Sri Lanka; It’s back with a bang, and stunningly so!

Image result for blast in sri lanka
Image credit: Ishara S. Kodikara, AFP

N Sathiya Moorthy  24 April 2019

Shocking, stunning, saddening and revolting as it is, the Easter Day ‘massacre’ – and that is the only way to put it – has added a ‘new element’ to the nation’s ‘terrorism history and vocabulary’. This is so even as Sri Lanka and neighbourhood were getting accustomed to a world without LTTE terror, and in the process, Sri Lankans in particular (and possibly alone) seem to have become lax and casual about security, even though the entire apparatus from the previous decade and more still remains mostly intact.

First and foremost, it is about the changing national psyche. More than possibly the citizenry, the political class, especially of the present-day ruling variety, was over-enthusiastic about shedding all symbols and shades of a nation ever-prepared to fight terror. This has had both a national and international dimension, where the Sri Lankan State and authorities were always called to prove their innocence, if at all, from the past, and their preparedness to shed more of the weight in the future, near and distant.

According to local media reports, Sri Lanka Army (SLA) chief, Lt-Gen Mahesh Senanayake submitted to Malcom Cardinal Ranjith, the head of the Catholic Church in the country, how the armed forces could not be expected to operate against terrorism without ‘legal cover’. It is not clear who initiated the meeting but it happened a day after the serial-blast and at the Cardinal’s residence.

The helplessness of the Church and the Cardinal, who had received former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa earlier, became palpable even more when he reportedly said that they would have called off the Easter Mass across the country, if only alerted. There are many Christian ministers, officials and politicians of all hues in the country, and that none of them was hurt — and Thankfully so — does not make the pain any less.

Ethnicity to religion

Yet, the ‘new element’ to the Sri Lankan terrorism vocabulary is this. Through the previous three decades, it was ‘ethnic terrorism’ of the LTTE kind. Now, it has acquired a ‘religious angle’ in the immediate Sri Lankan context.

The ethnicity-religion division, in practice and in official records, is rather confusing for outsiders. Tamil-speaking people of Sri Lankan origin (SLT) constitute a single, ‘Tamil ethnicity’ under the law and comprise all Hindus and Christians. ‘Muslims’, though mostly Tamil-speaking, are a single ethnic group. ‘Sinhaas’, comprising Christians who speak the language, and, of course, the nation’s majority Buddhists, form a third ethnic group. Then there is a fourth one, comprising all ‘Tamils of recent Indian Origin’, or Upcountry Tamils, or ‘estate labour’ brought by the common British colonial rulers from across the Palk Strait, in India.

The ‘LTTE terror’ targeted the Sri Lankan State and harassed the Sinhala ethnic group, and targeted the community’s political leaders, if only to pressure the Government of the day to yield their demand for a ‘separate state’. It is another matter that the LTTE did not look at dissenting Tamils, including their most respected leaders of the time like Appapillai Amirthalingam, with any kindness. He too fell to their bullet, and point-blank, in his drawing room. His killers were his guests at the moment, invited to tea at his home.

The LTTE had purported reasons to target the island’s Tamil Muslim community, and they did it rudely and crudely so. Apart from the ‘Kathankudy mosque massacre’, they also got all Muslims in the North, to pack up and vacate with the dress they were wearing and with only Rs 200 or so in their pockets. All those that are still talking about returning ‘Tamil lands’ in the control of the armed forces, justice and monetary damages for the Tamil ‘war victims’ have no such caring word for the island’s Muslim community. That includes the community’s political class, who are ego-centric, selfish and divided.

The ‘LTTE terrorism’ was also in the making for the previous three decades in different forms and structures. The progress to what it became took that much time and effort to reach where Prabhakaran took the LTTE to. There were also perceived reasons and purported justification why the Tamils got upset with the Sri Lankan State and Government even before Independence, and how it only grew in the post-Independence era, to a stage when for not wholly justifiable reasons, the Tamil youth began taking to multiple militancy in the seventies.

If the ‘anti-Tamil pogrom’ of 1983 were to happen, it did happen. By then, the LTTE too was surely, even if slowly, was becoming a tormentor of fellow Tamil militant groups. The rest, as they say, is history. In the process, the Sri Lankan State apparatus also became wiser through that long period, and converted what was a ceremonial, rag-tag army, into one of the world’s greatest warriors against terrorism.

Victory for the armed forces was known to whoever was following that metamorphosis closely and uninfluenced by perceptions of LTTE supremacy and infallibility. The LTTE and Prabhakaran were the first to conclude so – and pay for it, and thankfully so, in the larger national and regional context.

In comparison, the ‘Easter Day massacre’ is one Big Bang, no graduated climb for terrorism this time. No advance notice that they are coming, and their ‘arrival statement’ itself was also their alert to their arrival. It does not always happen that way. Maybe, the security apparatus would now be looking closer at reports about a ‘foreign intelligence agency’ giving a two-week head-start, which seemed to have been overlooked.

Worse still for the nation and the nation’s security apparatus, it came at a time, when they were still celebrating the victory over LTTE terrorism a full decade back – with some of them also paying a heavy price for their reported trigger-happiness.  In the light of Gen Senanayake’s ‘confession’ (?) to Cardinal Ranjith, the Executive and the Legislature may be called upon to review their current and continuing position on anti-terror law, which is being watered down as a part of the ‘UNHRC process’.

Targeting Sri Lanka

All this do not yet explain, why Sri Lanka! Granting that it was a ‘global retaliation’ to some other attack of the Christchurch, New Zealand, kind, still it does not explain many things. Unless of course it is a part of a larger conspiracy to take religious terror to yet another new nation, venues and avenue, it does not make much sense, considering that religious animosity of the kind that could have motivated such a gruesome act has never ever existed in the country.

If Sri Lanka’s strategic locale in the Indian Ocean is also a long-term factor in someone’s studied consideration, it would still need to be studied closely for what all it could mean for the nation, who prides at it and hopes to bring prosperity by exploiting/over-exploiting the Nature’s Gift. For now, it could well damage the nation’s reputation as a global tourism centre, especially after the death of three of the four children of Anders Holch Povlsen, the billionaire business-

At a time when Sri Lanka can do with a lot of foreign investments, more jobs and higher family incomes and Government revenues, the serial blasts could prove to be a dampener. Fewer nations and even fewer private investors in those nations would want to risk their moneys in a nation, which was believed to have returned to post-LTTE normalcy but not anymore (?).

At one stroke, the Easter Day massacre brings to mind the combination of the LTTE attacks in Anuradhapura (1985), Kathankudy (1990) and Kandy (1998) at different times, where Buddhist pilgrims and Muslim faithful fell victims. The thoroughness with which it was executed should remind Sri Lankan investigators about the LTTE’s Kattanayake attack. It looks as if the Easter Day job was not that of the LTTE, but it is possible that the perpetrators – hoping and believing that they were all locals – may have studied the Kattanayake attack (2001) and such others by other groups across the world, and closely so.

If at the end of it all, someone were to say that it all flowed from the Sri Lankan State’s neglect and indifference to a particular religious group, or had also to do with it, the ‘justification’ (???) could well date back to 1916, a hundred-plus years ago. It could then include the LTTE era episodes, and the more recent Batticaloa and Kandy events of the previous year.

This is not to leave out the Rajapaksa era handiwork of BBS, or Bodu Bala Sena, the self-styled centre-right Buddhist militant movement, which was of use to powers outside the nation, too, to serve their own political and electoral purposes, closer to home in Sri Lanka. Yet, the BBS types were all Buddhists, though Sinhala-speaking, but not those targeted victims of ‘Easter Day massacre’. There can only be hope that outsider-nations do not have such ambitious designs on Sri Lanka any more, and insider-ambitions do not fuel them, either.

If however, the Government had learnt something from the last year’s one-sided communal riots at Batticaloa and Kandy, it was not to waste time, but to impose nation-wide emergency, curfew and social media stoppage. The Government lost not much time in doing so this time, too, and the nation’s mainline media seems to have commendably cooperated with the authorities, this time as much as in the previous year, too!

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N Sathiya Moorthy is Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai A double-graduate in Physics and Law, and with a journalism background, N. Sathiya Moorthy is at present Senior Fellow & Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Starting his journalism career in the Indian Express – now, the New Indian Express – at Thiruvananthapuram as a Staff Reporter in the late Seventies, Sathiya Moorthy worked as a Subeditor at the newspaper’s then sole publication centre in Kerala at Kochi. Sathiya Moorthy later worked in the Times of Deccan, Bangalore, and the Indian Express, Ahmedabad. Later, he worked as a Senior/Chief Sub at The Hindu, Chennai, and as News Editor, The Sunday Mail (Chennai edition). He has thus worked for most major English language national newspapers in the country, particularly with the advent of Tamil Nadu as the key decision maker in national politics demanding that all newspaper had a reporter in Chennai that they could not afford to have full-time. This period also saw Sathiya Moorthy working as Editor of Aside magazine, Chennai, and as Chief News Editor, Raj TV. In the new media of the day, he was contributing news-breaks and analyses to since its inception. Later, he worked as the Editorial Consultant/Chief News Editor of the trilingual Sri Lankan television group MTV, Shakti TV and Sirasa. Since 2002, Sathiya Moorthy has been the Honorary/full-time Director of the Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. In the course of his job and out of personal interest, he has been studying India’s southern, Indian Ocean neighbours, namely Maldives and Sri Lanka, as well as the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). He regularly writes on these subjects in traditional and web journals. He has also authored/edited books on Sri Lanka, and contributed chapters on India’s two immediate southern neighbours. His book on Maldives is waiting to happen. As part of his continuing efforts to update his knowledge and gain greater insights into the politics and the society in these two countries in particular, Sathiya Moorthy visits them frequently. Among other analytical work, he has been writing a weekly column for over 10 years in the Colombo-based Daily Mirror, first, and The Sunday Leader, since, for nearly 10 years, focusing mainly on Sri Lankan politics and internal dynamics, and at times on bilateral and multilateral relations of that nation. Expertise • Indian Politics, Elections, Public Affairs • Maldives • Sri Lanka • South Asia • Journalism and Mass Media Current Position(s) • Senior Fellow and Director, ORF Chennai Education • BGL, Madras University • BSc, Madurai University