Sri Lanka's violent past has created a polarised society ripe for radicalisation

During fieldwork in Sri Lanka, I visited many mosques – and in some I obtained material that could be linked to Islamist and jihadi organisations

Andreas Johansson
Monday 22 April 2019 14:06
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Sri Lanka prime minister reacts to deadly Easter blasts

I have been travelling to Sri Lanka since 2006. The first time I visited, the Tamil Tigers carried out a suicide attack just a couple of blocks from where I was staying. It seemed that the war between the Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan government would never end. But it did: in 2009 the government launched a brutal attack that ended the war.

Even though the end came in a very cruel way, with the deaths of many civilians, I thought that maybe now the healing could start between the different communities in the country. I was wrong.

Since the war ended, both the Sri Lankan government and Tamil militants have been investigated for war crimes. A decade later, these investigations of crimes against humanity are ongoing, and a report released by the UN claimed both parties “were guilty of war crimes, especially in their treatment of civilians in the war zone”.

The leadership of the country has protested against these investigations, while reconciliation between the Tamils and Sinhalese has been criticised. There have been several reports that the Tamil minority are unhappy with the treatment from the Sri Lankan government.

Parallel to tension between Tamils and Sinhalese, another conflict has been on the rise in Sri Lanka. Over recent years, Buddhist nationalists have attacked Muslims and Christians in the country. Organisations such as the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist power force) has been accused of inciting attacks on both groups.

In the town of Aluthgama in 2014, Muslims were killed in an attack by Sinhala and Buddhist nationalists. In 2018, two Muslims were killed when an angry mob of Sinhalese attacked them after a Sinhalese lorry driver had been killed by four Muslim youths. Buddhists groups also attacked Christian institutions after the war.

To make things even more complicated when it comes to understanding the different conflicts in the country, Muslims have also been mired in their own internal conflict between conservative (often called reformists, or wahhabis in the South Asian context) and Sufi Muslim groups.

In one attack in 2006, conservative Muslims destroyed parts of a Sufi mosque in the town of Kattankudy in the eastern part of the country, resulting in casualties. Such attacks were an early sign that some Muslim groups had adopted a militant Islamist agenda.

In my fieldwork in Sri Lanka I visited many mosques, and in some of these I obtained material that could be linked to Islamist and jihadi organisations. These included speeches from Osama Bin Laden translated into Tamil (which is the dominant language among Muslims). I did not know how widespread this material was, but the signs of radicalisation were there.

Now it appears that a domestic Muslim radicalised group, most likely with the help of an international organisation, was behind the Easter terrorist attacks.

The magnitude of the attack and the targets, Christians and tourists, points in the direction of an international network of terrorists. And it is a sign that a new form of terrorism has reached this island country that already has been polarised by so many different conflicts. It has been ripe for exploitation by those with a twisted agenda.

The recent rise of Sinhalese and Buddhist nationalism means there is a risk that riots will occur between Sinhalese and Muslim groups, spurred by these attacks. There is also a presidential election this year and parliamentary elections next year – the Easter attacks have delivered a real fear that they could be defined by violence.

​Back in 2009, I hoped that peace might lie beyond violence. I was wrong that time, but we are left to hope that this attack might startle Sri Lanka’s disparate groups into something that leads towards unity for a country struggling to escape from a violent past.

Andreas Johansson is director of the Swedish South Asian Studies Network at Lund University and author of the book ‘Pragmatic Muslim Politics – The Case of Sri Lanka Muslim Congress’ (2019/Springer)

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