Sri Lanka’s still in trouble
Less than a month after the tragic Easter day bombings in Sri Lanka, the country seems poised to remain on edge for some time. The island nation’s political leadership isn’t well-positioned to properly handle the aftermath of the attacks, and in a country with a long, complicated history of ethnic and religious violence, the possibility of further (and significant) bloodshed cannot be discounted.
The bombings weren’t just an intelligence failure. The attacks signified a failure of competence, governance, and leadership. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have been inept leaders and their relationship has been in tatters for quite some time, something that contributed to the deadly intelligence failure on Easter morning. In that context, worries about Colombo’s broader response to the attacks and its ability to deter future ones are completely justified.
A presidential election is expected later this year, and less than a week after the bombings, an authoritarian, an inveterate Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist and an alleged war criminal, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, declared his candidacy; he is favored to win. In terms of human rights, democratic development and any hope of the country building a more inclusive state (among other matters), his ascension to the presidency would be terrible news.
As Secretary to the Ministry of Defense when his brother Mahinda was president, he’ll invariably (and credibly) claim that he played a major role in eradicating terrorism and ending the civil war in 2009 – and that he would be the most suitable choice to defeat this new form of terrorism.
A forthcoming Rajapaksa presidential campaign is bound to include heightened ethnonationalism, relentless talk about the threat of Islamic terrorism and overt racism. Already the favorite before the bombings, he now has an even better chance of ascending to the presidency.
But it is precisely because of the bombings, that the Rajapaksas’ return to power is what the country does not need. Sri Lanka needs leaders who can bring people together, not further polarize society along ethnic or religious lines.
Sri Lanka needs leaders who can bring people together, not further polarize society along ethnic or religious lines.
Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism is a commanding political force. Roughly three-quarters of the country’s population are ethnic Sinhalese and most of them are Buddhist. Sinhalese dominate the country’s institutions, including the security apparatus. Given Sri Lanka’s violent past, it’s not hard to imagine notable outbreaks of communal violence.
Colombo now has huge issues to consider, including intelligence reform and properly assessing the threat of Islamic radicalization as well as a new kind of violence within the nation’s borders. Impunity is a longstanding problem that needs to finally be addressed. Besides, when it comes to the bombings, there will be broad public support for holding perpetrators accountable.
Sri Lanka doesn’t have a history of violence between Muslims and Christians, though the attacks have surely heightened ethnic and religious tensions. The targeting of foreigners is also something new. And, while attacks against Christians aren’t new, Muslims had never been the assailants before now.
Over the past ten years, Sri Lankan state security personnel have been obsessed with the possibility of a Tamil Tiger resurgence – even though the Tigers were militarily crushed a decade ago. The paranoia surrounding a return of Tamil militarism helped ensure that the threat of Islamic radicalization was not taken seriously by state actors. Going forward, a more thoughtful allocation of resources will be essential.
And human rights considerations need to be front and center. Crucially, Colombo needs to ensure that its response to the attacks doesn’t alienate the two million Muslims of Sri Lanka and foment more violence. Given the history of the Sri Lankan state denigrating the rights of ethnic Tamils, that’s no small task.
It’s entirely possible that government forces will overreact and trample the rights of Muslims. More specifically, the excessively broad emergency regulations that parliament has approved may facilitate widespread human rights violations; let’s hope that those regulations aren’t in place for much longer.
Of course, Sri Lanka’s Muslim community is not the enemy. Years ago, some Muslims had even urged government actors to take the threat of Islamic radicalization more seriously, yet those calls went unheeded. In order to thwart future attacks and curtail violent extremism, Muslims absolutely will have a major role to play.
There’s already been some anti-Muslim violence instigated by civilians. Most recently, mosques, Muslim homes and businesses owned by Muslims were attacked on Monday. Unfortunately, we may see more of that – and soon. For a country that’s already experienced more than its fair share of bloodshed, these are precarious and dangerous times indeed.
– Taylor Dibbert is an Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum.
Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert