Will always bring lasting peace to Sri Lanka

Peace in Sri Lanka - the brutal end of an illusion

Since the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka has been relatively calm. It was deceptive. The government has done too little to alleviate ethno-religious tensions.

On May 18, it will be ten years since Sri Lanka's civil war ended after a relentless military offensive. The conflict had lasted a quarter of a century and left around 100,000 dead. The toll in blood was horrific, but at least: Peace has returned in the last decade. Or so it seemed.

On Easter Sunday, Sri Lanka and the world were brutally reminded that the island nation in the Indian Ocean is still a torn country. Suicide bombers blew themselves up in churches and hotels in the capital Colombo and other cities in the country. They killed at least 310 people and injured around 550. It was the bloodiest attack on South Asian Christians in the recent past.

The division in society has intensified

The attacks on Sunday seem all the more strange as they cannot be explained on the basis of Sri Lanka's best-known conflict lines: During the civil war, the self-proclaimed liberation army LTTE fought for an independent state of the predominantly Hindu Tamils. On the other side was the central state, dominated by the majority of the Sinhalese Buddhists. The bombs that exploded at Easter were now primarily aimed at Sri Lankan Christians, who make up only six percent of the population. They were probably set off by Islamist terrorists.

The constellation may be confusing, but it points to an often suppressed fact: Sri Lanka is far from having overcome its violent past. In recent years the ethno-religious division in the country has even intensified. Not only does the Tamil population feel marginalized, members of other minorities are also wondering where their place should be in a state in which the influence of Buddhist Sinhalese nationalism has grown steadily.

The state looks the other way

This is especially true for Muslims, who make up just under ten percent of the population. You have been the victim of spontaneous outbreaks of violence for several years, partly because Buddhist fundamentalists are fueling fears that Sri Lanka might one day have a Muslim majority. In March 2018, the government declared a state of emergency for ten days after radical Buddhists attacked Muslim homes and businesses. Although the vast majority of Sri Lankan Muslims adheres to moderate forms of Islam, experts warned that tendencies towards radicalization were foreseeable. However, hardly anyone would have suspected that these could develop a clout, as demonstrated in the coordinated attacks on Easter Sunday.

The authorities apparently had indications that an attack on Christian institutions could be imminent. The investigations will have to show why they were unable to intervene in time. What can already be said, however, is that the Sri Lankan state did little to defuse ethno-religious tensions. This is true of the government, which was recently wiped out by intrigue and which feared it would scare off the influential Buddhist nationalists. This also applies to the security forces, who are accused of looking the other way or even being involved in attacks against minorities. And it is especially true of those Sinhalese politicians who indulged in triumphalism after the end of the civil war and saw no reason to promote religious tolerance.

The return of the suicide bombings

There is no historical pattern of persecution of Christians in Sri Lanka. But the National Christian Evangelical Alliance, which represents over 200 churches, counted 86 incidents in 2018 in which Christians were victims of discrimination, threats or violence. Most recently, an incident on Palm Sunday caused a sensation in which Sinhalese attacked a Methodist church. However, no one could have expected hundreds of Sri Lankan Christians to be killed or injured by assassins during Easter Mass. The methodology and the goals (in addition to the churches, luxury hotels frequented by foreigners) of the attacks are also those of global terrorist organizations. Whether the alleged originator, the Wahhabi-influenced National Tawheed Jamaat, received support from abroad is another question that the investigation must clarify.

One aspect of the carnage is both global and local: the attacks were suicide bombings. The Tamil Tigers were among the first groups to use this terrorist tactic in the 1980s. They found their most ardent imitators among the Islamist terrorists. With the method now being used again in Sri Lanka, a circle has come full circle. This also made it clear on Sunday that Sri Lanka's violent past is far from over.