Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 July 2019

We have to fear the impact Sri Lankan bombings will have on intercommunal relations

Tensions between communities will not dissipate any time soon after 290 were killed and 500 injured

Sri Lankan security personnel near St Anthony's Shrine in Colombo. Jewel Samad / AFP
Sri Lankan security personnel near St Anthony's Shrine in Colombo. Jewel Samad / AFP

As the horror unfolded in Sri Lanka, the death toll kept rising: first 20, then 42, then 150, then more than 200. By the time night fell on what is thought to be the single deadliest day in Sri Lanka since the end of the war, the staggering loss of life totalled 290 and 500 injured in a series of nine bomb blasts in churches, hotels and homes across the island-state on Easter Sunday. The numbers are dreadful enough as it is. They could have been higher if dozens of additional devices found in vehicles, at a bus station and in Bandaranaike International Airport had not been discovered and defused by security forces.

There is a “tragic familiarity” to such atrocities, as Sri Lankan academic Randy Boyagoda commented today. We are becoming used to hearing of the senseless massacre of innocents and ordinary, blameless bystanders, whether it be at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on the Philippines island of Jolo in January, the attacks on airports in Brussels in 2016 and Istanbul in 2018, or the barbarities – including slavery and beheadings – visited on the peoples of Iraq and Syria by ISIS.

But we have not, thankfully, become inured to them. The idea of families, both tourists and locals, sitting down to the special Easter brunch at the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo, only to have limbs and lives torn apart, is too vivid an image not to bring a sickening revulsion to the heart. There is a sense, too, of “it could have been us”, which makes the statements of condolence that have poured forth from all corners of the world, including from numerous heads of state, feel genuine.

But there is something else that makes the violence that shattered the peace and joy of this Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka particularly devastating. It is not just that it was timed to target the Christian community on one of the holiest days of the year.

It is the fact that it is barely 10 years since the end of a nearly three-decade-long civil war finally brought peace to the island. The chance to recover and attempt to heal was much-needed after a conflict in which some 100,000 people died, and which was marked by the frequent use of suicide bombing by LTTE militant separatists, and allegations of extreme brutality by the predominantly Sinhalese armed forces fighting the insurgency.

In such a diverse country, intercommunal tensions are nothing new. About 70 per cent of the population is Buddhist, 12 per cent Hindu, 10 per cent Muslim and seven per cent Christian (mainly Catholic). However, the civil war was fought along ethnic rather than religious lines, erupting over what the Tamil Tigers felt was their marginalisation by the Sinhalese majority. It was marked by extreme violence and multiple massacres, although none with as high a number of fatalities as yesterday.

Both sides emerged bloodied, wounded and crushed. The LTTE’s leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed in May 2009 but by then, the country had suffered at the hands of a government bent on quashing any dissent and tens of thousands of civilians had lost their lives. As then United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon said: “I am relieved by the conclusion of the military operation but I am deeply troubled by the loss of so many civilian lives. The task now facing the people of Sri Lanka is immense and requires all hands.”

Sri Lanka has attracted more attention in recent months for the bizarre political crisis that began in October last year when president Maithripala Sirisena dismissed prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place. After Mr Wickremesinghe refused to go, a stand-off ensued until December, when the Supreme Court ruled against Mr Sirisena and the sacked prime minister was reinstated.

Beneath the constitutional machinations, however, the perception was that the country was on the path to stability and becoming a popular tourist destination, with visitor numbers increasing tenfold in the decade since the end of the war.

Behind the facade of an Indian Ocean idyll, however, there have been suggestions of a number of clashes between religious groups. Muslims and Buddhists in particular are said to have come into conflict a number of times in the past few years. Last year the government shut down several social media networks in an attempt to stop incitement to violence by hardline Buddhist groups, which were making inflammatory accusations against Sri Lankan Muslims.

While no group has claimed responsibility for yesterday’s attacks, there have been some suggestions that the Sri Lankan Tawheed Jamaat group was involved. According to a 2014 report in the Colombo Telegraph, its members “had been irked…by the ignorant denigration of Islam that has been going on in Sri Lanka, inspired partly by the Islamophobic idiocies of the West”.

So far, the police have arrested 24 people in connection with the attacks and identified seven suicide bombers. Recriminations have begun over why a warning about the threat from an Islamist extremist group 10 days earlier had not been acted upon while the government has declared a state of emergency and blocked some social media channels.

The question now is what this might mean for intercommunal relations in Sri Lanka. While Christians have long complained of a culture of immunity for Buddhist extremists who have stirred up hatred against them, it is the Muslim minority who will fear retaliation for acts that appear to have been perpetrated falsely in their name. The All Ceylon Jamiyyathuul Ulama, a council of Muslim theologians, has urged the government “to give maximum punishment to everyone involved in these dastardly acts” and offered its condolences and solidarity to Sri Lankan Christians.

That is welcome, as is Mr Sirisena’s call for calm. But one cannot expect tensions to dissipate any time soon. Under these terrible circumstances, we can only hope that still-fresh memories of terrible losses will prevent further divisions in a country that has suffered their effects for too long.

Sholto Byrnes is a Kuala Lumpur-based commentator and consultant and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Updated: April 22, 2019 06:35 PM

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