It was 8:45 am on Easter Sunday 2019 when seven simultaneous bomb blasts paralysed the island nation of Sri Lanka, painfully recalling still-fresh civil war memories of an armed conflict that ended after 26 years in 2009 with more than 100,000 casualties and the second highest number of enforced disappearances in the world. The country had already seen decades of an overarching security state, various inter-religious, intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic riots, ushering in far-reaching powers for subsequent governments that limited the space for freedom. And then came 21.04.2019.
With the 2019 Easter bombings, 253 persons lost their lives and several hundred persons were injured. The vast majority of the deceased were citizens of the island, but also tourists on their Easter holidays. Three Christian churches, in Colombo, Batticaloa and Negombo, three hotels and a small guest house were targeted. The National Tawhid Jamaat (NTJ), a little known Islamist terror organisation, is allegedly implicated in the attacks. All of the suicide bombers were Sri Lankan citizens. And those who carried out the attacks came from privileged backgrounds. Two of the suicide bombers were sons of the country’s wealthiest spice trader, both with a western education. Even one year after, it is still hard to comprehend the inner psychology for this act of horror, but the vicious environment for minorities in Sri Lanka has certainly contributed to their radicalisation. In the aftermath of the bombings, a parliamentary investigation highlighted extensive lapses of intelligence and coordination before the Easter Sunday bombings and concluded that the spy chief, Nilantha Jayawardena was primarily to blame for the failure to stop the attacks, as he had received information about possible attacks seventeen days before the bombings. The scapegoat was quickly identified.
Sri Lanka in the aftermath
The previous president Maithripala Sirisena has been subjected to virulent attacks by politicians and the public, for lacking a strong security response to the Easter bombings. Sirisena took a tougher stance and declared an emergency, which came with broad powers of arrest and detention for the security forces. Military personnel were deployed at security check points around the island and surveillance methods increased. Moreover, Muslim women following tradition became targets, as the government announced a ban on face coverings. Security reasons were given, but in the end, the government has found an opportunity to limit rights and freedoms, accelerate the militant security state, and securitise the public space.
After the Easter bombings many Sri Lankan Muslims felt demonised and even targeted. Several Muslim-owned businesses and houses were attacked all over the country, while Sinhala people boycotted those businesses, recalling sinister memories of Nazi-Germany in the 1930s. But it was only a matter of time until the situation in the country exploded like an uncontrolled pressure cooker: inter-religious riots against the Muslim community between 2014-2018 had led to uncontrolled and toxic anger among the disenfranchised, culminating in the Easter bombings tragedy. Between 2014 and 2018, Muslim houses and mosques had been attacked, encouraged by a wave of victorious chauvinism after the end of the civil war against the Tamils. As one interloper was defeated, the attention shifted to the next one: the Muslim. The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organisation enjoyed the quiet backing of the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as well as that of the current president, the then-defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Yet the Rajapaksas denied any associations, just as previous attacks by BBS had gone unpunished. It was a neat fit for the history of the island: impunity having been the dominant odour of Sri Lankan post-colonial history.
In May 2019, the leader of one of the country’s largest Buddhist chapters led calls for stoning Muslims to death. Rumours were widespread that Muslim-owned restaurants used medicine in their food to reduce Sinhalese Buddhist fertility rates and sterilise Sinhala men and women. A Muslim gynaecologist was accused of having sterilised over 4,000 Sinhala women, but he was released on bail in July 2019. Last but not least, the head of Gotabaya Rajapakse’s legal team was recorded explaining that the Muslims of the country should vote for the former defense secretary, as they would otherwise face severe Muslim retaliation.
Challenging the Leviathan
The post-colonial regimes of Sri Lanka have never accepted any sort of interference in the elitist state of affairs which characterise Sinhala-Buddhist identity. The country has been governed by a few families in its seventy-two years: the Senanayakas, Bandaranaikas, Jayawardenas and now the Rajapaksas. The elite have managed to fight off three armed challenges to their raison d’être from 1971 to 2019 – by the Sinhalese Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, Tamil Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (and other parties and militias) and the incipient Muslim NTJ.
The weakness of the former president Sirisena exposed, the calls for a strongman now became louder, leading the former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, architect of the war victory against the LTTE in 2009, to run in the presidential elections and eventually win in 2019. In one of his first official acts, he appointed his brother, former president Mahinda Rajapakse. It is telling that the new president held his inauguration at an ancient temple built by Sinhalese King Dutugemenum who had defeated the Tamil king Ellalan from the Chola kingdom.
International engagement, security state and human rights
The election of Gotabaya Rajapakse was an outward rejection by the people of the island to the previous government’s international human rights engagement with the United Nations, but also the weakness and apparent flaws in Sri Lankan governance.
International human rights engagement, people have concluded, solely served the interest of trade and the attraction of investment into the country. Sri Lanka is a prime example of how international human rights engagement by countries from the Global South is nothing more and nothing less than a tactical tool to gain neoliberal investment from the Global North. Once that happens, human rights becomes solely an end to itself. However, Ahmed Shaheed, United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief noted in his preliminary findings after his country visit to Sri Lanka in August 2019:
‘Following the Easter attack, the media have pointed to the fact that Sri Lanka was a victim of the global trend of Islamist extremism. Even within the Government, there is little recognition that religious extremism of all sorts might have been an underlying problem in the country. Instead, they referred to “sporadic small incidents”. Many interlocutors with whom I spoke however indicated that many were already highly concerned by the influence of extremist views of different religious figures, including the Buddhists, from earlier on. Besides, concern was expressed that some politicians intentionally instrumentalize religions, possibly for political gain, especially during elections.
As religious extremism has been used to incite violence in Sri Lanka, it would be important to identify and respond to the root causes of such extremism. While radicalization processes remain contested, deficits in good governance especially the capricious application of the rule of law that undermine trust in public institutions are frequently implicated, as are persistent perceptions of insecurity, injustice, inequality and alienation. Moreover, such tensions can become a tinderbox that can flare up with even the slightest quarrel or incident, as has happened on several occasions since 2014. Building societal resilience against extremism and fear requires a broad-based approach that relies on good governance, respect for the human rights of all and building bridges across communities.’
The current government, however, has renounced any support for international human rights dialogue with the United Nations. Instead, the government pursues economic stability and regional security over human rights considerations. Moreover, the new administration deflects attention from human rights commitments as a rising tide of nationalist hegemonies reinforce their agenda to favour strategic economic and security partnerships. The argument for human rights or at least the culture of dialogue between the communities is redundant, as long as this nationalist hegemony takes centre stage.
The argument for human rights or at least the culture of dialogue between the communities is redundant, as long as this nationalist hegemony takes centre stage.
Sri Lanka, a country of 21 million people, diverse in its substratum in ethnicities and religions, was never an inclusive country for the different communities. The argument of the Sinhala-Buddhist front will be that the country had stable democratic governments ever since the end of colonialism Also, that Tamils and Muslims were frequently part of the government and held key positions in public life. What they fail to point out is that those who held the positions were part of an elite that arranged and benefited from the status quo in the country.
The neoliberal manipulation of international human rights dialogue, its instruments and legal aspects, translated into decades of denial, the preponderance of majoritarian hegemony and lavish elitist rule. The inclusion of minorities, achieving social justice and equality are non-existing policies in the political space. As long as an effective participation of the minorities in the public square is impaired by nationalist hegemony driven by elitist manipulation for their personal enrichment, human rights will always be the ultimate fatality. What we owe the victims of Easter 2019 is an end to elitist power politics and a governance that is rooted in the diversity of its people.