In the aftermath of the attack on Sri Lankan churches, the clock appears to have gone back 30 years to the time of the civil war against the Tamil Tigers. Old fears and suspicion have returned, public anxiety over safety of life and limb has grown, life itself seems to have slowed to a crawl. Emergency laws have allowed the security forces to arrest and detain persons engaged in activities deemed detrimental to public order while the stringent Prevention of Terrorism Act now operationalised has empowered the state to undertake a broad investigation into the roots of Islamic terror in the island.
From a domestic perspective, the terror strike could be explained in terms of inter-religious tensions and the growing suspicion among the majority Buddhist Sinhala population of their Muslim neighbours, the proliferation of Islamic sects and the radicalisation of the community which has seen some Sri Lanka Muslims joining the ranks of the Islamic State.
Add to that the government’s crumbling legitimacy because of its failure to deal with the economy and political infighting creating a crisis of governance. In the absence of a public enemy like the LTTE, ruling party politicians since the end of the war in 2009 found it convenient to create a new enemy in the Muslims as a way of cementing their hold over the Sinhala Buddhist community. The result was a shrinking of the political space for Muslims leading to them turning away from party politics. The community became more insular and found renewed expression in its faith, including fiercely ideologically driven ones. There followed the “Arabisation of public conduct” by some Muslim groups and the open clashes between some of them over doctrine and other issues. There is also the fact that the Muslims make up a prosperous community (much like the Tamils before the 1983 Sinhala-led pogroms) and would have been an object of envy among the majority population.
Deepening Religious Radicalism
The attacks of April 21 sent shock waves through Sri Lanka’s Muslim community which, even today, remains largely innocent of connections with the ISIS. But there is little doubt that small radical Islamic factions have emerged driven by ‘doctrinal’ devotions and a power-centric theology. It has created tensions within the larger Muslim community, some of whom have complained to the authorities and raised doubts about the clandestine activities of these groups.
So it’s clear that the local security establishment was informed about the activities of the Ceylon Thowheed Jamath and its affiliate National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), whose founder Zahran Hashim masterminded the Easter Sunday attacks. The NTJ, Jammiyathul Milathu Ibrahim (JMI) and Willayath As Seylani have been banned under the emergency law. Also banned are the niqab and the burkha—the face covering attire of some Muslim women—a trend which was becoming popular among sections of the community. The terrorists’ actions make the Muslims communities themselves wonder whose interest they were serving. Clearly, it was not in the interest of the island’s 10 per cent Muslims who now live in fear. The Muslim community suspects they are pawns in a wider battle being fought.
“For no reason, we used to get bashed as a minority as was the case during the Aluthgama and Digana riots. Now, post-April 21, there is more reason to get bashed, so we will have to bear with this reality,” says S Shahabdeen, a restaurant owner who has seen a steep fall in customers even though his location is in a busy commercial area of Colombo. Petty traders, small shopkeepers, vegetable suppliers and farmers have been among the worst hit (regardless of which religion they belong to). A tense situation has been made worse by calls for boycott of all Muslim businesses by some leaders of the Sinhala community.
It has revived memories of the Muslim hate campaigns whipped up by ethnic Sinhala groups that have seen a steady rise since the end of the civil war in 2009. The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Mahason Balakaya and Rawana Balaya are some of the main Buddhist extremist groups who were openly involved in targeting religious minorities. Apart from Muslims, Christians have also figured on their hate list, especially the booming evangelical churches. It must be noted that a few days before the April 21 explosion, a Methodist church was attacked in Anuradhapura by Buddhist extremists.
Faith-based conflicts intermittently assuming violent heights are a worrying undercurrent of punitive triumphalism and this is gradually undermining the island’s pluralist democracy. The fact that anti-Muslim riots flared up three weeks after the church attack and was never fully brought under control by the security forces is inexplicable. It made the state culpable and this is the same state which crushed the LTTE. The authorities moved slowly to contain the violence and it’s not clear if their handling of the situation was linked to the support given by Sinhalese extremist political entities.
Geopolitics And Impending Presidential Elections
Sri Lanka’s strategic location in Asia, at the centre of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and its friendly open economic policies may have also acted as a trigger for the violence. A recent address by Robert O. Blake, former U.S. ambassador to Colombo, has lent credence to this suspicion. He said: “If there is any one thing that has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, it is the growing predominance of China in Asia on many fronts, and the hostile and increasingly bipartisan reaction to these developments in Washington.” He warned that contrary to mere trade rivalries, there is “larger increasing hostile competition between the U.S. and China”.
China has made massive investments in Sri Lanka (around $8 billion so far). But Colombo’s inability to repay forced it to hand over Hambantota Port on a 99-year lease to a Chinese firm in December 2017. To the U.S., China is acquiring strategic infrastructure through “debt trap” diplomacy and that is unacceptable. Other irritants have cropped up. President Sirisena rushed to Beijing after the April 21 attacks to sign an agreement “to strengthen cooperation in the defence sector and in sharing intelligence”. This may be intended to counter the Sri Lanka-U.S. Acquisition & Cross Servicing Agreement of 2007 (which was renewed in June 2017) and another which reportedly permits U.S. forces on Lankan soil.
Interesting to note are comments by Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith (head of the Catholic Church) who indicated that powerful states with arms industries create conflicts in other nations in order to sell their weapons. Such manipulations could also involve the Islamic State is the view.
With presidential elections due this year, the violence may have given a boost to the political fortunes of one or more candidates who are seen as tough on terrorism.
(The writer is a Senior Research Professional at the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), Colombo, and a visiting lecturer at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies in Colombo. Views expressed in the article are personal.)