Sri Lanka Easter blasts: ‘Anti-Muslim riots a possible trigger’

Sri Lankan officials believe that communal tensions could have motivated the Easter attacks suspects.

Updated - November 28, 2021 09:46 am IST

Published - April 27, 2019 12:48 am IST - COLOMBO

A soldier stands guard at St. Anthony's Shrine during heavy rain, days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka on April 25, 2019.

A soldier stands guard at St. Anthony's Shrine during heavy rain, days after a string of suicide bomb attacks on churches and luxury hotels across the island on Easter Sunday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka on April 25, 2019.

The spate of anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka in recent years could have been a reason for more youth to turn radical and mobilise, according to a top Sri Lankan military intelligence source.

“While screening records of conversations among the suspects, we found references to the communal tensions in the recent past. They have spoken of the need to retaliate. We believe those tensions could have been a motivation,” the source, playing a key role in the investigations, told The Hindu on Friday. While authorities are probing different angles to the suspects’ possible links to the Islamic State, which has claimed the attacks, they are simultaneously examining the youths’ local context and environment that may have contributed to their veering into a radical path.

The official, who asked not to be named, was referring to the incidents in March 2018 around Kandy city in the Central Province, when violent mobs of reportedly Sinhalese youth identified and attacked several Muslim-owned shops. Rows of shops were set ablaze. At least two Muslims were reported dead in the violence, while shop owners reported losses to the tune of millions. Despite locals alerting the police, little action was taken to contain the violence or damage, Muslim people and community leaders complained at that time.


Old fears

Even as he strongly condemned the “cowardly and barbaric” Easter attacks, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader Raulff Hakeem urged citizens to be mindful of “agents of disharmony and destabilisation”, and not to fall prey to “sinister designs”.

For many like him, the attacks instantly sparked fears of a backlash, amid fresh memories of targeted attacks in Kandy, just a year ago, and other anti-Muslim attacks in recent years, led and backed by hard-line Sinhala Buddhist groups, particularly the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and its militant monk-leader Gnanasara Thero.

Three years ago

The trend began around 2012, barely three years after the Sri Lankan armed forces defeated the LTTE, bringing the country’s three decade-long war to an end. Reactionary groups among Sinhala Buddhists campaigned against the Hijab and then sought a ban on Halal certification, forcing shops to stop selling meat labelled according to Islamic guidelines. A few Muslim-owned chains were attacked. In 2014, mobs attacked homes and properties of Muslims living in the southern town of Aluthgama. Ensuing clashes claimed at least four lives. To many, it seemed that Muslims — who make up about 10% of Sri Lanka’s population — had emerged a new adversary to hard-line sections of the majority Sinhala-Buddhists. The Muslims had not retaliated in any of those instances.


Treading cautiously

That is perhaps why some in Sri Lanka are treading this moment, following the ghastly attacks carried out by a radical Islamist organisation, rather cautiously.

Several Christian leaders, including the Archbishop of Sri Lanka Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who have vehemently condemned the attacks have simultaneously called for peace and calm, often explicitly making a distinction between “brothers” in the Muslim community and the attackers. Appreciating the vulnerability of the Muslim community, in the wake of attacks they have faced in the past few years, some leaders are repeatedly pointing to the community’s own disapproval of a section’s radicalisation or violence. Tamil National Leader M.A. Sumanthiran told parliament earlier this week that “the Muslim people, to their credit, have repeatedly complained about these miscreants” to authorities, but to no avail.

Religious and civil society organisations too are repeatedly calling for solidarity among different communities. The Women’s Coalition for Disaster Management in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious Batticaloa district has said: “We have to work together in order to prevent the already strained ethnic relations from growing into full blown splits between communities that have always coexisted in our region.”

A statement by Jaffna-based Christians across denominations said: “We will never place any responsibility on our brothers and sisters of any community for the dastardly and cruel acts of a few.”

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