The attacks in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday for many brought back memories of the long ethnic war, which came to a bloody conclusion 10 years ago in May.
Although the Sri Lankan authorities are yet to identify the perpetrators, it appears the attacks are of a different nature, one fuelled by global dynamics, rather than a response to local communal grievances. Despite this, the violence is bound to exacerbate already-deep ethnic and religious fault lines, increasing existing tensions and possibly fuelling further violence. After 1948, newly independent Sri Lanka embedded a virulent form of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in the formation of the state. This ethos, in simple terms, holds that the entire island is home to Sinhala Theravada Buddhism and that minorities are invaders, who will be tolerated if they accept Sinhala hegemony. Any threats (perceived or real) to the Sinhala identity of the country are attacked resolutely.
This revealed itself in racially and linguistically discriminatory policies as constitutions were written, making non-Sinhala communities second-class citizens. To this day, Sri Lanka’s constitution places Buddhism above other religions, assigning the state the responsibility “to protect and foster” Buddhism.
The entrenched Sinhala Buddhist nature of the state manifests itself in its institutions, particularly those linked to security. For example, the military rank and file is almost entirely Sinhala Buddhist. Some of its units, like the Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment, are named after ancient Sinhala kings, famed for defeating Tamil “invaders”. Increasingly violent reprisals by the state against peaceful demands for autonomy and equal rights by Tamils from the 1950s to the 1970s eventually led the Tamil population to seek an independent homeland in the island’s northeast, home to the Tamil Hindu and Christian populations and the Tamil-speaking Muslim groups.
A low-level trench war escalated into a full-blown war in 1983, after the Black July pogroms, in which Sinhala mobs killed thousands of Tamils, looting and burning their properties in the Sinhala-majority south of the country. During the war, the Sri Lankan military routinely targeted civilians, killing tens of thousands. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Tamil group that emerged most prominently and enjoyed widespread support, deployed suicide bombers in the south of the country with devastating effects.
Meanwhile, tensions between Tamils and the Muslim Tamil-speaking community, who, in many cases, do not identify as ethnic Tamils, increased, marked by violence and massacres by both the LTTE and Muslim paramilitaries. In 1990, the LTTE expelled some 100,000 Muslims from the Northern Province, furthering the divide between the communities. Throughout the war the Sri Lankan military repeatedly bombed churches and Hindu temples sheltering Tamil civilians; in 1995 an air attack on a church in Jaffna killed around 147 people. While those attacks were not religiously motivated per se, they portrayed the state’s willingness to attack places of worship.
After three decades, during which the LTTE was able to establish a de facto state, the Sri Lankan military crushed the movement, in a brutal crescendo of violence. The United Nations says there could have been over 40,000 deaths during this last phase, while some activists say the figure is closer to 140,000. To this day, impunity reigns for the crimes committed during the war, despite international pressure for an accountability mechanism and demands by the Tamil community for an international war crimes tribunal. Hundreds of family members of Tamils forcibly disappeared during and after the war by state forces have been protesting and demanding answers. UN officials have warned that impunity may further increase violence in Sri Lanka.
Since 2009, the attention of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalists turned to the minority Muslim and Christian communities. While the security forces maintained an iron grip on the Tamil population, Sinhala Buddhist mobs started attacking Muslim and Christian populations repeatedly. In 2018, there were anti-Muslim riots in Kandy and dozens of attacks against Christians. A report by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) said extremist elements were able to influence entire communities and lead violent attacks against places of worship and people. Only last week, a church was attacked during Palm Sunday mass.
Muslim and Christian communities in Sri Lanka have responded with remarkable restraint to Sinhala nationalist violence in the past – also because they saw the potential repercussions to them in the brutality unleashed on Tamils by the state in response to their own resistance. However, the attacks on Easter Sunday do not appear to be a response to past Sinhala Buddhist violence. The perpetrators did not target Sinhala Buddhist, but Christian institutions and tourism infrastructure.
While many Tamil Christians were supportive and sympathetic to the Tamil armed movement, as a whole, Christians as a religious community were not antagonistic to other communities. As such, to see this in the vein of an escalation of existing violence against the Christian community in Sri Lanka would be a mistake. These attacks are likely a hitherto unseen dimension to tensions, a new front of violence in Sri Lanka. After the Sunday attacks, the tensions that already exist are likely to deepen. Already hate speech is circulating on Sinhala-language social media. There are also reports of reprisals against Muslims, as a number of Sri Lankan officials have said that a little known Muslim fighter group might be responsible for the attacks.
Relations between Tamils and Muslims are also likely to suffer. The choice to conduct an attack in Batticaloa, a Tamil-majority town on the east coast, far from Colombo, may not be a coincidence. The town, and the district it is located in, saw some of the worst Tamil-Muslim violence during the war years. The St Anthony church in Colombo is also one that is frequented by a large Tamil congregation. Consequently, there are serious concerns among Tamil and Muslim civil society in Batticaloa of a flare-up of violence.
While tensions are high in the aftermath of the attack, the propensity of the state to respond with repression must be prevented. The existing draconian counterterrorism legislation has been used to violently repress communities, while journalists and activists continue to face harassment and surveillance. On April 22, President Maithripala Sirisena also declared national emergency, which gives the military sweeping powers.
While those responsible must face justice, a similar crackdown and harassment of minority populations in response to the attacks must be avoided. Otherwise, Sri Lanka risks furthering existing divides and paving the path to renewed violence. In order for sustainable peace to be established on the island, the underlying reasons for the discrimination against minority communities must be confronted by the majority. In the absence of that, a whole 10 years after the end of the war, Sri Lanka’s future continues to look bleak and minority communities will continue to live on the edge.