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April 26, 2019

The carnage in Sri Lanka

Opinion

April 26, 2019

The killing of 321 people, including 45 children and 36 foreigners, in the serial suicide bombings on Easter morning in Sri Lanka shocked the whole world.

The attacks left more than 500 people injured. The suicide bombers targeted churches and five-star hotels in and aroundl Colombo. People were gathered in the churches for Easter prayers when the suicide bombers struck.

The attacks were clearly aimed at Western tourists in hotels and the local Christian community busy in Easter prayers in churches. The barbaric and horrifying attacks left the whole nation in shock. Sri Lanka was considered a relatively safe country since the end of the civil war and defeat of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in 2009. These attacks might change this perception, and the tourism industry might pay a heavy price.

The Islamic State (Isis) has claimed the responsibility for the Easter day suicide attacks. In a statement, Isis claimed that the suicide bombers were “fighters of [the] Islamic State”. It is disturbing news that an extreme violent group like Isis has gained some ground in a country like Sri Lanka. Even more disturbing have been reports by local media that both suicide bombers were real brothers belonging to a wealthy Muslim family.

Ruwan Wijewardene, Sri Lanka’s junior defence minister, told the Sri Lankan parliament that the attacks may have been an act of retaliation for the gun rampage at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. This is the initial finding of investigations so far. The minister also told MPs that two domestic Islamist groups are suspected by investigators of orchestrating the Easter Sunday bombings.

How can the killings of innocent people busy in their prayers be justified? How can an attack on innocent unarmed people in a hotel be justified? How can the killing of 45 children serve the cause of Islam? These innocent children went to those hotels and churches with their parents. They fell prey to hate.

The Sri Lankan government has banned all social media platforms to curtail disinformation and fake news that might instigate violence and hatred against a certain community. This ban has also made it difficult to get information. The government also immediately imposed a curfew to restrict the movement of people.

The president has declared a state of emergency in the country. The army has been deployed on the streets as the situation is still tense. The state of emergency gives police and the military sweeping powers to launch search and counter operations throughout the country. Suspects can be detained and interrogated without a court order. In a massive crackdown in the country, the police have so far arrested nearly 46 suspects belonging to two local Islamic militant groups.

These attacks have made three things clear. One, whether Isis exists there or not, home-grown Islamic militant hard-line groups do exist in Sri Lanka. They may be small in number, but they are making inroads into educated middle-class young Muslims. This situation is the result of the policies adopted by rightwing governments in Sri Lanka that marginalised and alienated the Muslim population. It is important that these attacks are not used to further alienate and isolated the Muslim community.

Two, Sri Lanka has seen the rise of Buddhist extremism under former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa used Sinhala chauvinism and rightwing Buddhist monks to whip up anti-Tamil sentiments during the last years of war against the Tamil Tigers. His regime established racist and Buddhist chauvinist organisations like Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). This organisation singled out the Muslim community. Their hate propaganda has contributed to a number of attacks against the Muslim minority. The present Sri Lankan government has failed to take the necessary steps to check the spread of extreme rightwing religious ideas.

There was calm and peace on the surface in Sri Lankan society since the end of the civil war in 2009. But communal tensions continued to grow and anger brewed under the surface. No serious effort has been made by the government to address the grievances of different communities.

Three, it seems to be a serious security lapse on the part of the security services and law-enforcement agencies. The Sri Lankan intelligence agencies failed to act on time to prevent these attacks. According to government sources, Indian intelligence had provided information to Sri Lankan intelligence officials about these possible attacks.

According to media reports, a police official had written a letter to four Sri Lankan intelligence agencies, with the names of suspects, but no action was taken to prevent these attacks. These attacks have also revealed the divisions in the coalition government. The power struggle between the president and the prime minister is still going on, and there is hardly any coordination between the two.

There is widespread fear that there may be retaliation against the country’s Muslim minority from Buddhist extremist groups. The tension between Tamils and Muslims in the east can also now sharpen.

The Sri Lankan people will need now more than ever to show unity and solidarity to overcome these divisions, fears and hatred on the basis of religion, nationality and ethnicity. They have shown solidarity and unity so far. Rightwing forces will try to whip up hatred against certain communities to gain political advantage. People can stop this with their unity and solidarity.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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