Making sense of the Sri Lankan Tragedy

Sri Lanka Violence
A Sri Lankan Muslim woman carries her daughter while standing outside her burnt house in Adhikarigoda , a village near Aluthgama town, 50 kilometers (31.25 miles) south of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, June 16, 2014. At least three Muslims were killed after a right-wing Buddhist group with alleged state backing clashed with Muslims in southwestern Sri Lanka, a government minister said Monday. Dozens of shops were burned, homes looted and some mosques attacked in the violence Sunday night in the town of Aluthgama, local residents said. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

By Habib Siddiqui 3 May 2019

Thanks to the state and non-state actors, our world is increasingly becoming insecure and unsafe for ordinary civilians. No place is safe and secure for them!

On the Easter Sunday (April 21, 2019) 253 civilians died and another 500 injured in Sri Lanka as a result of a series of highly coordinated bomb blasts. While the vast majority of the victims were Sri Lankans, at least 38 of the victims were foreign nationals. The Sri Lankan government later blamed National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a little-known radical Wahabi group, which had not made any such attacks before. As it has done in the past, Daesh or the so-called ISIS promptly took credit for this latest tragedy.
Interestingly, Sri Lanka’s security forces were warned of the attacks at least ten days before, but, apparently, they did not take the warning seriously. A year ago, the local Muslim community had also complained to the authorities about this radical group, but nothing was done to allay their fear, as if the authorities wanted the NTJ to do something wrong so that such acts could be used to justify new sanctions against the already discriminated Muslim community towards further marginalizing it.

As feared, within hours of the terrorist attack on the Easter Sunday, the members of the Muslim community were attacked and beaten in a few places; mosques and homes were attacked, and Muslim-owned shops set on fire by Christian gangs and members and supporters of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), while the police watched. [BBS is a Buddhist fascist organization that wants to transform the island nation’s multi-lingual, -ethnic and – religious character into a purely Buddhist fascist state a la Myanmar style, by violence, if required.] Niqab or face-covering scarves, worn by some conservative Muslim women, have also been banned by the government. Several Muslims (including infants) have died as a result of combing operations of the security forces. Most Muslims are now living in fear and are afraid to go out of their homes or mosques.

Like many observers, I am at a loss to understand the motives behind this senseless violence whose victims included people of all faiths (including an 8-year old child – Zayan – who’s a relative of the prime minister of Bangladesh). We are told that two of the suicide bombers in two hotels were sons of a very wealthy businessman known for his generosity. Why would these privileged and married men in their 30s commit such a heinous act? More importantly, how could an obscure group with no history of serious violence execute such highly coordinated attacks on an order that even the LTTE had not ventured in its heyday?

If one of the bombers’ goals was to stir new religious hatred in Sri Lanka, they have succeeded, as the backlash against Muslims happening in some areas does testify.

Until this fateful Easter week, Sri Lanka didn’t have a history of Christian-Muslim violence. The two faiths are small minorities: the country is about 7 percent Christian, 10 percent Muslim, 13 percent Hindu and 70 percent Buddhist.

Violence targeting the minorities came to the fore during the British colonial rule. Christians and Muslims, for instance, were seen to have benefited from colonial policies. In the early 20th century, Muslim domination of the economy evoked deep resentment among Sinhalese-Buddhists. Buddhist radical monks like Anagarika Dharmapala claimed that the Muslims were “alien invaders.” As duly noted by Dr. Sudha Ramachandran (The Diplomat, March 13, 2018), the publications like Sinhala Bauddhaya and Sinhala Jathiya carried articles that were inflammatory in content and are said to have culminated in the anti-Muslim violence in 1915 that witnessed the killing of 25 and injury of some 200 Muslims, plus massive destruction of Muslim properties and houses of worship.

After Sri Lanka became an independent state, Sinhalese political parties vied with each other to project themselves as the guardians of the Sinhalese-Buddhists. They inserted Buddhism into the constitution. The Sinhalization of the state and its institutions followed, which resulted in Tamil political, economic and cultural marginalization. Importantly, Tamils (which includes Muslims) and their properties were targeted by Sinhalese mobs, often backed by the state. Tamil alienation with the Sri Lankan state led to the emergence of a potent insurgency led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that fought for a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka. In July 1983, also known as Black July, Tamil rebels killed many soldiers from the Sri Lankan army. During subsequent riots, many Sinhala mobs killed many Tamil civilians. The civil war was now a fact. Buddhism was invoked to justifying war.

During the long civil war, which pitted minority Tamils against the Sinhalese majority, Muslims were sometimes caught in the middle. They were attacked by both the Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils for their neutral stand on the conflict. Some Tamils, who are mostly Hindus or Christians, considered Muslims to be government collaborators. Some Sinhalese, who tend to be Buddhist, distrusted the fact that Muslims in Sri Lanka speak Tamil and populate some areas where Tamils are clustered.
In 1990, at the height of the terror between insurgents from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and a Sri Lankan military accused of slaughtering civilians, when Muslim worshipers had gathered in the evening for prayer at the Meera Grand Jumma Mosque in Kattankudy, they were attacked by gunmen. That night, more than 100 Muslims, many of them children, were killed in attacks on two Kattankudy mosques. The perpetrators were believed to have been Tamil Tigers.

After the civil war ended in 2009, militant Buddhism began to surge. Some observers have said it was as if powerful forces in Sri Lankan politics were looking for a new enemy to fight. Hard-line Buddhist monks targeted churches and mosques, priests and imams, often with the tacit support of the security services. While Muslims bore the brunt of these attacks, Christians suffered, too, and the two communities were virtually on the same side. Thus, it was not unsurprising that many observers initially assumed the BBS to be the culprit behind the Easter bombings.
After all, the BBS has been responsible for a series of highly coordinated attacks, often led by Buddhist monks, against Muslims since at least 2012. As has become the norm in this Buddhist-majority state, sadly, those crimes were overlooked by the Sri Lankan government.

Buddhist chauvinism popularized by powerful politicians has poisoned relations further. Despite being a majority, most Sinhalese Buddhists are brainwashed to see themselves as minority victims. They know the island’s Tamils, for instance, as part of the broader Tamil community in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lankan Muslims as part of the Muslim ummah. They must, therefore, protect and defend the island and Sinhalese-Buddhist culture from being taken over by the Asinhala (un-Sinhala) and Abaudha (un-Buddhist). These groups are viewed primarily as “foreigners,” who are staying on the island due to Sinhalese-Buddhist “sufferance.” For almost six decades, the Sinhalese-Buddhist supremacist project thrived by depicting Tamils as “the enemy.” With the LTTE defeated in 2009, Sinhalese Buddhist extremists needed a new enemy to keep the project relevant. “Muslims have emerged as that enemy,” writes Nirupama Subramanian in Indian Express. Just like the Jews in Nazi Germany, Muslims were falsely claimed to have ‘taken over’ Sri Lanka.

Since 2012, anti-Muslim rhetoric has surged in Sri Lanka. It has drawn on global Islamophobia but also long-standing stereotypes of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka. Fascist outfits like the BBS have carried out a sustained hate campaign against Muslims and unleashed violence on them. Like the BBS, there are other extremist outfits, including the Sinhala Ravaya, Sinhale, and Mahason Balaya, that stoke Sinhalese insecurities and encourage violence by spreading baseless rumors. In 2014, one of their anti-Muslim protest rallies in the southern town of Aluthgama ended with the death of four Muslims and the destruction of dozens of Muslim homes and businesses. In September of 2017, BBS attacked a UN shelter for Rohingya refugees in Colombo.

To quote Dr. Ramachandran, “Among the accusations the BBS has leveled against the Muslims is that they procreate at a faster rate than the Sinhalese, forcibly convert Buddhists to Islam, and follow a culture that is at odds with that of the Sinhalese-Buddhists. This has fueled fears among the masses that Muslims will soon outnumber the Sinhalese and that Sinhala-Buddhist culture will be wiped out of the island.”

One cannot overlook the highly remarkable similarities in hate narratives above with those propagated inside Myanmar. As part of a very sinister plan, the Sinhalese-Buddhist extremists have been developing links with radical monks abroad. In 2014, Wirathu offered to support the BBS in its fight against Muslims in Sri Lanka.

The overseas links of Sinhalese-Buddhist extremists pose a clear danger and threat to peaceful coexistence with minorities. But Sri Lankan political parties have been very reluctant to either sever those nascent and yet dangerous links or criticize Sinhalese-Buddhist extremism. They had preferred political expediency over what is needed for a viable state that embraces diversity, and will not want to lose the votes of the Sinhalese hardliners. That has been the sad reality in today’s Sri Lanka!
Not surprisingly, in March of 2018, Muslim minorities in the island nation witnessed a series of attacks against anything Muslim or Islamic. As noted by security experts, such violence is rarely spontaneous and is said to be organized and orchestrated by outfits close to politicians, including elected parliamentarians. Rarely have the guilty been punished. This failure of successive governments to bring to justice those orchestrating the attacks on Muslims has been fueling more and deadlier cycles of violence against the Muslims.

In the aftermath of 2018 anti-Muslim pogroms, many experts warned that the government’s failure to rein upon Buddhist fascists might radicalize some Muslim youths while marginalizing other Muslims who are peaceful and mostly mindful of trade and commerce. Recalling how Sinhala racists repeatedly attacked the island’s Tamils “to put them in their place” and the role this played in spawning Tamil militancy and a three-decade-long civil war, political commentator Dayan Jayatilleka pointed out in The Island that this “story is being repeated [now] with the Muslims.” “We have come one step closer to the emergence of Islamist terrorism in Sri Lanka,” he said.
Dr. Ramachandran similarly warned, “Indeed, with every incident of violence being unleashed on Muslims and the state avoiding reining in the Sinhalese extremist outfits, Sri Lanka is giving Muslims reason to pick up arms, if only to defend themselves.”

As the latest terrorist episode testifies, these experts were right. The ringleader, allegedly linked with Daesh, came from Kattankudy, the very place that had witnessed violence some three decades ago. That may explain how he was able to radicalize his followers. His alleged ties with the terrorist outfit ISIS may also help us to understand why he and his team attacked soft targets like churches and hotels, frequented mostly by foreigners, and not Buddhist temples!

This latest tragedy once again shows that while the ISIS may have lost its footprint in the Levant and its “prestige and power” bruised, it refuses to accept its ‘death certificate’ from Trump and can still motivate massacres from its ‘brain-dead’ nihilist followers in heretofore unlikely places.
What remains unanswered though is how those bombers could carry out their highly coordinated evil without being noticed by anyone within the government agencies?

The government has imposed a ban on wearing Niqab by Muslim woman. The ban makes Sri Lanka the only country outside Europe to take such a decision. In my opinion, instead of making a partnership with the Muslim community who can be and has been the best source to delegitimizing the toxic influence from the ISIS or similar terrorist groups, the Niqab-ban imposed by the government is foolish, short-sighted and goes against that very spirit of cooperation needed to stop a repeat act.

Terrorism terrorizes people. Its aims are political and social, even when its methods are violent. There is no denying that terrorism has become an essential phenomenon in our time and needs to be eradicated. Nothing can justify or excuse an act of terrorism, whether hate groups commit it, religious or ideological fundamentalists, the private militia – or whether it is dressed up as a war of retaliation by a recognized government. It is high time for the human race to dig into its wells of collective wisdom, both ancient and modern, to find a way out of this spiraling morass of terror and brutality that threatens us today.

[For a detailed discussion on terrorism, see the author’s book – Democracy, Politics, and Terrorism – America’s Quest for Security in the Age of Insecurity – available in the]