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Sri Lanka’s Easter Attacks Were Intended to Incite Violence

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On Easter Sunday, eight bombs exploded in churches and hotels in three Sri Lankan cities, killing more than 300 people and wounding hundreds more. Sri Lankans have lived through a brutal 30-year civil war and two violent insurrections, but the last 10 years have been ones of shaky peace. Now the bombings have revived painful memories and stoked new fears. The government has blamed a tiny militant Islamist organization, the National Thowheeth Jama’ath, and the Islamic State has claimed joint responsibility. To many the coordinated nature of these attacks and the atypical targets are unnerving signs that the country is headed toward a new phase of violence.

The three largest ethnic groups in Sri Lanka are the Sinhalese majority, a Tamil minority (about 13 percent of the population), and a Muslim minority (almost 10 percent). (Though Tamils largely practice Hinduism, and Muslims for the most part speak Tamil, those aren’t particularly salient aspects of either identity.) The Sinhalese majority is overwhelmingly Buddhist, a fact which has gained increasing importance as Sinhalese nationalists argue for the protection of Sri Lanka as a Buddhist sanctum amid Hindu- and Muslim-majority neighbors. Christianity, which is practiced by around 6 percent of the population, is a religious community, not an ethnic one. The bombings targeted churches in Tamil, Sinhalese, and mixed areas.

Though the Muslim community has been a frequent target of both Tamil separatists and Sinhalese forces, there is little history of Islamist violence. In a few isolated cases, retribution from Muslims has been directed only at those who attacked first. There has never been violence between Muslims and Christians as such. Christians have been the objects of targeted violence in the past—including in 1995, when the Sinhalese government killed over 120 people in a Tamil church. Though anti-Christian violence during the civil war was typically incidental to their identities as Tamil or Sinhalese congregations, there has been a recent rise in smaller-scale attacks against churches since the war ended, including one just last week.

The bombings occur during an election year; before the end of 2019, on a date yet to be announced, Sri Lankans will vote for president. The incumbent, Maithripala Sirisena, is eligible to run for a second term, but after inciting a constitutional crisis late last year, his chances have dwindled. In October, Sirisena attempted to unilaterally replace the prime minister with a member of his own party: the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man who Sirisena himself had defeated in the previous election. This decision, which violated the procedure outlined in the constitution, was met with protests and suspicion that the appointment was tied to the corruption cases pending against members of Rajapaksa’s previous administration. The Supreme Court invalidated the appointment and forced Rajapaksa to resign. While Parliament returned to order, the public’s trust in Sirisena’s promise of “good governance” was shaken.

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