Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: The Easter Bombings and Beyond

Sri Lankan police guard a house following communal violence in central Sri Lanka (source: asiatimes.com)

by Christopher Smith July 26, 2019 Jamestown Foundation

The series of tragic bombings across Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday has placed the island-nation at the forefront of concern regarding a possible new Islamic State (IS) operation in South Asia. The exact nature and direction of this dynamic is not yet clear and may still be unfolding. However, it should now be seen as very much a component part of the overall security landscape in Sri Lanka, an understanding of which points to a disturbing convolution of interlocking religious and ethnic enmities that do not bode well for the future. [1]

The Sri Lankan civil war ended in the East in 2007 and the North in 2009 and on both fronts the LTTE was comprehensively defeated. In the decade or more that has past, the Tamil communities have not fared well.  The North is a virtual police state, and the security forces have developed an institutional obsession over LTTE remnants and possible resurgence, which has not yet materialized and probably will not. The province is on lock-down, militarized, and under the tightest and most insidious system of surveillance, which reaches down to the village level. The slightest sign of activity leads to disproportionate responses with scant regard for human rights and civil liberties. In parallel, the Buddhist clergy and the Department of Archaeology roam the region looking for Hindu shrines to replace with Buddhist equivalents and streets to rename.  Reminders of which side won the war, in the form of military monuments, also dot the countryside. Whole communities are showing signs of malaise—alcohol and drug use are on the rise, along with chronic youth unemployment, a surge in violent, semi-organized crime, sexual violence and rampant corruption. Almost everybody wants to move ‘outside.’

In the East, there is a different, but no more positive, post-war outcome for the Tamils. Here, Muslim communities have been allowed, even encouraged, by the state to prosper at the direct expense of Tamils; the desire for retribution runs deep. Muslims have taken over key political and administrative posts and have ensured that state resources are unevenly distributed in their favour—local government, development, education all lack any form of ethnic balance. Ampara and Batticaloa—the two main cities in the East—are visibly thriving, but only for the Muslims. In the East, Tamils lack the financial resources and the social networks necessary to migrate to the West. Instead, they find unsatisfactory employment contracts largely in the Middle East, again controlled by Muslim traders.

While the Muslim communities in the East enjoy a benign environment, the situation in Colombo and further afield has been marred but not destroyed by communal violence. In early-2018, a State of Emergency was imposed after serious violence erupted in Ampara and in the Central Province city of Kandy between Muslim and Sinhalese mobs (First Post, March 7, 2018). The Easter Sunday bombings have since severely compromised this hitherto reasonably comfortable position in the East of the country. The Tamils have not fought back, in any noticeable way, against an economic takeover by the Muslims and the state has encouraged and abetted this discrimination—the key political sentiment would seem to be the perceived need for ongoing retribution against Tamils. This may have overlooked the possibility of a Sinhalese backlash over the medium-term but nothing prepared any of these communities for what was to come after the Easter attacks. Mosques have been stormed and Qurans defaced and defiled. Muslim’s shops have been attacked and factories destroyed by fire. Allegedly, the police have looked on and offered little if any protection—rule of law remains unacceptably weak. Muslims have been harassed on public transport. Sinhalese hate groups have commandeered social media and “fake news” abounds. Under new anti-terror legislation, Muslims have been detained for the possession of the Quran, Arabic literature, knives, toy guns, and even camouflage clothing. A Muslim woman wearing a dress with a motif depicting a ship’s helm was rounded on and accused of mocking Buddhism for wearing an image of the wheel of dharma; the victim was later charged under a hate speech law that prohibits insulting religions with the “malicious intention of outraging religious feelings” and she faces a two year custodial prison sentence and has so far spent over two weeks behind bars (al-Jazeera, June 16). A Muslim doctor has been accused of secretly sterilizing 4,000 non-Muslim women. Parents have blocked access to their school for Muslim teachers. Lawyers have refused to represent Muslims.

The overall performance of the government has been woeful. The president was thought to have been warned on several separate occasions of the impending attacks, together with detailed accounts of when, where, and how. His response has been to sack several key figures from the security forces even though their warnings may have been commensurate with the scale of the threat, and accurate as well (al-Jazeera, June 8). The government overall has descended into a somewhat puerile logjam focused upon enmity between the president and prime minister, both from opposing sides of the political divide, and without a degree of mature cohabitation, governance has proven difficult. Most recently, the president has chosen to blame the bombings on international drug syndicates, presumably to coincide with his efforts to reintroduce capital punishment for drug trafficking, which has been subject to a moratorium since 1976 (Channel News Asia, July 15).

Rule of law and governance are, however, exactly what the country needs to steer itself through this turbulent period. Sri Lanka has precious little of either and the opportunities for reconciliation and transitional justice have passed—the communal damage is now permanent. Presidential and parliamentary elections are on the horizon and recent events have surely paved the way for a return of the Rajapaksa clan, whose boorish methods may not be appreciated but, as so many now recognize, they achieve traction even if human rights and civil liberties are the major casualties. The downward trend of electoral violence may certainly be reversed.

Recent events have also been catastrophic for the economy. Indebtedness, primarily to China for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s vanity projects, has exposed the economy to debt renegotiation from weakness. The $4.4 billion a year tourist industry has been decimated; prior to Easter Sunday Sri Lanka was considered the world’s number one tourist destination, but now planes and hotels are almost empty. Also, because the bombers deliberately targeted foreigners, foreign investment will surely suffer.

The Trump Administration has been largely quiet on recent developments in Sri Lanka. However, in addition to an unquantifiable threat from extremist Islam, the Chinese belt and road programme looks set for further success in Sri Lanka, and more so when the Rajapaksa clan eventually returns. This, in turn, will further worry the Indian government as will the possibility that IS has opened up a new front designed to target southern India. The amount of threats emerging from Sri Lanka’s political and security landscape should now be enough to draw the collective attention any global power.

Notes

[1] The information for this article was largely gathered during a research visit to Colombo, the Northern and Eastern Provinces in March 2019.

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