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Why Sri Lanka? It Has Never Had a History of Communal Tension between Muslims and Christians

By Seema Guha

April 26, 2019

Just when Sri Lanka was once again attracting thousands of tourists and the island emerging from over four decades of ethnic violence, terrorism is once again in focus. This is not ethnic violence that marred the island state earlier, but a new kind of terror with all the hallmarks of the international terror network, which the world is struggling to cope with. The question is why Sri Lanka? It has never had a history of communal tension between Muslims and Christians.

The Easter Sunday attack is one of the most deadly in recent history, and Sri lanka had witnessed many terror strikes during the LTTE days. The attack by the Tamil Tigers in 1996 when they rammed a truck load of explosives on the Central Bank building in the heart of Colombo killed over 100 people . Tourism was hard hit after that attack.

But Sunday’s suicide attacks were more devastating. So far the death count is 359, including ten Indians and eight British nationals. 45 children were also killed in three churches where Catholics were celebrating mass in one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar. Three high-end hotels, where Westerners generally stay. The attacks were well synchronised and spread across the island state.

The Islamic state has claimed responsibility and released a video of the cleric Zaharan Hashim, suspected to be the local mastermind. Hashim was shown swearing allegiance to IS in the video. According to reports Hattsmi delivered vitriolic hate speeches, where he spoke of eliminating all non Muslims.

He has a huge online following and sometimes spoke with the banner depicting the fallen Twin Towers of New York in the background. It is not known if Hashim was one of the suicide bombers or is now on the run. The Sri Lankan authorities have named the National Thowheeth Jamaath (NTJ), a little known local Islamic outfit as the group responsible for the attacks. Zaharan Hashim is the founder of the NTJ.

Though details of the suicide bombers have not been revealed, it is known that two of them were brothers from a wealthy Muslim business family. They were well educated and the father is a rich spice trader and part of Sri Lanka’s well heeled business community. The father has been arrested for questioning.

In the past Sri Lankan Muslims have had little cause to complain. They were well integrated into the community. Most are settled in the Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee distrists of the Eastern Province and are Tamil speakers. Muslims form just 9.7 per cent of the population according to the 1991 census. Buddhists are the majority at 70.2 per cent, Hindus are roughly 12.6 and Christians a mere 6.1 per cent. The Muslims were earlier called Moors, as most of them trace their roots to Arab traders.

During the ethnic war, the LTTE expelled all Muslims from the Northern Province In an effort to ensure that the North remained a only Tamil homeland. Thousands of Muslims, settled in the Northern province for generations were uprooted, many killed and mosques and properties taken over by the LTTE. Those riots embittered the usual cordial ties between Muslims and the LTTE.

The Tigers later realised their mistake and Prabhakaran himself apologised to the Muslims in 2002. Muslims have had no problems with Tamils since the LTTE days but of late tension between Muslims and Sinhala Buddhists were reported from some areas. Much of this has to do with Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism, accelerated since the Sri Lankan army wiped out the LTTE and killed all top Tiger leaders in 2009.

The triumphalism that was exhibited then has continued and had led to groups like the Bodo Bala Sena flexing their muscles. However since former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat in the elections of 2015, the Bodo Bala Sena, has kept a low profile.

 In 2013, a mosque was attacked by a Buddhist mob in Colombo. The next year, Muslims were attacked in the Kalutara district towns of Aluthgama, Beruwala and Dharga. In 2018, riots spread from Ampara district of the eastern province to the Kandy area. Mosques and Muslim shops were targeted.

In retaliation reports of Buddhist temples and Sinhalese being attacked was reported. The government took tough measures and brought things under control. But last December statues of Lord Buddha was defaced and vandalised in Keygalle district of central Sri Lanka.

But none of this explains why Christians were attacked last week. And why five star hotels.? The answer lies in the growing attraction of jihadi propaganda for young Muslims the world. It could be IS or it could be Al Qaeda. The ideology is similar. IS is on the run after the caliphate collapsed in Syria and Iraq. They have no territory. Al Qaeda at the moment is also low profile.

But the jihadi ideology is alive and kicking and can influence vulnerable Muslims across the world. Radicalisation of youngsters has happened not just in Sri Lanka but across Europe and Africa and Asia. It is an insidious idea and the internet has helped to make it accessible worldwide.

Sri Lanka has unfortunately become the latest target. The sad truth is that despite information having been passed on to the authorities by India no action was taken. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was kept out of the loop, possibly because the bureaucracy is divided on partisan lines following the fall out between President Maithripala Sirisena and the PM. The defence secretary and police chief have been sacked, but it will not bring back the victims.

Seema Guha journalist with expertise in foreign policy and international affairs