hoffman said adding that it would be a “quantum leap” for a local group like NTJ to go from being linked to vandalism of Buddhist statues to planning and executing the Easter Sunday attacks.
Neil Devotta, professor, Wake Forest University, North Carolina, who has written extensively about Muslims in Sri Lanka, pointed out that if the attacks were carried out by a purely local Sri Lankan group, the attackers would have sought revenge against the Buddhist community for ultranationalist mob attacks on Muslims over the years and not churches or hotels.
Sri Lanka’s top officials have acknowledged that intelligence units were aware of threats from the NTJ. But both the President and Prime Minister, who have been feuding since last October, said they were simply not aware of any such threat. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe blamed it on a “breakdown of communication.”
While State Minister of Defence said that the bombings were “carried out in retaliation” for attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, a mere just four hours thereafter, Wickremesinghe said investigators were still determining a motive. After the IS claimed responsibility, he said the attackers’ ties to the IS group were still being evaluated.
The next day, President Sirisena contradicted the Prime Minister, saying that at least 140 Sri Lankans were known to have ties to the withered caliphate. He also said he still wasn’t clear how the intelligence inputs on the attack didn’t reach him — not only is he Sri Lanka’s President, he is also the Minister of Defence and oversees the national police. “Even I can’t understand,” he said.
There are also differing claims on the death toll, with the original claim of over 350 now being revised downwards by a 100. “It speaks of a dysfunctional system where information is not being shared, not being cross-checked,” said Greg Barton, a terrorism expert at Deakin University in Australia. “If you can’t count the dead, how can you take care of the living, especially those who pose a threat?” (AP)
Years of War
Sri Lanka, an island nation of some 23 million people, was dominated for decades by the sharp divide between the majority Sinhalese, who are overwhelmingly Buddhist, and the minority Tamil, who are Hindu, Muslim and Christian. The ill-treatment of Tamils nurtured the growth of armed separatists and led to nearly 30 years of civil war, with Tamil Tiger fighters eventually creating a de facto independent homeland in the country’s north. The Tigers were crushed in a 2009 government offensive.
A Religious Divide
There is no history of violent Muslim militants in Sri Lanka. However, after the civil war ended, a religious divide quickly took hold, with hardline Buddhist monks rallying Sri Lankans against what they argue is a pernicious threat: Muslims. Buddhist nationalist leaders and false social media reports accuse Muslims of recruiting children, trying to grow their ranks by marrying Buddhist women and attacking Buddhist shrines. Small-town economics also plays a significant role, since Muslims own many of the country’s small shops. As for the small Christian minority: there have been scattered incidents of anti-Christian harassment in recent years
Social Media War
In 2018, anti-Muslim violence flared across the hills of central Sri Lanka, fed by rumours spread over social media about attacks on Buddhists. Mobs of Buddhists swept through small towns, attacking mosques and Muslim-owned shops. The government briefly declared an emergency and ordered popular social media networks blocked temporarily. Social media sites were again blocked after the Easter Sunday attacks.
St Anthony’s is a Roman Catholic church in Colombo and is one of the country’s best-known churches. Its roots go back to the 18th century Dutch colonial period, and local beliefs say the church’s founder, disguised as a merchant, helped a seaside fishing community by praying to stop the sea from eroding their village. The church was later built near the site.
St Sebastian’s: This Catholic church is in Negombo, a largely Catholic town north of Colombo. Built in the Gothic style, it is patterned on the Reims Cathedral in France and was completed in the 1940s.
Zion: This church is in the eastern coastal city of Batticaloa and was founded in the 1970s.
The Shangri-La: This towering, luxurious hotel is near Colombo’s main business district and is just a few steps from the sea
The Kingsbury Colombo Hotel: This luxury hotel is in Colombo’s city center, a few minutes’ walk from the Shangri-La
The Cinnamon Grand Colombo hotel: Is about 2 km from the Kingsbury and near the sea in a bustling business district
National Towheed Jamaat
It is a small group and believed to be an offshoot of a more radical group, Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamath. It came into prominence last December, when it was involved in the vandalisation of Buddhist statues in Kegalle district following anti-Muslim riots that began the same year in February. It is mostly seen as an anti-Buddhist group.