Understanding the Easter Sunday attacks – and the risks ahead

At time of writing, 290 people are confirmed to have been killed following a series of blast attacks at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. Hundreds more have been injured.[1] The Sri Lanka Campaign condemns the appalling crimes that took place yesterday and stands in solidarity with all those affected.

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By the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice

A familiar but incongruous violence

As families and communities begin to come to terms with their loss, many in Sri Lanka and around the world are asking: ‘why?’

Based on the limited information available so far, it is a question that defies a simple or obvious explanation. Sri Lanka has seen appalling levels of ethnically and religiously-motivated violence throughout its recent history, ranging from brutal terror attacks perpetrated by the secessionist ‘Tamil Tigers’, the killing of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians as a result of state-sponsored pogroms and counter-insurgency campaigns, and, more recently, intimidation by Sinhala Buddhist hardliners against the island’s minority Christians and Muslims.[2] But the pattern of yesterday’s violence appears largely incongruous with that which we have seen in the past.

For starters, while Sri Lanka holds a grim track record for attacks on religious sites by both state and non-state actors, never before has Sri Lanka’s Christian community (which comprises large numbers of both Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans) been targeted in such a specific way. That the attacks took place against worshippers on Easter Sunday, one of the most significant dates in the Christian calendar, is highly suggestive of the message the perpetrators intended to send.

The unusual nature of the attacks is compounded by the simultaneous targeting of three of Sri Lanka’s luxury international hotels. While over the past few decades visitors to Sri Lanka have occasionally been caught up in violence, there are generally very few examples of it being directed against them in a coordinated manner.

Though more information is needed to make informed conclusions about causes and motives, what happened in Sri Lanka yesterday appears, at this stage, to be a new and distinct phenomenon relative to the kind of violence we have witnessed previously. While raising fears that it could open a dark new chapter in Sri Lanka’s history, the unprecedented nature of the attack also offers hope that such violence may be contained.

Exercising restraint in apportioning blame

At time of writing, no group or persons have come forward to claim responsibility for the attack.

Earlier this morning, a government spokesperson identified a particular group in Sri Lanka as the likely culprit – the same group that was named in an earlier (and still unconfirmed) document, dated 11 April and purportedly from a senior police official, warning of possible terror attacks.

The Sri Lanka Campaign believes that further investigation is needed to confirm these claims, and urges journalists and commentators to await further information before repeating them as unqualified fact.

Amid growing indications that some senior officials may have been forewarned of the attacks, it is essential that members of the government act openly and transparently in establishing whether the attacks were preventable. As appropriate, it will also be necessary to ensure that those at fault are held accountable.

The risks ahead

Meanwhile, a number of serious risks lie ahead.

The first is the possibility of violent reprisals against members of Sri Lanka’s minority communities. Sri Lankan Muslims – a community which has often been caught in the cross-fire of Sri Lanka’s principal ethnic conflict, and which has shown admirable restraint in the face of recent violence from Sinhala Buddhist hardliners – have already begun to express serious concern that they could become targets for those seeking ‘revenge’ for Sunday’s events.

According to journalists, a small number of shops and homes belonging to Muslims have been damaged in the past 24 hours. With fresh memories of coordinated rioting against Sri Lankan Muslims (in Kandy and Ampara in 2018, and in Aluthgama in 2014), as well as more distant ones of widespread communal pogroms (largely against Tamils), it is essential that the government of Sri Lanka acts decisively and lawfully to mitigate and stop any further kinds of violence.

The Sri Lanka Campaign stands in solidarity with multitude of community leaders and faith organisations – including the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MSLC), the National Shoora Council (NSC), the National Christian Evangelical Alliance (NCEASL), the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, senior Buddhist monks, and many others – who have been quick to condemn the crimes perpetrated on Sunday.

The second major risk is that the government embarks upon a heavy-handed knee-jerk response to the crisis, drawing on the full force of Sri Lanka’s existing anti-terrorism framework, and/or the introduction of draconian new measures. It is a response that could pave the way for human rights abuses and increase the possibility of fomenting alienation and resentment among minority communities.

In a country where state-sponsored disappearances, torture and extra-judicial detention have been routine, it is vital that the temptation to grant unbridled power to Sri Lanka’s security sector – already a pervasive and largely threatening presence in Sri Lanka’s North and East – is resisted. This afternoon’s declaration of a state of emergency is deeply troubling in this regard, as are the ongoing restrictions on Sri Lankan social media channels.

The protection of Sri Lanka’s minority communities, and the protection of the civil liberties of all Sri Lankans, can and must be pursued as consistent aims.

Moving forward

As an organisation that has worked for nearly a decade to help bring about a just and lasting peace in Sri Lanka, this weekend’s violent loss of life – unprecedented since the bloody final stages of the civil war in 2009 – comes as a devastating blow. Yet again, families and communities have been torn apart by those who do not know or understand the value of human life, and who would take it readily for their own narrow ends.

Though the reasons behind this weekend’s attacks remain uncertain, what is clear – from the hundreds of Sri Lankans from all communities who poured into hospitals this weekend to give blood, the thousands who have expressed their condemnation of the attacks, and the millions practising faiths that reject such wanton violence – is that the carnage and division that the perpetrators sought to sow will not go unchallenged.[3]

As many living on the island today will attest, particularly members of the Tamil community, the roots of Sri Lanka’s repeated cycles of violence run deep and are still yet to be addressed. There is some thin hope, at least, that with tolerance, moral leadership, and respect for human rights, a descent into a new variety of that cycle may be averted.

The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice is a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation, which is comprised of organizations committed to upholding and implementing the Principles of Conflict Transformation.

This article was originally published on the Sri Lanka Campaign website and is available by clicking here. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of TransConflict.

Footnotes

  1. A detailed summary of the timing and locations of the attacks is available here. Live updates on the unfolding situation can be found here and via our Twitter feed.
  2. A useful short primer on Sri Lanka’s main ethnic groups, and the history of its main ethnic conflicts, can be found here.
  3. Sadly, the spirit of tolerance, respect and mutual understanding have not been universally observed. The Sri Lanka Campaign is deeply troubled by recent reports of racist abuse and violent threats being directed at journalists and commentators, including most recently at the editor of the Tamil Guardian newspaper.


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