- Post 01 July 2019
By JS Tissainayagam
There has been a rash of public commentary in recent days blaming the Easter Sunday bomb blasts in Sri Lanka not only on Muslim radicals but on government incompetence where a squabbling president and prime minister failed to act on intelligence reports and are therefore the tragedy’s midwives.
While this might explain the incident itself, it ignores the political context in which it happened and therefore limits understanding its causes and finding solutions.
Confronted by the charge that Indian intelligence passed on to their Sri Lankan counterparts details of impending attacks, both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe stoutly denied knowledge of the warning and forced the resignation of government officials for negligence.
This line of argument has had many champions one of which is Malcolm, Cardinal Ranjith. Speaking in Rome he said, “The government of Sri Lanka was informed about this attack on April 4 by the Indian secret service.”
The background to the infighting he alludes began in October when Sirisena deposed Wickremesinghe and installed as prime minister war crimes suspect and former-President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sri Lanka’s supreme court however, deemed the move unconstitutional and restored Wickremesinghe to power in December.
Bickering between the two branches of government continued and its role in the Easter Sunday explosions is undeniable. But investigations reveal that this lapse, however serious, cannot be compared to the political environment that caused the radicalisation of the bombers’ mastermind Zahran Hashim and his followers from the local radical Muslim group, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ).
The Hindu newspaper commenting on the investigations said, “Sri Lankan investigators are yet to find concrete evidence of whether the local jihadists were directly connected to the IS. They were all sympathisers of the IS, but it remains unclear how they maintained links with the IS, if in fact they did. Now we have also come across some other radicals here who are supporters of the IS.’”
In other words, the earlier suspicion that there was link between ISIS and NTJ does not appear to hold.
If that is so, radicalisation of NTJ and its leader was not a one-off matter. It was a process that occurred over time fueled by Sinhala Buddhist hatred against Muslims.
Ex-Deputy Inspector General of Police Nalaka De Silva referred to the importance of the anti-Muslim riots in March last year to this process when he testified before Sri Lanka’s parliamentary select committee appointed to probe the Easter Sunday attacks.
Therefore, it unlikely that even if Colombo had acted on the intelligence, a network with considerable roots within Sri Lanka could have been entirely dismantled.
If indeed the attacks were masterminded and carried out by the NTJ whose leader became increasingly militant after the March 2018 riots, targeting of Christian churches and foreigners in hotels on Easter Sunday was probably to attract as much international attention as possible.
Although acts of violence, hate speech and public humiliation were a provocation for the Easter blasts it is obvious that the Sinhalese have learnt very little from the attack. Although Tamils have expressed anger at the Easter attack in which many Tamils were killed, the more vicious, sustained and systematic attacks on Muslims have been by the Sinhalese, mostly Buddhists.
The backlash has been both through official actions of the government and by the mob.
At the official level, the emergency regulations that were re-imposed in Sri Lanka took its highest toll on the Muslims.
It banned the niqab, which amounted to de facto banning of the hijab although none of the bombers wore a headdress – video footage show they were all men attired in western clothing. Further, emergency regulations were exploited by the police and military to be harsh and offensive to Muslims at checkpoints and during search operations.
Second, Sirisena pardoned a virulently anti-Muslim Buddhist monk who was imprisoned on other charges soon after the Easter bombing. This was an entirely arbitrary act. Galegoda Attho Gnanasara Thero lost no time stoking Sinhala-Buddhists sentiments against the Muslims declaring, “I urge the government to arrest the main people responsible for the spreading of Wahhabism.”
Meanwhile, not to be outdone, chief monk of the Sri Lankan Buddhism’s Asgiriya Chapter Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana urged Sinhalese to boycott Muslim-owned businesses and said he thought Muslims ought to be stoned. Not only did Sirisena use his position to help stir the cauldron of Sinhala-Buddhist racism, he has done little to contain hate speech such as Gnanarathana’s despite having the necessary tools in existing legislation.
Third, some of the measures adopted by the Sri Lanka government against the Muslims were suggested in a 10-point plan by hardline Buddhist Minister Champika Ranawaka, who is a member of the cabinet. His proposals included banning the niqab and the burka, and deporting foreign teachers teaching in local madrasas. There is no evidence that Ranawaka has been chastised for expressing views openly discriminatory of Muslims.
Finally, Parliamentarian Athuraliye Rathana Thero, a Buddhist monk from Wickremesinghe’s ruling party began a hunger strike demanding the resignation of nine Muslim ministers from Wickremesinghe’s cabinet and two provincial governors. The protest ended only when Rathana’s goal was accomplished.
Meanwhile, Sinhala mobs on at least two occasions rioted against the Muslims, apparently unhindered by the presence of law enforcement or the curfew. At least one Muslim died and Mosques, Muslim-owned businesses and homes subject to arson.
Although such acts seem to have been contained for now, the immunity the thugs enjoy could reignite violence at any time.
Although the attacks on Easter Sunday has cost the country economically – especially tourist arrivals and loss of business confidence, the Sinhala Buddhist elite with Sinhala Christians in tow that control state power in Sri Lanka, have put the Easter Sunday blasts to good use for two ends: a) guiding both government and opposition politicians to work more closely with the US-led military coalition of which India too is a part, ostensibly to fight ISIS and b) erode the power base of the Muslims in Sri Lanka.
There has been significant erosion of the Muslim power base both politically and economically after Easter. Politically, all it took was a single Buddhist monk to threaten to starve himself to death, for a group of Muslim leaders, some of them elected, to resign their ministries while their government’s leader, a Buddhist, stood looking on, calculating that he could not sacrifice a single Sinhala Buddhist vote at the next election.
Economically, Muslims who as a community are known for trade, realise that unless they play second fiddle to their Sinhala counterparts, they could be vulnerable not only to mob violence, but even being arrested on false charges. Nor will it ever be a level playing field to compete for contracts or bank loans.
Tamils in Sri Lanka understand this very well. Successive bouts of violence eroded their political and economic power. An example will suffice: following the 1983 riots the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) parliamentarians were forced out of parliament because of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, thereby disenfranchising most Tamils.
Similarly, fearing a ragtag Sinhala mob or a racist business rival could ruin their business, Tamil business people were forced out from the more lucrative businesses. And into their shoes stepped in Sinhalese and, ironically, Muslims. With nowhere to turn, Tamils increasingly embraced armed violence against the state.
Blaming the quarrelsome president and prime minister of Sri Lanka for the tragedy that unfolded on Easter morning is to dodge the real reasons that led to the radicalisation of Zahran Hashim and his followers, which was systematic discrimination, human rights violations and public humiliation in the hands of Sinhala Buddhists.
What is more tragic, the Sinhala Buddhist elite are using the Easter blasts not as an opportunity to be inclusive and equitable but to leverage the institutions of state to further disempower Muslims.☐
JS Tissainayagam, a senior journalist and former Sri Lankan political prisoner, is a Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard. He won Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism (2009) and the CPJ Press Freedom Award (2009).