Bombs ripped through three churches and four hotels in a series of attacks in Sri Lanka on Sunday morning. The casualty count currently stands at more than 300 dead and more than 500 injured. What do we know about the attacks, and their impact?
For many Sri Lankans, the bombings brought back the trauma of the country’s 26-year-long civil war between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), commonly known as the Tamil Tigers. For some, it was the ever-present fear of suicide attacks; for others, the terror of checkpoints and an unfettered security state.
On Monday, the Sri Lankan government blamed National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ), a homegrown Muslim extremist group. The attribution came as a surprise to both domestic and international analysts, who had assumed that the scale and level of coordination required by the attacks indicated the direct involvement of a foreign terrorist group. Early Tuesday, the Islamic State claimed the attacks, appearing to confirm this suspicion.
Why were Catholic churches a target?
The inclusion of Catholic churches as targets was another factor that led experts to speculate about foreign involvement. While some in the West were quick to interpret the attacks through the lens of Muslim-Christian clashes elsewhere, this is not a salient divide in Sri Lanka.
Identity in Sri Lanka is complex and does not map cleanly onto familiar frameworks from other contexts. The island’s small Christian population — most of whom are Catholic — hails from both the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil ethnicities. Muslims, while generally Tamil-speaking, identify as a distinct ethnic group from Tamils.
Both communities have been targeted by Sinhala-Buddhist extremists and marginalized by the state. There was also terrible violence between the Muslim and Tamil communities during the war, including the expulsion of thousands of Muslims from LTTE-controlled territory. Muslims and Christians, however, have not previously come into significant conflict with each other.
Does Sri Lanka have a history of Muslim extremism?
During the five years that the autocratic regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa remained in power after the end of the war in 2009, militant Buddhist organizations were allowed to persecute Muslims with impunity, including whipping up riots in 2014 that left four people dead and thousands displaced. Just last year, inflammatory rhetoric from extremist monks and politicians, along with anti-Muslim propaganda spread on social media, fueled violent riots in multiple locations.
Sri Lanka’s Muslims have remained peaceful in the face of escalating hate speech and violence against them. Nevertheless, there have been rumors of radicalization in the community since 2009, tied to the increasing adoption of the burqa by Sri Lankan Muslim women and assumptions about the “Arab attitudes” that migrant workers brought home when returning from the Persian Gulf. Notably, Muslim leaders claimed on Monday that they specifically warned government officials about the NTJ three years ago.
Was there any warning of these attacks?
The Sri Lankan government acknowledged that it had also received a highly specific warning earlier this month of potential attacks on Catholic churches from U.S. and Indian intelligence officials. Sri Lankan officials are now engaged in a round of recriminations that highlights the divisions within Sri Lanka’s coalition government. For those who fear an uptick in human rights abuses in the name of counterterrorism, Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando on Monday set off alarm bells with his claim that even with full information, the government could not have acted to prevent the attacks, due to democratic restrictions on its emergency powers.
How is the government responding?
In a controversial move, the government quickly shut down social media on Sunday to contain the spread of rumors about the attacks. On Monday, President Maithripala Sirisena declared a state of emergency and gave the military broad powers to arrest and detain — a move that dismayed human rights activists and members of the Muslim and Tamil communities.
Sri Lanka’s post-Rajapaksa government promised the international community in 2015 that it would vet the security forces, removing those who had committed wartime abuses, and repeal the oppressive Prevention of Terror Act. It has done neither. Instead, northeastern Sri Lanka (where most Tamils and Muslims live) remains heavily militarized, ostensibly to guard against LTTE resurgence. Given the military’s overwhelmingly Sinhala-Buddhist makeup, and the presence of alleged war criminals within both the rank-and-file and high command, granting additional license to the security sector could pose a serious threat to minority communities.
What does this mean for the upcoming presidential election?
Sunday’s devastating attacks suggest the arrival of a new type of violence to Sri Lanka. But their impact will be filtered through the island’s complex history of conflict and state repression. These events come at a precarious political moment. Sri Lankans will elect a president sometime in the next seven months. The current government narrowly survived an attempted soft coup by former leader Rajapaksa last fall. Although his rule was characterized by Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism, rampant human rights abuses and corruption, he remains the most popular politician in the country, largely because Sinhala-Buddhists credit him personally with the defeat of the LTTE in 2009.
Rajapaksa is constitutionally barred from running for president again, but his brother Gotabaya, who masterminded the end of the civil war as defense secretary, can. The Rajapaksas’ bid to be restored to office, tied as it is to the appeal of their chauvinistic, strongman politics, will only benefit from a national security crisis. They will undoubtedly make political hay out of their “victory over terror” and the current government’s failure to prevent Sunday’s attacks.
Kate Cronin-Furman is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at University College London.