For a country which gave the world the word ‘serendipity’, from an early Arab trader name for the island, Sri Lanka has been subject to extremist violence almost from the outset. Easter Sunday’s coordinated bomb blasts in the capital Colombo, which killed almost 300 and injured hundreds more, were just the latest event in a long history of ethno-religious tragedies.
While no-one had claimed responsibility for the attacks, 24 people had been arrested, with three police been killed in their capture. The National Thowheeth Jama’ath (National [Islamic] Faith Community, or NTJ), known for vandalizing Buddhist statues, has now been officially blamed for the attacks.
These attacks are different to previous ethno-religious violence, having more in common with Al Qaeda by fomenting generalized religious hatred. Previous ethno-religious violence has sought specific political change.
The bomb blasts, however, immediately recalled for many Sri Lanka’s ethnic civil war, from 1983 until 2009, between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers), and the Sri Lanka government. That war was ended in its final weeks with the deaths of around 40,000, mostly Tamil civilians, bringing its total toll to over 100,000 from a population of around 20 million.
However, the Tamil Tigers were completely destroyed in 2009, with many Tigers, including their leader, being summarily executed. There remains much bitterness by Tamils towards the ethnic majority Sinhalese, but there is no appetite for renewing a war that ended so disastrously.
Ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka were high from before independence in 1948, and notably from the 1956 election of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party under Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike as the self-proclaimed ‘defender of the besieged Sinhalese culture’. Bandaranaike oversaw the introduction of the Sinhala Only Act, which privileged the country’s majority Sinhalese population and their religion of Buddhism over the minority Hindu and Muslim Tamils.
The fall-out from this legislation was such that Bandaranaike was forced to back-track but, for so doing, was assassinated in 1959 by an extremist Buddhist monk. Interethnic tensions continued, with outbursts of mob violence. 1962 saw an attempted military coup and in 1964 around 600,000 third and fourth generation ‘Indian’ Tamils were forcibly removed to India.
In 1972 and again in 1987, the predominantly Sinhalese Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party (JVP) launched insurrections that were bloodily suppressed. Clashes between Sinhalese and Tamils led, in 1983, to an attack on a Sri Lankan army convoy, sparking the ‘Black July’ Sinhalese rampage against ethnic Tamils, leaving at least 3,000 dead and marking the start of the inter-ethnic civil war.
The war was, in four phases, noted for its bitterness, with the Tamil Tigers using suicide bombing as a tactical weapon, as well as for targeted political assassinations. India intervened in the war in 1987; in retribution, a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
Sri Lanka’s Muslims, predominantly ethnic Tamils, about 10 per cent of the population, were at the margins of these more recent conflicts, excluded as Tamil speakers but at odds with the more numerous Hindu Tamils. However, they also had long been subject to Sinhalese persecution, with anti-Muslim riots dating back at least as far as the early 20th century.
As the Tamil Tiger war progressed, Sinhalese Buddhism became more radicalized, with some Sinhalese claiming that all of Sri Lanka should be exclusively Buddhist. With the Tamil Tigers defeated, Sri Lanka’s non-Buddhist communities were again persecuted, culminating in a Buddhist attack on a mosque in 2013, anti-Muslim riots in 2014 resulting in a 10-day state of emergency, and anti-Muslim riots again last year. Buddhist monks have also disrupted Christian church services.
Sri Lanka’s history of extremist violence is, then, far from new. Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism has been the driver of much of this conflict. It may be that the Colombo East bombings are a reaction to recent ethnic persecution.
If so, however, it raises the question of why Christian churches were bombed, and why up-market hotels, rather than being directed at symbols of the Sinhalese Buddhist community. One can speculate about the logic of radicalization and its possible manifestations; it is possible that, if Islamist-inspired, the bombings were not a direct retaliation for last year’s anti-Muslim riots but part of a wider jihadi agenda.
It is instructive to note that, when suspected terrorists were arrested and weapons found, three police were shot dead. Clearly, whoever was responsible was well trained and there have been suggestions of international links, which contributes to speculation of returned Islamic State fighters having joined NTJ.
The Sri Lanka government knew that identification of the perpetrators could well provide fuel for another round of inter-ethnic blood-letting.
If NTJ links are conclusively proven, or of the more radical elements of the Buddhist community are persuaded by current identification, it is likely that Sri Lanka’s Tamil Muslims will bear the brunt of their reprisals. It is in this manner that Sri Lanka’s wheel of ethno-religious conflict turns.