Terror will not stop Sri Lanka from being a paradise

Sri Lanka's worst burden is its inability to learn from history and its unenlightened politics that democratic practices themselves unfortunately sustain.

By Sasanka Perera (Top Post)

Published: Sat 27 Apr 2019, 8:40 PM

Last updated: Sat 27 Apr 2019, 10:41 PM

April 21st began as a day of reflection for Sri Lanka's Christian minority who had thronged local churches to celebrate Easter, the day on which they believe Jesus Christ was resurrected. It is a moment of faith they have marked with celebration and reflection for countless years. For the majority Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims who also make up the country's ethno-cultural mosaic, it was a simple weekend holiday. But what transpired within an hour or so after 8.45 that morning was anything but ordinary, reflective or pious. A series of powerful bombs ripped through two Catholic churches, St Anthony's Shrine in Colombo and St Sebastian's Church in Negambo, and the Zion Church, an evangelical church in the Tamil-dominated eastern town of Batticaloa, as people were praying. It seemed to be a concerted and unprecedented attack on the country's Christians until the news of other bombs at different sites came along. Three high-end hotels in Colombo were also attacked while guests were beginning to have their breakfast. Despite the country's brush with political violence over 30 years, the pattern of violence connecting the churches and hotels seemed unfathomable.
Sri Lanka had not seen this level of carnage ever since the country's destructive civil war ended in May 2009 and the military and police presence as well as the once-ubiquitous security architecture in the urban landscape had steadily diminished in visibility. With it, Colombo's skyline and the country's road and tourism infrastructure underwent radical transformation, which was popularly seen as 'development'. More specifically, these signs were seen as the benefits of peace and relative stability that people had taken for granted for nearly a decade since the end of war.
But Sri Lanka's touristy image as 'paradise' and a 'land like no other' always had significant contradictions. For instance, despite the readily flouted images of flowing rivers, green mountains, sandy beaches, vastly improved tourist infrastructure and smiling people, since the end of war, there has also been a steady growth of violent Buddhist militant groups, which have targeted Muslims and Christians. The last attack against Christians was near the city of Anuradhapura when a Methodist prayer hall was attacked by a local mob on Good Friday. What has become a pattern is the reluctance of the government and the police to act when Buddhist mobs are involved in such incidents. Even by such standards what happened on April 21st was truly shocking. Talking to the Nikkei Asian Review, Phill Hynes, a terrorism expert at the Hong Kong-based ISS Risk, noted, "These attacks were pure terrorism intended to extract maximum carnage. There had to be a significant degree of local support to mount an attack of this scale, probably 80 to 100 handling a range of operational tasks." The very idea of local involvement is chilling to most Sri Lankans, which evolving information is proving to be correct.
If there is one thing that is certain in this tragic series of events other than the pain of the people who have been scarred for life, it is the monumental incompetence of Sri Lanka's government and intelligence system. Only in a country like Sri Lanka would such individuals accept the responsibility and resign.
The pain and grief following the bombings are self-evident in the country. The government has declared April 23rd as a day of mourning. As the country becomes a fraction of itself in city streets and public places, more security operations continue across Colombo, its suburbs and elsewhere in the country. But Sri Lanka as a country has survived worse catastrophes than this. It will survive this too given the fact that in general, there is no taste or willingness to go back to the kind of sustained violence and the resultant deprivations that engulfed the country for 30 years. But Sri Lanka's worst burden is its inability to learn from history and its unenlightened politics that democratic practices themselves unfortunately sustain. Neither policymakers nor professional researchers in social sciences based in universities and think-tanks have ever seriously looked into the repercussions of living in a country where laws do not apply equally to all citizens. The violence and intimidation directed at Muslim and Christian minorities by local majoritarian thugs in recent years have indicated that ethno- cultural affiliation matters in politics and in the way laws operate.
No one has seriously considered what such politics do in the radicalisation of the youth in the groups who are at the receiving end of such violence. In the absence of such sustained knowledge and research, one has to assume that radicalisation of young Muslims in such local conditions must have attracted at least some of them to the kind of visionless, puritanical ethno-religious politics of intolerance that an entity like the NTJ openly preaches. But if local conditions can radicalise the youth, so can prevailing global conditions. No one really knows what the impact of young Sri Lankans who have opted to fight for Daesh has been on the communities they come from. No one knows the nature of online radicalisation in local communities. These are not even part of any serious public debate.
But beyond this, common sense also suggests such a brutal, highly coordinated and efficient attack could not have been successfully pulled off by a local group with no prior experience. The Sri Lankan government has also made this claim and has already requested help from other governments in tracing the local bombers' global network. Perhaps the kind of serious gaps in research might be filled in times to come. The linking of churches and hotels is still quite baffling. But it would make sense if a specific assumption on the basis of available information is made. That is, these were two kinds of targets to satisfy the ideological needs of two stakeholders in the attack. Christians simply cannot be a target of an attack of this magnitude emanating from local contexts. But when taken in the context of global jihad, Christians are seen as infidels. One has to assume they became targets not to satisfy local situations, but to satisfy the virulent ideological needs of Daesh-like global outfits which must have provided ideological and logistical training and support for the attacks. It is in this context that the celebration of these attacks by Daesh supporters online makes sense. It is in this context that the signature of these attacks as something directly 'out of the Daesh, Al Qaeda, global militant extremist playbook' also make sense.
If Sri Lankan Christians were selected by the global partners of the Sri Lankan attacks for symbolic and ideological purposes, the hotels seem to have been selected by the local partners, as it would surely dent the country's economic development that heavily depends on tourism. It can do considerable damage to the state. But these are questions that need to be probed cautiously and reflectively.
For the moment, as Sri Lankans bury their dead, the country has returned to emergency rule. Daesh has now claimed responsibility for the attacks. But locally, one can be hopeful that no retaliatory attacks by local mobs have taken place so far despite some rumblings. Maybe there is hope that the country's long brush with violence and pain has taught people something about how to deal with such situations as long as unenlightened politics do not get in the way. But Sri Lanka's image as a paradise is clearly lost once again, and with that the country comes closer to the Christian idea of 'Paradise Lost'.
-Open magazine
The author is Professor, Department of Sociology, South Asian University

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