Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 October 2019

The world stands united behind Sri Lanka, a nation in mourning

The scourge of extremism cannot be allowed to thrive again in a country where its scars run deep

An elderly woman is helped near St Anthony's Shrine after a blast in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Easter Sunday. Eranga Jayawardena / AP
An elderly woman is helped near St Anthony's Shrine after a blast in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Easter Sunday. Eranga Jayawardena / AP

As hundreds of Sri Lankan Christians gathered to worship on Easter Sunday, at least eight blasts rocked the country in one of the deadliest attacks the country has witnessed in decades. Explosions in churches in Kochikade, Negombo and Batticaloa, as well as high-end hotels in the capital, Colombo, have left at least 160 dead and hundreds more injured, among them 35 foreigners, in a string of attacks co-ordinated to create maximum chaos.

The aim was clearly to cause multiple casualties, destruction and damage – to people, churches, buildings, and to the national psyche. As finance minister Mangala Samaraweera tweeted, these attacks were a “well-co-ordinated attempt to create murder, mayhem and anarchy”.

As shockwaves ripple through Sri Lanka, the world grieves with a country that had barely recovered after being ripped apart by a 26-year civil war, which ended exactly a decade ago.

In the 10 years since Sri Lanka declared an end to the violence, in May 2009, the country has established itself as a tourist destination and a haven of tranquillity and natural beauty. But memories of the conflict that divided a people and led to hundreds of thousands being killed, injured and displaced still run deep. Indeed, while no group has claimed the attacks as yet, there are echoes of the scale and magnitude of past incidents, such as the Kattankudy mosque massacre, carried out by Tamil rebels in 1990 and killing more than 147 worshippers in four mosques, and the 1985 attack by the militant separatist group LTTE, when 146 Sinhalese, including nuns and monks, were gunned down at Buddhist shrines and on buses in Anuradhapura.

The targeting of churches on such a holy day threatens similar religious hatred. Since 2009, Sri Lanka has had large populations of Buddhist Sinhalese, Hindus, Christians and Muslims living largely peaceably side by side. The attacks on houses of worship and tourist sites are an attempt to undermine that hard-won peaceful coexistence and create fear among residents and visitors alike.

Targeting the country’s tourism industry also threatens to damage a key driver of growth and the local economy. That cannot be allowed to happen. Sri Lanka welcomed more than 2.3 million visitors last year, a remarkable year-on-year rise since less than 448,000 visited in 2009. In the face of enormous debt, owed mostly to China, the money they inject is a vital source of national income.

The intention of the perpetrators of this horrific attack is to wreck the tourism industry and damage Sri Lanka’s hard-won reputation as an Indian Ocean idyll. If fear keeps people away, it serves their purpose and lets them succeed in their nefarious endeavour.

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has issued a statement calling for calm while rescue operations to find survivors get underway and authorities investigate the killers behind the horror. Meanwhile emergency talks are being held by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

This is a moment to mourn the dead and for authorities to exact justice on the perpetrators. With messages of condolence pouring in from around the globe – including from the UAE's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation – the world stands united behind Sri Lanka at a time of great tragedy.

There will be painful questions to be asked over the coming days and weeks about the perpetrators and how they were able to mount such a devastating attack, as a nation in mourning buries the victims. The scars of past traumas are still fresh in Sri Lanka and having made so much progress in such a short time, it cannot be allowed to slip back into the sectarian violence that traumatised a generation, nor can the scourge of extremism be allowed to flourish again – otherwise the triumphs of the past decade risk being lost. That is surely what the perpetrators want. They must not be allowed to win.

Updated: April 21, 2019 06:30 PM

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