After the Easter Bombings, Sri Lanka Grapples with Its History of Violence
In Sri Lanka, a wave of eight bomb attacks on Easter Sunday sparked a sense of both sickening familiarity and new disquiet. Throughout the morning and afternoon, in and around the capital, Colombo, and in the eastern city of Batticaloa, the bombs went off at churches and upscale hotels, killing at least two hundred and ninety people and wounding hundreds of others. Part of the façade of the Shangri-La hotel was ripped away; at St. Sebastian’s Church, in Negombo, the shingled tiles were blown off the roof, and light filtered in through the gashes. Once upon a time, scenes of such devastation signalled a bout of violence during Sri Lanka’s twenty-six-year civil war. But the war ended in 2009, and, although the island has borne episodes of religious violence since then, the scale and coördination of these bombings felt altogether different. Part of the disquiet had to do with this fresh menace; part of it had to do with the effect it might have on a combustible polity.
South Asia has such a dense history of ghastly violence that the details of the blasts instantly brought others to mind. On Sunday, a bomber at the Cinnamon Grand hotel queued up for a breakfast buffet before setting off his explosives; the episode recalled a terrorist who, in November, 2008, was awed by the opulence of Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace hotel—telling his handler about it on a cell phone—even as he helped lay siege to it. The suicide attacks recalled those of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a guerrilla group that fought for an independent Tamil nation, before finally losing its war against the Sri Lankan state. (One of the L.T.T.E.’s deadliest strikes came in 1996, when Tigers drove a truck packed with explosives through the gate of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, which is a five-minute drive up the seaside from the Cinnamon Grand.) The targeted hotels recalled the Islamabad Marriott, bombed in September, 2008, and the Intercontinental in Kabul, shot up by the Taliban last year.
But these parallels did not immediately reveal the perpetrators behind the Easter bombings, and it was vital to be careful in speculating about their identities. Across South Asia, misinformation on social media has been responsible for flares of communal violence. Last year, a Times investigation detailed how, in a spree of Buddhist mob attacks against Muslims in Sri Lanka, “Facebook’s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumor to killing.” In the wake of the blasts on Sunday, one of the government’s first acts was to temporarily suspend access to social media and messaging services, although V.P.N.s found ways around these blocks. It also set in a countrywide curfew on Sunday, from 6 P.M. to 6 A.M.; another is in force tonight.
The attacks also needed to be parsed with caution because of Sri Lanka’s complex religious and ethno-linguistic fabric and because of the knotted states of tensions between communities. The civil war, which began in 1983, was fought between a Tamil-speaking minority and a state that favored the Sinhalese-speaking majority. But overlaid upon this conflict were religious nuances. The Sinhalese mostly practice Buddhism, the faith given “the foremost place” by the country’s constitution; seventy per cent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist. Some Sinhalese are Christian, as are some Tamils; most Tamils are Hindu. Muslims, forming barely a tenth of the population, also speak Tamil, but, during the war, they were largely uninvolved with, and even targeted by, the Tigers. After the war, Buddhist extremist groups—nurtured by the Sinhalese nationalist party then in power—repeatedly singled out Muslim-owned shops and mosques for violence. In 2017, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka expressed its concerns over “the spate of attacks” on Christians. A week ago, a Methodist church in the city of Anuradhapura was set upon by a crowd throwing stones and firecrackers; the church had to conduct its Good Friday services under police protection. Commentators like to say that the island has enjoyed a period of calm since the end of the war, but the past decade has not always been easy for minorities to negotiate.
Aware of the easy flammability of communal relations, authorities were spare in their initial briefings on Sunday. Twenty-four suspects have been arrested, but their names were not revealed. Ruwan Wijewardene, the junior defense minister, urged reporters not to identify the suspects; he would only say that the attackers were all part of a single group. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe pleaded with citizens to “avoid propagating unverified reports” and to remain “united and strong.” The government seemed to be straining every nerve in order to prevent the country from descending into the kind of spiral of retributive violence that it has suffered in the past.
On Monday, there was more information. Another cabinet minister pinned the blame on a radical Islamist group called National Thowheeth Jama’ath, not well known until now, and added that “there was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.” He admitted that national intelligence agencies had some degree of warning about the attacks. (By claiming that President Maithripala Sirisena had failed to act in time, the minister gestured to a long-standing rift between Sirisena and the Prime Minister.) The spokesperson’s mention of a wider network helped explain, at least superficially, the scale of this operation: “We don’t see how a small organization can do all of this.” Bombs were still being found even after the last of Sunday’s explosions. In Colombo, a pipe bomb was discovered near the airport; another bomb, in a van, exploded near St. Anthony’s Shrine, on Monday afternoon; at the city’s main bus station, police came upon a stash of eighty-seven detonators.
Sri Lanka now finds itself in a state of doubled wariness. It must contend with the nature of this new threat. It must also contend with its own nature: its inability to protect its minorities and its proclivity to politicize strife. Already, the government has declared a state of emergency, which in the past has been used to shelter violations of civil liberties. This is an election year, and politicians—particularly those in the opposition, such as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa—are liable to stoke animosity and conspiracy theories for votes. (Party leaders to the north, in India, are doing just that in their polling season.) Ongoing reforms, such as a redrafting of the constitution, a release of military-held land back to the Tamils who originally owned it, and an accounting of the thousands still missing from the war, have foundered. To effectively preserve the peace, the government will have to find ways to deal not only with dangers that have just arrived but also with those that have been resident for a while.