Conflict brews in Sri Lankan politics again

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M Sakhawat Hossain | Prothom Alo Apr 25, 2019   

After a ten-year hiatus of peace, violence has struck once again in the geopolitically important South Asian island state of Sri Lanka. On Easter Sunday, 21 April, three churches and three five-star hotels of Colombo and adjacent areas came under devastating terrorist attacks, the death toll 359 so far, with around 500 injured, now undergoing treatment in various hospitals.

Initially no one took responsibility for the attacks. It was obviously not a lone wolf attack as in New Zealand. The sheer extent of the violent blasts and bloodshed indicated that this was carried out by an organised group. Then three days after the incident, IS took responsibility, albeit without any evidence.

A voice within the Sri Lankan government said it was in retaliation of the attack at the mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. IS did not make any such statement. The incident is still enshrouded in mystery. In an interview taken by NDTV it was said that this attack was planned even before the Christchurch shooting took place. It was also said that all the attackers were Sri Lankan nationals.

Within hours of the attacks, Sri Lankan police raided a house in Colombo and arrested seven persons. During the arrest, one of the suspects blew himself up in a suicidal explosion, also killing three members of the police force. The police did not immediately reveal the identity of those arrested. Later the number of suspects increased to 24, including both men and women.

A day later it was revealed that the arrested were all involved in the attacks and were also all Sri Lankan nationals. They were all relatively little known and members of a local so-called Islamic militant outfit National Thowheed Jama’at. Leader of the outfit, Zahram Hashim, is said to be the mastermind behind the attacks.

The vehicle used to transport the explosives used in the attacks and the driver was arrested, but not much was was revealed. Only assumptions can be made based on the information gathered so far.

Sri Lanka’s health minister Rajitha Senaratne has admitted that the police had received information from foreign intelligence agencies about the possibility of such an attack, but this was not conveyed to the prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The cabinet had been in the dark about it. This indicates a fissure in Sri Lankan politics.

It may be recalled that in October last year, the present president of Sri Lanka sacked the present prime minister and unconstitutionally appointed former president Mahinda Rajapakse in his stead. This created a political crisis. The damages linger.

It is still not possible to affirm who were behind this heinous act. The day after the attack the government spokesperson mentioned National Thowheed Jama’at, but this group did not take responsibility. The government suspects the attackers were in collusion with outside organisations.

Security experts hardly find it plausible that such a small and relatively unknown militant outfit could carry out such an extensive attack alone. Such an attack needs lengthy planning, procurement of huge amounts of explosives, training and more. It would be extremely difficult for a small outfit to organise this.

Governor of Sri Lanka’s eastern province Muhammad Lebe Alim Hezbollah has also said that it was doubtful that this organisation was capable of such a big operation. Others are of the same view.

Over the past few years, extremist Buddhists have been on a rise in Sri Lanka. They have had clashes with the minority communities in various areas. On 25 March last year a group of Buddhist monks blocked Christians from worshipping at a church in Colombo. According to the National Evangelical Christian Alliance, 86 incidents took place over the past couple of years where Buddhist extremists attacked Christians. Last year alone 26 such incidents took place.

Last year bloody attacks by anti-Muslim Buddhists forced the government in Sri Lanka to declare a state of emergency. The rise of Buddhist extremists is creating a security threat in Sri Lanka. Rifts within the government lead to political vacuum and fanatics take full advantage of such situations.

This incident has two harmful impacts on Sri Lanka. One is on its interfaith harmony. The other is on its economy.

Conflict is now bound to increase in Sri Lanka’s politics, even leading it towards autocracy. Then there are matters of international geopolitics which may also become complicated. No country is free from the unrest that prevails globally. The only way to work towards safety and security is to strive for social and political stability in each country.

* M Sakhawat Hossain is a former election commissioner, retired army officer and presently honorary fellow at NSU. He can be contacted at [email protected]. This piece appeared in Bangla in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten here in English by Ayesha Kabir