The Sri Lanka Easter attacks shattered nearly a decade of peace

Even as some Sri Lankan Muslims were radicalised and went abroad to fight, the government seems to have missed the warning signs.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Sri Lanka was less than three weeks away from commemorating a decade of relative peace when the Easter Sunday bombings killed at least 321. The goal of those behind the attack – worse than any conducted by the island’s Tamil Tiger rebels in a quarter-century of war – appears brutally simple. Beyond simply bringing bloodshed, they wanted to inflame already existing communal tensions, damaging the country’s economy and further upending its politics.

Those who carried out the attack clearly drew inspiration – and almost certainly experience and support – from groups like Isis, which claimed responsibility for the attack on Wednesday. Several dozen Sri Lankans, perhaps more, are believed to have fought for the group in Syria and beyond. Certainly, the attackers knew what they were doing, detonating multiple suicide bombs almost simultaneously to inflict maximum carnage.

The targets hit – Christian worshipers and wealthy foreign visitors – were exactly what one would expect from such a group. Since the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009, Sri Lanka had recovered its reputation as a tourist destination – something the bombers clearly wished to wreck. In attacking Christian churches, they were copying similar militant actions across the Middle East – as well as following a broader global trend that has seen individuals and groups target the places of worship of those they hate. Such attacks are invariably aimed at worsening divisions still further – something that’s particularly easy to do in a complex multi-ethnic, barely post-conflict state like Sri Lanka.

In that sense, one could draw parallels with the October 2018 assaults on a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead; or the white supremacist attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand that killed 50 in March. On Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s government said it believed the attack was a direct response to the New Zealand killings. What is also clear, however, is that the bombing and its aftermath will be shaped by Sri Lanka’s very messy politics and history.

Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority – which makes up around a tenth of the island’s population – has relatively little long-term history of militancy. During the 1983-2009 civil war, some joined pro-government paramilitary groups after a series of 1990s attacks on mosques by the Tigers, who were fighting for a homeland for the predominantly Hindu Tamil minority. Tamils themselves make up around 15 per cent of the 21 million population, with the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority dominating government and military service. So even as some Sri Lankan Muslims became radicalised and went abroad to fight, the government seems to have missed the warning signs.

The fear in that community now, of course, will be that the government clamps down on them in the ways it previously clamped down on the Tamils, including extrajudicial abduction, torture and murder. The Christian community, meanwhile, fears more attacks. Drawing its members from both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities, Christians had long enjoyed positions of relative privilege ever since the days of British rule. Now they, too, will feel like targets.

According to the New York Times, Sri Lanka’s security services had been given detailed warnings of potential upcoming attacks, pointing the finger at relatively unknown Islamist groups. But they do not appear to have been passed on within the government, even to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The reason for that may lie in the island’s internecine Game of Thrones-style rivalries for control – a political system in which violence, conflict and even decisions of peace and war are often part of a much wider battle.

Sri Lanka’s presidents and prime ministers have duelled for power for decades, particularly when they represent different parties or viewpoints. Only last year, current President Maithripala Sirisena tried to fire Wickremesinghe, but was blocked by the courts. The government has been predictably dysfunctional ever since.

Waiting in the wings is Mahinda Rajapaksa, the hawkish former president who defeated the Tamil Tigers and who Sirisena – both a former ally and rival – had wanted back as prime minister. Rajapaksa’s hard-line Buddhist nationalist allies have been accused of fostering ethnic divisions and of carrying out their own attacks on churches. Nevertheless, he may be the greatest political beneficiary of the attacks, particularly with presidential elections due likely later this year.

The return of Rajapaksa – unexpectedly defeated by Sirisena in the 2015 presidential vote – would mean international attention focuses once again on the way the civil war ended. Human rights groups say thousands of civilians – or perhaps many more – were killed by indiscriminate government shelling and bombing in the conflict’s final endgame.

The scale of Sunday’s attack has left Sri Lanka reeling. What it needs now is leadership and unity. The danger, however, is that political ambition, communal fears and sectarian short-sightedness will lead to just more errors surfacing from the past.

Peter Apps is the executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century, and global affairs commentator for Reuters. He tweets @Pete_Apps.