THE series of bombings that took place in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday in the morning hours as the Christians prepared to celebrate this day came as a terrible shock. When the first reports came in of churches being attacked and then the hotels, it seemed like a bad dream. Although the country had experienced some significant anti-Muslim rioting in 2014 and 2018, the previous 10 years since the end of the war had been free of terror attacks. Besides the death toll in those incidents had been small, no more than four or five. The scale of the attacks in this case was unprecedented. Not even during the country’s three decade-long war had coordinated and deadly attacks taken place simultaneously on so many different locations with such a high level of casualties. So far, about 300 people are reported to have died and 500 injured.
The question of the motivation for the attacks remains a mystery that needs resolution. The prime minister has already publicly said that the government had ordered investigations to be launched to ascertain why a prior warning about the attack had been ignored. The police have made a number of arrests, presently amounting to 24, but their identity is not known. The general impression based on media reports is that at least some of the attackers were Muslims and most of the attacks were carried out by suicide bombers. Sri Lanka has had its grisly toll of suicide bombers during the period of the war, but these were all members of Tamil ethnicity who belonged to the LTTE. One of the targets for a suicide bombing on this occasion was a Christian church in Tamil-majority Batticaloa in the former war zone of the east.
The coordinated and ruthless nature of the attacks, and the high casualty toll, have given rise to speculation of an international hand. The main suspicion falls on Islamic groups but other groups have also been mentioned. Sri Lanka has a history of international involvement in its internal affairs, starting with the alleged North Korean interference in the first JVP insurrection of 1971. Whether Sri Lanka is high enough on the global map to make such an investment is a question that needs an answer. There is a question also as to why no international Islamic group has claimed responsibility if they were prepared to invest so heavily on their terror strike in Sri Lanka.
SO FAR the only certainty is that those who carried out the attack had a plan which they have executed with precision and with ruthlessness. The attack on the three churches outside Colombo and three hotels in the heart of Colombo took place within a few minutes of each other at just about 8:45am. Two other smaller events took place a few hours later. The combination of religious and economic targets makes it difficult to come to a conclusion about the motivations of the attackers and what they sought to accomplish by their terrible deeds. The problem of motivation looms large because those who employ suicide bombers, such as the Islamic militants does and the LTTE once did, do so for goals that they feel strongly about.
The question to ask in this case is why suicide bombers wanted to give up their lives to attack Christians in a country in which the Christians are themselves a small minority of about six per cent of the population. Even if the Islamic militants feel that Sri Lanka has done badly by the Muslims, there would be no point in attacking the Christians who are themselves a minority and subject to anti-Christian actions, especially at a local level, where new Christian churches are subjected to frequent harassment. Christian-Muslim relations are generally good as they join hands in common causes that affect them as minorities. The generally localised level of inter-religious conflict is too low to translate into the type of effort to launch the ferocious assault that took place on Easter Sunday.
Apart from caring for the victims and their families, the most urgent task at this time is to preserve the social peace and inter religious coexistence that prevails in the country. It is important that other political and religious leaders should come out on this issue as already done by the president, prime minister, opposition leader and leading prelates of all religions. They need to do this not once but repeatedly. The speculation that Muslims may have played a leading role in the attacks have generated tension at the community level and even anti-Muslim acts that could grow. Some of the social media postings have been provocative and are clear attempts to increase the level of inter-religious tensions. There could also be attempts by political actors to use the disaffection of the general population with the government for their own ends.
THERE is an argument being made publicly to fully blame the government for the catastrophe. It is argued that the government’s actions over the past four years have demoralised the security forces. One is by having a lax attitude towards national security unlike the previous government which was giving priority to national security. During the past four years there was a significant relaxation in overall security measures to the point that they did not seem to exist at all. Access to government ministries and to hotels was possible without visible security checks. Road blocks by the security forces became a thing of the past. The freedom of movement and access to buildings became taken for granted. This sense of freedom would have also contributed to make Sri Lanka a popular tourist destination, but it contained within it the seeds of abuse.
There is also a second argument being made that the failure of the security forces and intelligence agencies to engage in pro-active security measures was due to the government’s over-deference to working within the international human rights framework set for it by the international community. For the past four years, Sri Lanka has been committing and recommitting itself to follow international norms in regard to dealing with human rights issues. It is argued that this has demoralised the security forces t the point that they have lost all initiative for fear of getting into trouble. The government’s task is to find security forces personnel who can operate within the law and yet take initiatives that yield results.
Sri Lanka is not the only country to face multiple terrorist bombings. Even more powerful and wealthy countries across the globe have suffered from this fate. The challenge of governance, and to the security forces, is to act within the framework of the laws and human rights norms and also prevent acts of terrorism. It is necessary for the government to take all steps to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice. In the longer term there will also remain the long unfulfilled task of identifying and implementing the necessary political reforms that makes every individual and community have faith that the Sri Lankan state will be equitable and just to them. This is the message that the government needs to take to the people.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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