In the wake of the terror attacks in late April, Sri Lanka is attempting to return to normalcy. But even now, months later, the situation remains tense. Radical groups are agitating against minorities, and Muslims in particular are feeling the consequences. There are fears that the upcoming presidential elections in winter will strengthen radical Buddhist forces in the Southeast Asian island state and further polarize society.
When the first photos of destroyed churched emerged on social media, many did not want to believe it. Are these images really recent? Or are they taken from the period of the civil war that shaped the everyday lives of Sri Lankans for decades? But the images are real. On Easter Sunday, 21 April 2019, suicide bombers, presumably Sri Lankan citizens with ties to the terrorist group Islamic State, targeted several churches and luxury hotels in the capital city of Colombo and other parts of the country. More than 250 people were killed and around 500 injured. Most of the victims belonged to the Christian minority in Sri Lanka, but there were also people from Europe and the United States among the victims. Until that day, the country was largely considered to be safe, but since then the social climate has changed.
Natalie Mayroth is a freelance journalist. She lives and works in Mumbai. Translated by Joel Scott for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
Ruki Fernando, who works for the organization INFORM, is alarmed. His job is to document human rights violations. “Of course it was mainly Christians who suffered from the attacks”, the activist states. But since then, members of the Muslim minority have found themselves in the firing line. Anti-Muslim sentiment is being stirred up primarily by radical Buddhists, who accuse Muslims of sharing in the blame for the attacks. Muslims make up around 10 percent of the 21 million inhabitants of the Buddhist-majority country.
A few weeks after the bombings, anti-Muslim riots broke out near the capital. Calls for boycotts of Muslim restaurants and vendors were followed by attacks on mosques and residential buildings. Mohammed Naflan, a computer specialist, witnessed one of the attacks: “600 people turned up in my village. Most of them I had never seen before. They knew exactly which houses belonged to Muslims, and set them on fire.” A large number of residents were reportedly injured during the attack.
This is just one example of the rising levels of violence. “Previously, the people in this village used to live together in peace”, Naflan says. He is convinced it was not a retaliation attack planned by Christians, but was organized by radical Buddhists. The survivors managed to rebuild their homes, but they are still waiting in vain for help from the state.
Fernando believes the situation will remain difficult for Muslims in the near future. For a long time, Buddhist extremists considered the so-called Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) their principal enemy. The LTTE were engaged in an armed struggle for an independent state in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka for a quarter of a century. The civil war—during which an estimated 100,000 people were killed—was brought to an end in 2009 under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Some of the crimes committed during that time are still awaiting investigation.
With the military victory over the LTTE, other minorities have come under fire. According to observers, the radical Buddhist movement Bodu Bala Sena or BBS (Buddhist Power Force) is partly responsible for the recent rise in tensions. The organization promotes a form of nationalism that excludes other ethnic and religious groups—that is, anyone who does not speak Sinhalese or follow the Buddhist faith. This ideology has fuelled the recurring outbreaks of violence against Muslims in recent years.
The state of emergency announced in the wake of the bombings was only lifted in late August. During these four months, police and intelligence services were given expanded rights to search and arrest suspects. Throughout the country, there were ramped up security checks which, according to the Colombo-based think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), mainly affected minorities. In Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka, there were reports of surveillance and harassment.
While the situation in the country remains tense, political parties are preparing for the presidential elections. The incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena will probably run again with the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), but the public has lost confidence in him. Media reports revealed that the government had been warned of the attacks in advance, but evidently failed to act. In recent years, the political situation in the country had been plagued by the power struggle between Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP). When their dispute escalated in October 2018, the country was plunged into a national crisis. The Supreme Court resolved the crisis, but the open hostility between the two politicians remains.
Meanwhile, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has become active again in the political arena. Following an internal power struggle within the UPFA during the 2015 elections, he was pushed out of office by Sirisena. Rajapaksa has since founded his own party—the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which openly supports radical Buddhist groups such as BBS. Critics accuse Rajapaksa of orchestrating anti-Muslim violence for his own benefit in order to help him regain power. In an interview, a Buddhist monk who claims to not want to talk about politics praises the hardliner Rajapaksa: “He has done a great deal for the Buddhists, and after all, we are the majority in this country.” However, the former president is not allowed to run himself. For this reason, his brother and political ally, former Secretary of Defence Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, will run for president.
During the 2015 elections, the incumbent President Sirisena could count on the votes of Tamil and Muslim minorities. But this time around they will probably not vote for him. Their disappointment about his lack of action after the Easter bombings is too great. The journalist Ashwin Hemmathagama believes that the weak position of the UFPA will pave the way for radical forces. And he is worried Mahinda Rajapaksas will make a comeback. During his ten-year term in office from 2005 to 2015, there was no freedom of the press. Journalists and political dissidents were harassed and pressured. This situation could recur if his brother wins the presidential elections.
With Mahinda Rajapaksa as president, the Sri Lankan economy was not flourishing either. During Sirisena’s term, the country gradually started to recover. The tourist industry in particular became an important source of revenue. But this has changed since the Easter Sunday attacks. Tourists abandoned the country, flights were cancelled. The Sri Lankan government estimates that in the first three months after the attacks alone, losses in the tourist industry amounted to the equivalent of almost eight million euro. Now there are renewed efforts to attract tourists to the country—through free visas and lower airline taxes.
Nevertheless, the Sri Lankan people are facing great challenges: in order to live together in peace, they must overcome their social divisions that run along religious and ethnic lines. “Sri Lanka is a Sinhalese, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian country—we all want to live together in peace”, states a visitor attending the reopening ceremony of St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, a church that was heavily damaged by the bombings. It will be a difficult task, especially at a time when nationalism is gaining ground across the globe. For this reason, human rights activists like Ruki Fernando are somewhat sceptical about the future.