Easter bloodbath: The Island Nation at crossroads
The world witnessed, in horror, the blood spilling and carnage in Sri Lanka as the death toll rose to 250. The serial blasts that rocked the island nation with hotels and religious places being the main targets, renewed fears of communal backlash and xenophobia have revisited this part of the land. The nation is in the midst of ethnic crisis and radicalization.
Sri Lanka- the country of 22 million people in South Asia- has a strategic location in Indian Ocean. Lying off the Southern tip of India, the country has witnessed a deadly war out of the conflict between majority Sinhalese and Tamil minorities for a long time. The twenty five year long conflict between the dreaded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) and Sinhalese military had ended in 2009 with the death of Vilupillai Prabhakaran.
The LTTE was once the most dangerous armed group known for its ruthlessness and audacious attacks. Prabhakaran in mid 90s had become a defacto ruler of Sri Lanka’s north east as almost one third of country’s territory including Jaffna and Batticaloa had been taken over by his fighters.
The Easter bombings have brought back the memories of late 80s and 90s when capital Colombo and other towns would witness the death and destruction from suicide attacks carried by separatist LTTE. There were audacious attacks on defence installations, airports, busy markets, harbours. LTTE carried out high profile assassinations including the then President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, and Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar. Former President Chandika Kumartunga also survived a couple of assassination attempts. The war with Tamil separatists ended with the seizing of last bastion of LTTE and the killing in action of Probhakaran in 2009.
In the years following the end of conflict in NE, the country had remained largely free of violence. This all changed on Easter when a series of suicide attacks targeting churches and luxury hotels in capital Colombo and other places leaving a trail of destruction and killings. The country’s investigation agencies blamed two local little known Muslim outfits for the bomb blasts but were quick to add an international hand behind these carnages. In the aftermath of these attacks, a purported video surfaced in which the alleged perpetrators were showing their allegiance with ISIS.
Sri Lanka has in recent past witnessed ethnic clashes in few areas where Muslim community has a sizeable chunk of population. There have been sporadic incidents of violence between Buddhist Sinhalese and Muslim groups. The ethnic clashes erupted periodically wherein few fanatic Buddhist groups were blamed for rioting and arson attacks on scores of Muslim businesses and mosques. A report by the US State Department on religious freedom in Sri Lanka attributes the growing sectarian divide between the two communities to the rise of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism, with groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) seeking to suppress minority voices. “Since its formation, the ultra nationalist group has campaigned against halal certification, the burqa, mosque construction, Islamic conversion and alleged Islamic militancy”. The existence of chauvinistic Sinhalese groups and their hardline campaign has significantly contributed to radicalization of youth in ethnic identities especially in south east of the country.
The attacks took place at a time when there is a political instability in the island nation. In October last, the Sri Lankan President Maithripala Srisena attempted to depose the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and replace him with Mahinda Rajapaksa. The move backfired and Sri Lankan top court reinstated Wickremasinghe in December.
Many political pundits were quick to believe that the Sri Lankan bombings were the retaliation to the mass shootings of Muslim worshippers in Christchurch New Zealand. The fallout effect of both carnages was that the perpetrators have committed mass violence to draw attention to a narrative of hate and propel their belief in Huntington’s global clash of civilizations.
(The writer can be reached at [email protected])