Broken peace in Sri Lanka

At least 300 people dead in the Sunday Easter bombings


April 23, 2019

/ By / New Delhi

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More than 300 people died in the explosions

More than 300 people died in the explosions on April 21

A shocking, well coordinated and string of bombings in churches and hotels on Easter Sunday across cities in Sri Lanka has claimed the life of around 300 people and injured around 500. As investigation is launched into the dastardly attack, global community is shocked that the Emerald Island has fallen prey to attacks by Islamist Jehadists.

Sri Lanka saw the worst terrorist attack on April 21, Easter Sunday, when six coordinated blasts — in four churches and two five star hotels — killed over 300 people and injured over 500 others. Among those killed included foreign tourists-Indians, Americans, Dutch and Britishers.

Three churches -St Anthony’s Church in Colombo, St Sebastian’s Church in the western coastal town of Negombo and another church in the eastern town of Batticaloa were targeted. In St. Sebastian’s Church alone, more than 50 people had been killed. After decades of war and defeat of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, this is the first time that the Island nation has faced such massive casualties.

Initial information from Colombo points out to the attacks by Islamist Jehadists. The attack seems to be aimed at foreign tourist arrivals that grew from 4,48,000 in 2009 to 2.3 million last year. Tourism has earned Sri Lanka a whopping USD 4 billion in foreign exchange.

Another target was the Christian minority, which comprises seven per cent of the island’s 22 million population. Never during decades of secessionist war did the LTTE attack churches and killed civilians’ indiscriminately. The attacks came a month ahead of the 10th anniversary of the May 17, 2009 defeat of the LTTE in northern Sri Lanka after a 26-year long civil war.

Needle of suspicion was also on Buddhist extremist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Forces) that has targeted mosques and Muslim-owned businesses, and had also demanded that Pope Francis apologise for the “atrocities” committed by colonial powers.

However, well coordinated bombings, attacks on churches suggested links to Islamic State of Iraq & Syria (ISIS). A memo dated April 11  signed by Sri Lanka’s Deputy Inspector General of police Priyalal Dissanayake warned about plans for an alleged suicide attack by local terror outfit-Nations Thawahid Jaman (NJT) reportedly led by an individual called Mohomad Saharan.

Iromi Dharmawardhane, research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore, mentioned the Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaat (SLTJ) in a paper in 2015. According to Dharmawardhane the outfit was ‘gaining prominence’ and ‘was influenced by the Tamil Nadu Thawheed Jamaath (TNTJ) an extremist organisation based in India.’

Claiming to be involved in preaching true Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims Thawheed Jamaath’s international tentacles are spread across the globe. NJT came into prominence for the vandalisation of Buddha’s state in the country last year. In 2018, there were anti-Muslim riots in Kandy and dozens of attacks against Christians.

Immediate impact

It will certainly hit the economy, particularly tourism, which in turn impacts other allied sectors. Economically, foreign investors will hedge their bets, not knowing whether this is just a one off incident or the beginning of a series.

The terror attack has created impact on many counts. First, is the extensive spread of attack from Batticaloa on the Lankan east coast to Colombo on the west.  To create maximum global impact it targeted soft targets such as churches and hotels. Targeting the churches during Easter Sunday Mass might fuel inter-communal tensions in the country.

The attacks in Sri Lanka is an issue of regional and global concern as it is the third nation after Maldives and Bangladesh where ISIS has attacked and spread its network among the local terror groups. Only a handful of Lankan radical youth between 2014 and 2018 had visited ISIS unlike neighbouring Maldives where 200 of them were recruited.

In July 2016 Bangladesh witnessed series of bomb blasts that killed 29 people including foreigners. Similarly terror attack of the Easter bombing in Lahore, in February 2016, is a chilling reminder in which 75 people were killed. However, Pakistan has been dilly-dallying to act decisively on terror. The message from Colombo could not have been more explicit as it points out that no country in South Asia is safe from the reach of the terrorist. If the alleged links between the accused National Thowheeth Jaamath and the ISIS is proved it could add to the fear of foreign tourists and foreign investors.

Domestic politics

It is too early to predict whether or not terror attacks will benefit Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesinghe’s United National Party or President Maithiripa Sirisena’s Srilankan Freedom Party in the Presidential elections scheduled in December.

Rallying in support of Prime Minister, Harsha De Silva, Sri Lankan Minister for Economic Reforms and Public Distribution said the Prime Minister was “kept in the dark” about the warnings. Another cabinet colleague Senaratne, who is also a health minister, said the Prime Minister had been removed from the national security Rajitha Harischandra council in December, and therefore did not receive confidential security briefings. These developments point out to deep infighting and divisions within government that lingered from constitutional crisis of 2018. However, it does not bore well while dealing with terrorism.

The attack comes in after the recent purge and arrests of senior officers for alleged war crimes during the operations against the LTTE.

On April 22, President Maithripala Sirisena also declared national emergency, which gives the military sweeping powers.

Impact on India

The presence of foreign terror in the region is a cause of concern as India has been countering terror incidents for decades now. Indian High Commission in Colombo was also under terror target.

As Sri Lanka begins a crackdown on suspected militants, some of them can be expected to flee to Tamil Nadu. India must tighten security along the Tamil Nadu coast. The security and insurance costs of Indian government and private projects (infrastructure, energy, shipping, housing) will also go up, which in turn may slow down implementation.

India’s attempts to strengthen intelligence ties with Colombo will have to be nuanced given President Sirisena has publicly accused RAW of plotting to kill him. The possible presence of the ISIS in Sri Lanka has put the spotlight on the Island nation.

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