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Sri Lanka: Securitising Minority Alienation

Smruti S. Pattanaik is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • April 29, 2019

    The Easter Sunday carnage in which more than 250, mostly Christians, were killed is the most violent terrorist act in Sri Lanka since the end of the Eelam war in 2009. A terrorist attack on this scale involving the use of high-explosives in coordinated suicide missions on eight different targets by a relatively unknown entity, the National Towheed Jamath, reflects the state of complacency that has set in despite the receipt of prior intelligence. It is also indicative of the undue emphasis of the state security apparatus on the potential re-emergence of a LTTE type entity and the consequent focus on the northern province.

    It is not that Sri Lanka was not aware of growing radicalism within the Muslim community, mostly generated by violence perpetrated against Muslims at the local level by groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Government officials have for long flagged concerns about Muslim youth who had gone to participate in the civil war in Syria. During the Rajapakse presidency, Muslims from Pakistan, India, Maldives, Bangladesh and some Arab countries who came to preach as part of Tabligh Jamaat were actually turned away at the airport due to the fear of radicalisation. There is, however, no history of animosity between Muslims and Christians that can place in context the Easter attacks. What does exist is a history of tension between the Sinhalese and Muslims since the end of the civil war. Many in the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress have even argued that Muslims are the new enemy of the Sinhalese. But an attack of this nature was not anticipated even by the Muslim community, although community leaders and some leaders of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress have been highlighting the trend of radicalisation due to the attacks orchestrated by the BBS, which many believe, had the blessings of the Rajapakse family.

    Youths from well off families taking to suicide bombing is not a new phenomenon. In 2016, educated boys from affluent families caused mayhem in the Dhaka café attack. But Sri Lankan Muslim youth did not become radical or violent even after the LTTE had evicted their community and later bombed mosques in Kattankudy and Eravur killing nearly 300. Therefore, the question arises as to what prompted the latest suicide attacks and what has caused this turn of Sri Lankan Muslim youth towards radicalisation? Could this carnage have been prevented, as some argue including former President Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse (who is also the next presidential candidate of Sri Lanka Podujana Peremuna)? Or did the rift between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe ensure that the attack went through without any decisive countermeasures being taken even after the receipt of intelligence?

    Factors of Muslim Alienation

    Sri Lanka has a history of ethno-religious conflict. The first major conflict between Tamil speaking Muslims and Sinhalese occurred in 1915. After independence, Muslims were successfully co-opted by the Sinhala majority in order to wean them away from Tamils who began to demand a separate homeland and politically challenge Sinhala majoritarianism. After the end of the war with the LTTE in 2009, there was a discernible increase in violence against Muslims. Some argue that fringe Sinhala Buddhist extremists riding on Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism searched for a new enemy and the Muslims fit their narrative. This should be seen in the context of the global portrayal of Muslims as extremists and radicals. The Buddhist-Muslim conflict in Myanmar and the attack on Buddhists in Ramu in Bangladesh fed the narrative of extremist groups like the BBS and Ravana Balaya. The drive against ‘halal’ certification, protest against Burqas, and attacks against Muslim business houses – all took place under the watchful eyes of the Rajapakse government. These included: the 2012 attack of Buddhist monks on a mosque in Dambullah which led to the relocation of the mosque; the attacks in Aluthgama in the South West coast of Sri Lanka in 2014; the attack on the Muslim owned fashion chain, the Fashion bug, in 2013; and, the March 2018 attack on Muslims in Kandy.

    The NTJ, which is the main suspect for the Easter Sunday attacks, came into the limelight only recently. Moulavi Zaharan, a teacher in Kattankudy Madrassah and also one of the suicide bombers in the attack at Shangri La hotel, was well known for his hate speeches. There are reports that NTJ broke away from its parent organisation Towheed Jamath in December 2018, when, in a series of incidents, Buddha statues were broken in Mawanella in Kandy district. The Muslim Council of Sri Lanka had earlier warned the authorities about the activities of these radicals. In 2014, The Peace Loving Moderate Muslims in Sri Lanka (PLMMSL) had issued a statement urging the government to ban the Towheed Jamaat saying that “this movement has fast become cancer within Muslim community in Sri Lanka, preaching and practicing religious intolerance.”

    Radicalisation of Muslims has been happening in Sri Lanka for several years now. In 2012, the country expelled nearly 160 members of the Tabligh Jamaat who had come on tourist visas to preach. Reportedly, around 100 Sri Lankan Muslim youths are believed to have joined ISIS. Some Muslims from Kerala who had joined ISIS are believed to have travelled through Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Muslim Congress, which was part of the political alliance that the Rajapakse regime had crafted, highlighted growing radicalism and warned the government to take steps against the BBS which was behind several attacks on Muslims.

    Failure of Intelligence?

    When Muslims from the northern province were expelled en masse by the LTTE because it suspected them to be government informers, many settled in Puttalam in the north. In January 2019, the Sri Lankan military had discovered at a coconut farm in Lacktowatta in Wanathawilluwa in Puttalam a large cache containing 100 kilogrammes of explosives, 20 litres of nitrate acid, wire codes, two firearms, ammunition, a computer, a camera and a stock of dry food. Although investigations revealed that some Muslim youths were involved, it was taken as a one off occurrence. Intelligence inputs provided by India, which contained a more specific warning of an impending attack, was treated as a routine matter. Though a national alert was issued by the police chief, security was not beefed up in the church or the hotels located in the High security zone including the Cinnamon Grand which is not very far from the Prime Minister’s residence.

    It would not be an exaggeration to say that the government machinery was more focussed on the threat that LTTE sympathisers could pose and dismissed any threats that could be posed by radicalised Muslims. It also ignored the fact that Muslims from Sri Lanka have joined ISIS and local groups may have been infected by the latter’s radical narrative especially in the aftermath of several attacks on Muslims.

    There could be several reasons for the terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday. Radicalised Muslims consider the state responsible for attacks on them. Sinhala speaking Christians were seen as part of the larger Sinhalese community. Increasingly, the state and the majority Sinhala community are seen as synonymous and responsible for the injustice meted to Muslims despite their support for the state against the LTTE.

    Dysfunctional government

    The politicisation of the suicide bombings has already began with the President and the Prime Minister blaming each other for the security failure. It is true that since October 2018 President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe have been at logger heads. Sirisena, since his failed dismissal of Wickramasinghe, has been holding the portfolios of Police, Law and Order, and Defence. Differences between them had reached such a level that they even prepared to send two separate delegations to represent the country at the UN Human Rights Council, although sanity prevailed and a joint delegation was eventually sent.

    The Prime Minister has publicly stated that he was not invited to National Security Council meetings and was kept out of the loop on issues concerning national security. Interestingly, the time and venue of these meetings were kept a secret to prevent the PM from attending. The resignation of the Defence Secretary only proves that the President does not want to take the blame. Some deep thinking is necessary as personal enmity between the President and Prime Minister has made government defunct for more than two years. Not surprisingly, former President Mahinda Rajapakse is exploiting the government’s failure to score political points. In an article published in the Colombo Telegraph, Rajapakse who wants to become Prime Minister, wrote, “The Easter Sunday attacks would never have taken place under our government… The armed forces personnel who carried out their duties on behalf of the nation were harassed and hunted down by this government…. I request the government to halt the persecution of the armed forces at least now.” This is a reference to the UNHRC resolution to fix accountability for human rights violations during the civil war.

    In the wake of Sri Lanka’s worst terrorist carnage of the decade, the national narrative will turn its focus on security and the threat posed yet again by another minority. It is likely that the emergence of a national security state will empower the security apparatus at the cost of the minorities. Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism will triumph once again.

    Views expressed are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.