Sri Lanka’s multi-racial character has come under challenge yet again with blasts targeted at Christians after three decades of turmoil and terror by the radical Hindu outfit Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) gave a decade-long breather from violence as a sequel to ruthless army suppression.
The eight powerful bomb blasts that ripped through the island nation killing over 300 people and injuring over 500 are being attributed officially to National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), a radical Muslim outfit that was until now considered too small a body to undertake major terror attacks.
It is therefore being speculated that some foreign forces may have been behind the NTJ and the needle of suspicion is pointed at the ultra-radical Islamic State (IS) whose cadres are on the run from Syria and Iraq. The latest blasts targeted 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 around 8.45 am (local time) as the Easter Sunday mass was in progress. Three explosions were reported from five-star hotels- Shangri-La, Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury.
As former Indian diplomat G Parathasarathy has pointed out, the Lankan attacks have come at a time when Buddhist countries are becoming more and more anti-Islamic, as Myanmar and Thailand have demonstrated in recent times. Since the primary targets were Christians at some prominent churches and the timing was on one of the holiest days for Christianity (Easter Sunday) these blasts appear to be retribution for the killing of devotees by a gunman at a mosque in New Zealand a few weeks ago.
There is an eerie atmosphere of fear among the Muslim community across Sri Lanka that they may be targeted by the majority Sinhalese in communal clashes reminiscent of the dark decades of suppression of Tamil resurgence when the LTTE played havoc with communal relations. While the NTJ has not claimed responsibility for the serial blasts, the provocation for the terror strikes is deemed to be the New Zealand massacre in which too mosques and touristic hotels were targeted, as in Sri Lanka.
There are indeed uncanny parallels also being drawn between the serial blasts in Mumbai in November 2008 which took place in hotels like Taj and railway stations and last week’s terror strikes in Sri Lanka, the former having been purportedly the work of Pakistan’s intelligence agency the ISI and terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba.
That there needs to be a thorough investigation of the role of outside forces is apt but there is no denying that it would be difficult to fix responsibility in an atmosphere in which the President and Prime Minister are at loggerheads, with both evading responsibility.
It is accepted on all hands that Indian intelligence had alerted the President’s office about possibilities of an impending terror attack but such animosity exists between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe that the President’s office did not share the tip-off by Indian intelligence.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa clan which made an abortive bid to wrest control in October last was hitherto banking on the failures of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government on economic issues to counter them in the upcoming elections. Now, after the attacks, Rajapaksa will project to the people that the current government has failed on all counts, including national security.
In any event, with the President and the Prime Minister working at cross purposes, the country is in an acute state of misgovernance. At the height of the tussle between the two, President Sirisena had, in an “illegal” order in October last year made the police report to him. Now, seeing an opportunity to settle scores, Wichremasinghe is blaming Sirisena for the blasts. The already-cold relationship is bound to further exacerbate.
Meanwhile, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by Rajapaksa in 2010 to address issues related to the plight of Tamils has had most of its recommendations ignored and thereby a great opportunity to repair the damage in Sinhala-Tamil ties has been wasted.
It would be a tragedy indeed if Sri Lankan Tamils return to the path of violence and a radical movement takes root all over again. The Sri Lankan government must address the concerns of the minorities, be it Hindus or Muslims, to bring the country back on the rails with long-term goals of repairing communal and racial relations in the country. The racial mix of voters in Sri Lanka is 74.9 per cent Sinhala, 11.2 per cent Sri Lankan Tamils, 4.2 per cent Indian Tamils and 9.3 per cent Sri Lankan Muslims.
Since there is a strong possibility of the latest terror attacks in Sri Lanka being the handiwork of the Islamic State, India has been set thinking on how it needs to cover its flanks. The attack is being billed as a typical Islamic State attack – the way the blasts have been synchronised and orchestrated.
There are also reports that the NTJ was planning to carry out suicide attacks targeting prominent churches as well as the Indian high commission in Colombo. While the first has been achieved, the next target could well be the Indian high commission. This heightens the need for the tightest Indian vigil in conjunction with the Sri Lankan government.
Kamlendra Kanwar is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.