Restoring stability in Sri Lanka

Muhammad Zamir | Published: May 05, 2019 21:01:54 | Updated: May 11, 2019 21:46:26

Mass funerals marked the national day of mourning on April 23, 2019     —Photo: Reuters

Terrorism has continued to spread its presence through an osmotic process. It had touched Dhaka nearly three years ago through the Holey Artisan Bakery incident. There had been fundamentalist and communal attacks at different times earlier but the Holey Artisan incident and the alleged association of the IS in this equation generated a strong and determined response from the government. 

The world has similarly witnessed a number of coordinated and organised terrorist attacks - most recently on Easter Sunday (April 21) on churches and hotels in different areas in Sri Lanka. That killed at least 250 people and injured hundreds. That included many visitors who were staying in hotels as tourists. Most unfortunately it also included visitors from Bangladesh.

Sri Lanka is in a state of shock and confusion, trying to understand how a little-known Islamist group could have unleashed such a wave of coordinated suicide bombings - the worst since the end of its civil war a decade ago.

Violence is not new to Sri Lanka. It went through turbulent times during a left-wing insurrection in the 1970s followed by a nearly three-decade bloody war with the Tamil Tiger rebels. Tens of thousands of people were killed. However the ruthlessness and sophistication of the latest atrocities indicate that it will be a challenge for the Sri Lankan security forces to deal with those behind the bombings.

Some analysts have termed the events in Sri Lanka as a security and political failure. Many have also raised questions about the nature of communal strife in that country's more recent history. A few have pointed out that during the civil war, Muslims were also targeted by Tamil Tiger rebels. Some Muslim community leaders have criticised successive Sri Lankan governments for their failure to restore confidence among young Muslims following the more recent attacks on the Muslim community by some members of the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community. It may be recalled that a communal incident took place in the town of Digana in central Sri Lanka where one person died when a Sinhalese mob attacked Muslim shops and mosques in March last year. This led Hilmy Ahamed, vice-president of the Sri Lanka Muslim Council, to comment that "after Digana quite a few Muslims lost faith in the government to provide them security. Some of them got the idea that they can defend themselves." Consequently, it is being alleged that the Muslim youths might have perceived such lack of action by the government to lead some of them towards groups like the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) led by Zaharan Hashim, a radical Muslim preacher from eastern Sri Lanka. To circulate his views Hashim posted several videos on social media purportedly promoting hatred against non-Muslims. Most of his videos were in the Tamil language and purportedly attracted several Muslim youths.

Eventually the Sri Lankan government spokesman, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, has come out with the government view that National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a home-grown Islamist group, has been responsible for the bombings. There is media speculation that the choice of major luxury hotels and Christians as a target - in addition to the sophistication of the operation - makes it plausible that local radicalism has come under the influence of global jihadist networks. BBC has pointed out that during the Sri Lankan civil war foreign tourists were spared and attacks on outsiders were rare. In the latest bombings, many foreigners were killed and this has raised the spectre of links with al-Qaeda or IS.

A few days after the terrorist incidents the Islamic State (IS) group stated that its militants had carried out the attacks. It also published a video of eight men the group claimed were behind the attacks.

POLITICAL DEADLOCK AND CONFUSION: Meanwhile, political deadlock and confusion continue to haunt the corridors of power in Sri Lanka. Some security analysts have observed that the manner in which NTJ was identified was circuitous. The Prime Minister confirmed that there had been warnings made to officials that had not been shared with the cabinet. He said only the President would get such briefings, even though it is not clear if the latter personally received the briefings in this instance.

Such a difference of opinion between the Prime Minister and the President has only underlined how both these political leaders have been at loggerheads for much of the past year. This lack of coordination is being interpreted by critics as how political discord can have serious consequences in undermining trust within governance. Apparently, according to the US media, the Sri Lankan government may also have had warnings from US and Indian intelligence about a possible threat. The Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who oversees security forces, has now set up a committee to find out what went wrong.

FACE COVERINGS: In the meantime, from  April 29, almost a week after the attacks, Sri Lanka has banned face coverings in public.  President Maithruipala Sisirsena has said that he was using an emergency law to impose the restriction. Any face garment which "hinders identification" will be banned to ensure national security, his office has said. The niqab and burka - worn by Muslim women - were not specifically named but the move is perceived as targeting these garments.

SOCIAL MEDIA: There has also been another important measure introduced in Sri Lanka to combat instability both in short as well as medium terms. Sri Lankan authorities have taken steps to block the likes of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube to be able to identify and take requisite action against those who have been using the social media to fan violence and misunderstanding.  A year ago a government move to block access to social media would have been greeted with a global outcry.

Previous attempts by governments to curb internet access have been seen by liberal commentators as dangerous attacks on online freedoms. However, this time, the headline on a New York Times column by technology journalist Kara Swisher: "Sri Lanka Shut Down Social Media. My First Thought Was 'Good'" was different. She said she was ashamed to admit it, but the social-media platforms' role in spreading hate and misinformation had made her welcome their temporary disappearance.  The column reflected a wider disillusionment with the idea that the web is a force for good. It may be recalled that during the Arab Spring, Facebook was hailed as a vital new weapon in the battle against authoritarian governments. However, now, many have deplored how it has been used to incite violence against the Rohingyas in Myanmar and also during the broadcast of the murderous spree by the Christchurch gunman in New Zealand. Many now see social media casting dark shadows within the geo-strategic paradigm.

Before April, Sri Lanka had been able to claim considerable success in creating a stable and thriving country in the wake of a 25-year civil war against Tamil separatists, who had entrenched the use of suicide attacks as a weapon of guerrilla terror. Now, that stability is in jeopardy.

There is only one way for resolving this growing instability. Urgent steps need to be taken to pull the beautiful country together through the cessation in the operation of parallel governments. Offices of the Prime Minister and the President need to hold inter-active security meetings together and stop issuing competing narratives as both try to blame the other for the government's failures to prevent the Easter Sunday tragedy.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.


Share if you like